Cutty Sark: two words that instantly convey adventure, stealth, the open sea and the might of British engineering. One of London’s most treasured landmarks, the Cutty Sark is turning a grand 150 years young, and to celebrate, the Greenwich museum has laid on some very merry birthday celebrations. So, batten down the hatches, and check out some fun facts about Cutty Sark that will bring out your out your inner Peter Pan and your swashbuckling Jack Sparrow.
She’s 150 years old
Cutty Sark was built in 1869 for the shipping magnate John “Jock” Willis. Her maiden voyage began on the 16 February 1870, bound for Shanghai with a cargo of wine, spirits and beer. She came back carrying 593,000 kg of tea, docking into London on the 13 October.
She’s the world’s only surviving tea clipper
Cutty Sark is a Grade I listed monument, listed by National Historic Ships. She was damaged twice by fire but has come back fighting from the embers. Following an extensive restoration and preservation project, Cutty Sark re-opened in 2012, still retaining 90% of the original hull fabric.
All the tea in China
The long and short of it is, Cutty Sark was the fastest tea clipper that money could buy, built to satisfy the Victorians and their addiction to tea. She sailed to 16 countries and travelled the equivalent of two and half voyages to the moon and back. Cutty Sark would make eight tea jaunts from London to China and back, loading tea in Shanghai or Hankou and collecting up 600,000 kg of leaves each time. She would carry almost 4.5 million kilograms of tea between 1870 and 1877.
Tea race was a big thing back in those days, and massive bets were made on Cutty Sark’s maritime prowess. In 1872, she went against her rival, Thermopylae, in what was one of the most famous tea races of all time. Cutty lost her rudder in the Indian Ocean and was beaten by Thermopylae by seven days. In 1883, Cutty turned to wool trading with Australia, setting an 83-day record between New South Wales and London. This was 25 days faster than her nearest rival. For ten years, she would be the fastest wool trade ship in the world.
The hull is sheathed in a patented alloy which is made of 60% copper and 40% zinc. Muntz metal, as it’s named, stops barnacles attaching themselves to the ship – perfect for keeping ‘ol Barnacle Bill at bay when you visit.
She’s very hands-on
Today, the Cutty Sark includes four decks of interactive displays, video, memorabilia and artwork. You can get up-close and personal with the ship by smelling and touching original cargo including tea, whisky and food samples. You can get touchy-feely with the copper hull, 90% of which dates to 1869, and even have a hand at the Captain’s wheel.
She has a saucy secret
Cutty Sark was made in Dumbarton in Scotland. No one knows exactly why Willis chose the unusual name, but we do know its origin: Cutty Sark means short nightie in Scots, made famous by Robert Burns’s poem, Tam O’ Shanter. A pretty witch called Nannie is the wearer of said nightie which is too small for her. As she dances around the fire, Tam exclaims, “weel done, Cutty-sark.” You can spy Nannie, and her cheeky nightie, on the ship’s bow.
It wasn’t all plain sailing
Steamships would muscle in to the sea-market, and by 1895, Cutty Sark was no longer profitable. She was sold to the Portuguese who renamed her Ferreira and used her for transport between Portugal and the Americas. In 1922, she was purchased by a sea captain by the name of Wilfred Dowman who used her as a training ship. Fast forward to 1954, and she docked into her permanent home in Greenwich.
She didn’t always ring a bell
A headstrong Cutty Sark officer nicked Cutty’s bell in 1903 when the ship was under Portuguese control. To retaliate, the Portuguese stole the bell from the nearby Shakespeare. When Cutty Sark was sold to Captain Dowman in 1922, the British thief returned the original bell.
She has royal connections
In May 1953, HRH Prince Philip commemorated the ship’s transfer of ownership to the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. Today, Cutty is a permanent memorial to the Merchant Navy and to the 44,000 men lost in both world wars.
It’s full of personal touches
A total of 653 men from 30 different nations served on the Cutty Sark – the youngest being 14 years old and the oldest, 56. Read a touching letter sent by apprentice C.E. Ray to his mother in 1894, (“I have not had a day’s illness of any kind since I have been aboard this ship. Not even a headache.”) and check out the books, clothing, photos, games and souvenirs the sailors took on-board.
You can visit when it rains
The ship is permanently dry-docked under a magnificent glass and steel canopy under which you can gaze up at her mighty skeleton. With three indoor decks, including a new, light-filled subterranean hall, you can comfortably visit the Cutty Sark come rain or shine, and if it pours, your time on the top deck need only be minimal.
She has some of the best views in London
With sweeping views over the Thames, need I say more?
She strikes a good pose
Discover the world’s largest collection of merchant navy figureheads, the only remnants of ships which once sailed the high seas. Characters include Sir Lancelot, Cleopatra, Boadicea, Florence Nightingale and Cutty’s great rival, Thermopylae.
She does a tealightful tea
A trip to Cutty Sark wouldn’t be complete without a cuppa, right? Take a pew inside the original hull for Afternoon Tea. The £27 menu includes a selection of sandwiches, an Earl Grey raisin scone, a selection of mini cakes and a pot of British brew. Bubbles optional for an extra £4.50.
She’s a star attraction
Royal Museums Greenwich, which comprises Cutty Sark, together with the National Maritime Museum, Queen’s House and Royal Observatory, is a top-10 UK visitor attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How to celebrate Cutty Sark’s 150th Birthday
For an evening bursting with Victorian silliness and song, head over to the Cutty Sark Theatre for Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, Pirates of Penzance. I dare you not to sing along to the Major General’s Song. 21 to 24 March. Tickets £28 (includes a welcome drink).
The Irish also have a spectacular boat and the oldest surviving ship in the French Navy: the Bantry Long Boat. Join Irish artists for an evening of music and poetry: From the Coble Coast to Bantry Bay – The Poetry and Music of the Sea. 24 May. Tickets £16
Set sail on a ship of stories aboard Cutty Sark storytelling, strictly for adults. Join Sally Pomme Clayton and composer musician Emma Clare as they perform their specially composed piece, Mother Danube. 7 June. Tickets £15
Help Cutty Sark celebrate the National Maritime Museum’s new moon exhibition by creating a traditional Malaysian Moon Kite. 3 and 4 August. Free with admission.
For a full-list of year-round events, check here.
Cutty Sark is open daily from 10am to 5pm. You can book your tickets here:
This is a sponsored post, and I was a guest of Cutty Sark. As always, all views and opinions are my own.