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Clipper Ships, the Cutty Sark & Tea

Once upon a time the concept of overnight delivery to far-flung locations, rather than being a notion that most people take for granted, was something closer to a flight of fantasy like walking on the moon or sending vessels to other planets. In a time when most cargo being shipped long distances had to travel by ship such journeys were typically measured in weeks or months rather than days.

Which could be something of a problem when shipping perishable commodities, such as tea. This was especially problematic given that until about a century and a half ago all of the tea going to consumers in Europe and the Americas came from quite far away. Until the middle of the nineteenth China’s tea growers pretty much had a lock on the trade and obviously it was no small jaunt to ship a cargo of tea from there.

Which is where an innovation called the clipper ship became quite useful. While this is hardly the place for an in-depth history of clipper ships, suffice to say that it was during the middle part of the nineteenth century that they thrived and particularly the so-called tea clippers that were being built increasingly larger and faster so that they could bring back more tea more quickly from the East.

Cutty Sark in dock, Greenwich - January 2005
Cutty Sark in dock, Greenwich – January 2005

To say that these clipper ships are rare these days is to understate the matter considerably. In truth, there is only tea clipper left and that one narrowly escaped being wiped out by fire a few years back. That would be the Cutty Sark, which first took to the seas in 1869. The fact that the ship shares a name with a popular brand of whisky is no accident, since the founders of that whisky took its name from the ship, which was much in the news at the time (1923) as its days in active service were finally coming to an end.

Nowadays, the Cutty Sark is in the news for another reason. After it was nearly destroyed by fire in 2007, five years and about 50 million pounds were spent to bring it back to life. The giant ship, which could carry about 1.3 million pounds of tea (sufficient for a mere 200 million cups) was slated to go on display to the general public again on April 26, 2012, just a few days after I wrote this.

If you’d like to check out the restored Cutty Sark you’ll have to go to Greenwich, South London, where it currently makes its home. Find out more about the restoration in this article from the British press or at the Cutty Sark’s home page. For a good overview of clipper ships, look here. Also try The Clipper Ship Era, a 1910 book by Arthur Hamilton Clark.

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One response to “Clipper Ships, the Cutty Sark & Tea”

  1. […] speedy cargo ships that were all the rage with nineteenth century tea traders, refer to my overview, which appeared here a while […]

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