Charlie Cottrell describes the on-going efforts to save for the nation one of its best-loved maritime monuments.
In 1954, the Cutty Sark was floated up the Thames to Greenwich, to begin her new life as a naval museum. Saved from the breaker’s yard in 1952 by the purpose-formed Cutty Sark Preservation Society, under the patronage of the Duke of Edinburgh, she soon became an integral part of Greenwich’s maritime history with more than 16 million visitors boarding her over her fifty-three years at the site. Now a massive renovation project is underway to preserve the world’s last remaining tea clipper for the visiting generations of the future.
Built in 1869 at a then colossal cost of £16,150, the Cutty Sark was only originally intended for thirty years’ service. She was commissioned and built for speed, as a transport vessel for the highly competitive tea trade between England and China. Modelled on an adapted American design, the Cutty Sark was one of a number of clippers that sailed the tea route, competing to arrive home with the first tea load of the year. This first tea could command a substantially higher price than later loads and there was a hefty bonus for the winning ship. So highly anticipated was their return that a book ran on which ship would be victorious and crew members wagered their whole salaries, confident in the speed of their own vessel.
Despite her own great speed (which saw her overtake the P&O steamship Britannia in July 1889) the Cutty Sark, never won this prize. It was in her next incarnation, carrying wool from Australia to England between 1883 and 1895, that she earned her reputation as the fastest clipper on the seas, averaging seventy-seven days for the 17,000 km journey over a service period of eleven years and registering a record-breaking seventy-two-day trip in 1885.