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  • Miles Hedley


Updated: Dec 11, 2019

Certain ships have been granted legendary status throughout human history, from Noah’s Ark and Jason’s Argo to the Discovery and Titanic by way of Columbus’ Santa Maria, Drake’s Golden Hind, the Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower and Nelson’s Victory.

And no list of these iconic vessels is complete without the inclusion of Greenwich’s own maritime idol, the tea clipper Cutty Sark.

Yet unlike the others, Cutty Sark has never won a famous victory, discovered a new world, inspired an immortal story or gained notoriety through disaster. Even her proud boast to have been the fastest thing afloat was undermined by ever-improving steam power and the opening of the Suez Canal days before she was launched.

So why is she still one of the most famous ships in the world?

Curator Dr Hannah Stockton, who works alongside the learning and events team overseeing the clipper’s 150th birthday celebrations this year, reckons it’s all down to a combination of romanticism and our passion for tea.

Hannah, whose experience of Cutty Sark dates back to childhood visits, said: “Sailing ships are less and less familiar today, especially among younger people, and she conjures up a sense of romanticism.

“That kind of romanticism even existed in her heyday - former captains are said to have refused to work on steamships after sailing her.

“I think that feeling filters through to today. And, of course, there is her association with the tea trade because tea still our national drink.”

Hannah, who took over as curator last summer, is looking forward to the programme of events marking the ship’s century and a half of global fame.

The celebrations began in a February – exactly 150 years after her keel was laid – and will continue till next February, the anniversary of her maiden voyage when she sailed to China to collect 1.3million pounds of tea.

After steam left her largely redundant, Cutty Sark was sold to a Portuguese company and ended her life afloat in the 1950s as a rather down-at-heel training ship in Greenhithe in the Thames estuary.

Her fortunes finally changed when she was brought to Greenwich and dry-docked in 1954. And despite being engulfed by fire in 2007, she has gone from strength to strength after a massive restoration and now attracts more than 250,000 visitors a year.

Community links are vital to the Cutty Sark team – for example, five local schools and community groups have made 40 new flags to fly in the rigging.

And Greenwich residents will have free entry to Cutty Sark on the November weekend that commemorates her launch at the Clyde yard where she was built. Further details about this will be available nearer the time at

Meanwhile, Cutty Sark’s Christmas and New Year programme is well underway with comedian and multi-instrumentalist Bill Bailey hosting a festive spectacular on December 15 followed a week later by a festive ceilidh.

The first major event of 2020 is another ceilidh, this one on January 25 to mark Burns Night - a fitting occasion because Cutty Sark’s name comes from the poet’s masterpiece Tam o’Shanter.

February 1 and 2 see art workshops to mark the Chinese new year and there are more child-friendly events in the Sammy Ofer Gallery throughout half-term from February 17-21.

The month ends with a dance overseen by Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ frontman Huey Morgan and the London Disco Society on the 28th.

More info on all the Cutty Sark events at

Photos © National Maritime Museum, London

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