The Cutty Sark was one of the last of the clipper ships specially built for the tea trade between China and Britain. Her unusual name was taken from the witch in Robert Burns’s poem ‘Tam O Shanter’, and her figurehead represented a witch.
She carried a great spread of canvas and it was said of her that in her day no ship could outdistance her in a steady breeze abeam. She could overage fifteen knots for long periods. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 spelt the end of the days of the famous racing tea clippers. But the Cutty Sark stayed in the trade until 1880 when her tall masts were shortened. She sailed to Australia and raced home with a cargo of wool. In 1895 she was sold to the Portuguese. In 1922 she arrived in the Thames and not long afterwards was bought back into British ownership. Thirty-five years later, after a complete restoration, the Cutty Sark was placed in a dry berth at Greenwich. There she now is – a fascinating memorial to a hard and heroic period of the British Merchant Navy.