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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London

What is the Cutty Sark?

The Cutty Sark is a celebrated 19th-century clipper ship that was the fastest of its time and once transported precious cargo all around the world and is now a world renowned tourist attraction in Greenwich, London.

Cutty Sark

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Cutty Sark History

By the middle of the 19th-century, tea was immensely popular across all levels of British society. New ports had opened in China, which increased the supply of the commodity and prompted a fashion in Britain for ‘fresh’ tea (the first crop of the year). The demand resulted in tea races, where swift clipper ships would compete to be the first into the Port of London carrying the precious cargo.

Built in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1869, Cutty Sark was the fastest of the great tea clippers, with extremely tall masts, a vast sail area and wire rigging (as opposed to rope). It could hold around 10,000 tea chests, which would be worth around £6 million in today’s money. The ship’s unusual name comes from the ‘short nightdress’ (or ‘cutty sark’) worn by the witch Nannie in Robert Burns’ 18th-century poem Tam O’Shanter. Nannie also serves as the ship’s figurehead, holding the tail of Tam’s horse in her left hand.

Cutty Sark Hull

After the advent of steam ships, Cutty Sark was repurposed as a vessel for a wider range of goods, transporting coal from Shanghai to Sydney, and wool between Melbourne and New York. After periods as a Portuguese cargo ship (during which time it was renamed Ferreira) and as a training ship for British cadets, the clipper was towed into Greenwich in the 1950s and opened to the public.

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