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Clipper Days

9 June 2008 by stepheng

Black and white photo of a masted ship on a calm sea

The Cutty Sark. Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

Few things can rival the bliss of enjoying a pint of tea first thing in the morning – real tea, not tea bags, so you get the full taste of the brew.

The recent disastrous fire which badly damaged the legendary Cutty Sark has highlighted the role played by tea clippers in maritime history.

Designed to carry China tea quickly and efficiently, the glamorous era of these fast, slender sailing ships only lasted between 1850 and 1870 but the clippers left an indelible mark on the history of seafaring.

Pioneered by the Americans, the first true clipper was the Rainbow launched in 1845. She completed the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days – clipping more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip.

This may have been how the ships got their name although the word clipper was originally applied to a fast horse, so this may have been the origin.

American and British ships competed to be fastest in the tea trade and this is how international races started from 1852 when British Challenger beat the US clipper Challenge.

New ports opening in China to feed the tea trade fuelled the races. A winning ship’s cargo of tea could earn a premium of sixpence (two and a half pence) per pound weight.

The most famous clipper race was in 1866 when 10 clippers set out for London from Foochow. They were so equally matched that they were often in sight of each other as they sped across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and north across the Atlantic.

The race was declared a dead heat between Taeping and Ariel – one of the most famous clippers – which both came into the Thames estuary neck-and-neck.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a superb model of a typical tea clipper from about 1865, showing the cross section of the hull. The 1:48 scale model depicts a 186 ft-long three-masted wooden ship, with metal fastenings, similar in size and construction to the Ariel built in Greenock.

By the 1860s iron was increasingly being used to strengthen wooden ships so that they could be built to greater lengths.

There is a painting of the Maiden Queen by an unknown Chinese artist. Owned by T & J Brocklebank and employed in the tea trade, she is shown off the coast of China.

A number of Chinese artists worked in Far Eastern ports producing ship portraits for European captains.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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