Above: View of the ‘Cutty Sark’ before it was raised by three metres (after 2006).
This fine tea clipper was launched in November 1869 at Dumbarton on the Clyde. The name is Scottish for ‘a piece of cloth’. It was designed for life on the high seas, on the China run, bringing tea back to England. The opening of the Suez Canal that year made it possible for steamships to complete the journey more quickly than sailing ships which came back around the Cape of Good Hope – the rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. The ‘Cutty Sark’ changed to a route carrying wool from Australia. On this run, the ‘Cutty Sark’ set up a record speed of 363 miles (581 km) in 24 hours.
After languishing in various docks in London, the vessel was moved in 1954 into a permanent dry dock at Greenwich – on the site of the old Ship Inn which had been destroyed in the bombing during the Second World War. A dock was constructed and the ‘Cutty Sark’ was floated into it on a high tide. The dock was then sealed off from the Thames and pumped dry. After erecting the masts and installing the rigging and suitable artefacts for exhibition, the ship became a tourist attraction as a museum. Access to the interior and the decks was of great interest. In addition, it was possible to descend into the dry dock and see the exterior of the ship.
Above: The ship’s figurehead with a piece of cloth in the hand.
In 2006 work started on restoring the ‘Cutty Sark’. Being in a dry dock for so many decades had taken its toll on the structure and much of the wood was completely rotten. A large amount of the iron framework had also rusted away and had to be restored. Many fittings on the ship were taken to Chatham Dockyard while the repairs were carried out. In 2007 a disastrous fire broke out on board, causing considerable damage. Because a large amount of the ship had been removed to Chatham Dockyard, that was safe from the conflagration. The ship was restored and reopened to the public on 25 April 2012. The total cost of the restoration was in excess of £30 million. On 19 October 2014, the ship was damaged for a second time by a much smaller fire.
The ship is in the care of the ‘Cutty Sark’ Trust who decided to raise the ship three metres and add a glass canopy around the exterior of the hull. This was much criticised by many historic authorities and it is not liked by many members of the public. The raising the ship provided additional corporate entertainment facilities which have brought in funds needed for the ship’s continual maintenance. However, it is often said that the need for lucrative entertainment space was the overriding factor in the new presentation of the vessel. The glass around the exterior obscures much of the elegant bow from view.
As well as the ship called the ‘Cutty Sark’, further east there is a pub called the Cutty Sark Tavern. Although the pub is older than the sailing ship, its original name – the Green Man – was changed to the new name after the ship was installed in the dry dock next to the Thames.
The raising of the ship to a higher position, along with its new glass ‘casing’, is not considered to be a success by everyone. In its lower position, the ship was at a ‘normal’ height of a floating vessel and it related to its surroundings. In the new raised position, the glass casing tends to obscure the fine lines of the bow. Being raised, the ship resembles an oversize model of a vessel on a very large mantlepiece – losing the reality of a ship in a dock.