Exploring the History of the Cutty Sark, Greenwich

Cutty Sark, Greenwich
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A note to my readers: The world is gradually easing Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, but it will be a long time before we can travel freely again. For many of us that will mean staycations and more local travel, but I will continue posting new content for you to read at home and to inspire your future travels. Happy reading and stay safe!

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Greenwich, just a short trip from central London, is full of historic sites. So many, in fact, that the whole of Maritime Greenwich was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. One site not to be missed is the Cutty Sark, a 19th century sailing ship with a long and varied history.

What Was the Cutty Sark?

Built in 1869, the Cutty Sark started life as a tea clipper, carrying tea from China to Britain. Tea was a very valuable commodity at the time, and each year the clippers would race against one another in an attempt to be the first to bring the new season’s crop to London (the first to arrive could command the highest prices). Although Cutty Sark never won the tea race it did gain a reputation for being one of the fastest ships on the seas. In 1871 it achieved the world record for sailing between England and China in the shortest time, and later it broke the record for the voyage to Australia.

Cutty Sark, Greenwich
The Cutty Sark in Greenwich

Designed for speed, the Cutty Sark had three masts and 32,000 square feet of sails. It was built with a wooden hull on an iron frame, ideal for cutting through the water. (The word “clipper” was used to convey the sense of clipping across the waves rather than ploughing through them.)

If you’re wondering about the name, “Cutty Sark” comes from Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter, in which the witch Nannie wore a cutty sark, or short shirt. No-one really knows why this name was chosen, but looking at the figurehead of Nannie with her hair flowing behind her, you could imagine her moving very fast. Perhaps the original owner hoped she would inspire the ship to speed across the ocean.

Later History of the Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark’s career as a tea clipper came to an end with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Sailing ships could not use the canal, but it enabled steam ships to make the journey from China in a much shorter time. So the Cutty Sark was put into service bringing wool from Australia. Later it carried general cargoes, including coal.

The Cutty Sark and an actor playing Jock Willis, the original owner
Pinnable image of the Cutty Sark and “Jock Willis”, the original owner

In the early 20th century the ship was used as a sail training vessel. This continued until the 1950s, when Cutty Sark moved into the latest phase of its history – as a tourist attraction. As part of the National Historical Fleet (the nautical equivalent of a listed building) it has been on display to the public since 1954. But that was not the end of its adventures: the ship caught fire in 2007 and did not reopen until 2012. However this provided the opportunity to redesign of the interior, creating an imaginative display for visitors of all ages.

Exploring the Cutty Sark

The ship has now been brought inland and is mounted on a dry dock. Each deck shows a different part of Cutty Sark’s history. The Lower Hold charts the history of the tea trade, with flooring and information panels constructed from old tea chests. These date from an era when packing cases were almost works of art in themselves, and I was as fascinated by the painted crates as I was by the snippets of information about the tea trade. I learnt that tea was once so rare and exotic that Catherine of Briganza included a crate of tea in her dowry when she married King Charles II. And that taxes were so high that there was a thriving trade in tea smuggling!

Old tea chests in the Cutty Sark
The Cutty Sark was originally a tea clipper, and old tea crates have been incorporated into the display

On the ‘Tween Deck old woolsacks are the backdrop for information about the cargoes of wool, and the establishment of Merino sheep flocks in Australia. Some of the sacks are also used as a screen for a short audiovisual presentation. This deck has lots of family friendly activities, including interactive exhibits and a moving bench that simulates the rocking of the ship.

The Main deck, with its masts, rigging and cabins for sailors and officers, gives an insight into what it would have been like to sail on the Cutty Sark. Note the relative luxury of the master’s saloon compared with the cramped quarters of the sailors…

Bunk beds in the sailors' quarters, Cutty Sark
The cramped sleeping quarters of the ship’s crew

As you walk around don’t forget to stop and look at the views of the London skyline on the other side of the river.

Looking at the London skyline from the Cutty Sark
Don’t forget to look for the views of the London skyline!

Beneath the Hull

When you have finished exploring the ship you can go down a flight of stairs to the dry dock beneath. Here you can walk around an observation platform, or look up and admire the massive golden hull. There is a gift shop, and a café where you can buy drinks and snacks or – appropriately, given the ship’s history – a cream tea.

Beneath the hull of the Cutty Sark
Looking up at the hull of the Cutty Sark

There is also a collection of ship’s figureheads. The largest and most prominent is a copy of Cutty Sark’s own figurehead, a woman holding a horse’s tail. This is the witch Nannie, who stole the tail from Tam O’Shanter’s horse.

Ship's figureheads on the Cutty Sark
Nannie the witch has pride of place in the collection of ship’s figureheads

This area is also used for live “meet the crew” experiences. Dressed in period costume, the staff tell of the early life of the ship and the people who sailed on it. On the day of my visit we enjoyed a performance by “Jock Willis”, the original owner of the ship.

Visiting the Cutty Sark

The ship is close to Cutty Sark Station, on the Docklands Light Railway. It is spacious enough to accommodate large numbers of visitors, but if you want to avoid the crowds try to visit first thing in the morning or outside of weekends and school holidays. Note that there are steps between levels, but lifts are available for wheelchairs.

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You can avoid queuing by buying your tickets in advance. And, if you are also planning to visit the Greenwich Royal Observatory, you can save money by buying a combined ticket.

Thanks to Royal Museums Greenwich for providing me with tickets for the Cutty Sark.

This article is now included in a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

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5 thoughts on “Exploring the History of the Cutty Sark, Greenwich”

  1. This looks really interesting – the way they have the ship displayed seems like it would make it a lot easier to really see it and understand how it functioned. Any discussion of the connection between the ship and the liquor?

    1. Hi Cindy, the name of the drink seems to have been something thought up by the marketing people! I think it was partly because the ship was built in Scotland so had a connection with Scotch whisky. And partly because the whisky was launched around the same time that Cutty Sark returned to England to be used as a naval training ship (so there would have been interest in the ship around then). Another factor might be that whisky drinking always seems to be linked with Robert Burns, and the name Cutty Sark came from one of his poems…

  2. Very interesting, and I can’t believe I didn’t visit the Cutty Sark when I was in Greenwich! I especially like that view from below. Usually when you visit an historical ship, you only see the part that’s above the water line. This gives a much better sense of the size of the ship.

  3. We really enjoy hearing about day trips from major cities. The Cutty Sark is one of several good places to visit in Greenwich. We explored the Maritime Museum there recently, too. Thanks for the info on this day trip from London.

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