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Thursday, 16 January 2020

The Cutty Sark

When I was a boy in St Bonaventure's Secondary Modern, Mr Brophy would have us chanting John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

And I can remember it to this day—the first verse at least.
It accorded with my own desire to go to sea and re-surfaces when ever I go to such places as Portsmouth with its HMS Victory, the Mary Rose, and HMS Warrior; London Bridge with its Golden Hind. I'm a dock-haunter, a necromantic voyeur of long dead but beautiful ships. The last such experience was just before Christmas, when I saw the Cutty Sark for the first time—a wonderful sight combining my passion for the sea with tea!

There are certain important dates in the story of tea. 1658 saw the first advertisement for tea in a London newspaper. In 1660 Samuel Pepys recorded drinking ‘his first cupp of tee’Two years later Catherine de Braganza included a crate of tea in her dowry when she wedded Charles II. From then on it was all systems go. In 1669 the East Indian Company shipped its first consignment of tea from China and in 1706 Thomas Twining opened the first Tea Room in London called Tom’s Tea Cabin. It can’t have been cheap. Tea was heftily taxed and clearly resented by the gentle folk of Boston. In 1784 The Commutation Act greatly reduced the taxation on tea—although it was a bit late by then—from 119% to just over 12%.

But, as far as our story’s concerned, it was in 1870 that the Cutty Sark brought her first consignment of tea from China to Britain. 

The plan to the right shows how densely the teacrates were packed.

Speed was essential. The first of a new season’s tea arriving in London could be sold at a much higher price. Between 1861 and 1866 an extra ten shillings for every ton of tea was paid to the owner of the first vessel home. Between 1850 and 1870 the rivalry was intense, with nearly 280 British ships vying for the trade. The fastest passage from Shanghai to London was made by the Harlaw, which, in 1870, completed the journey in just 89 days.
The Cutty Sark was built by John ‘White Hat’ Willis and was the state of the art in terms of efficiency and speed. The ship was iron framed which took up less space than wood, and was sheathed in copper * which attracted fewer barnacles than wood or iron. 

And please forgive the number of photos. Craftsmanship and beauty are highly addictive.

White Hat Willis, who personally shouted out a farewell to each of his ships with his 'Goodbye my lads' cry at the dockside, had a down on ironclad ships. He believed it made the tea sweat.

And yet, seven years later, it was made almost obsolete by steam and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In 1877 the Cutty Sark was still the first ship to reach London with that season’s new tea, but it was one of only nine sailing ships as opposed to the 59 that had set sail in 1870. It was a matter of technology and economics. The Suez Canal cut the journey by 3000 miles reducing to journey time to 60 days. Worse, Red Sea and Mediterranean wind patterns meant sailing ships couldn’t make effective use of the new, shorter route

One of the crew's cabins.

The Officers' dining room. I love the ornate fireplace, the fine mirrored side-table, and the hanging apparatus that kept the drinks steady in rough seas. Priorities. 
The Captain's cabin.

In its heyday—1872, it had a crew of thirty, which puts the galley and this rather fine toilet in perspective. One presumes it was reserved for the Captain and perhaps his First, Second, and Third Mate. As for the twenty six others . . . 
A real man's toilet!

Also at the Cutty Sark exhibition is one of the finest collection of ships’ figureheads in the world. In this more utilitarian age it is easy to forget how easily we identify with the carven image. Then, superstitious or not, sailors saw the figurehead as embodying the spirit of the ship and kept them immaculate.

The Cutty Sark figurehead.

The final days of the Cutty Sark were sad, a raddled whore of the seas.

And then redemption 

And as for its name, we can thank Robbie Burns for that

*Strictly speaking Muntz metal which is a 60% copper 40% zinc with a trace of iron. Some refer to it as 'brass sheathed' 


Maria Zannini said...

And here I thought it was only a whiskey.

It takes a certain type of individual to live and work on a boat. I don't like being in close quarters even with people I love, let alone my workmates.

I grew up in a cramped apartment in the inner city. I left as soon as I was able.

Mike Keyton said...

What I failed to include, for lack of space was the meagre amount of personal belongings the crew were allowed, and the evocative letter the captain sent to the family of a young cabin boy who died enroute. Ref space, you do of course have the expanse of sky and sea and wind and stars - and when you feel sufficiently small and insignificant you can huddle up to your fellow and convince yourself that you're not :)