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Clipper Ship Plans Emigrant Ships Henry Eckford John W Griffiths Donald McKay William H Webb

The Clipper Ships

When the Clipper Ship was created, it was the fastest ship ever made. Not only that, but it was huge; it contained more sails than any other and was more than 15 storeys high. Efficient vessels had the ability to cover 2000 miles in a 5 day span, whereas ships before that barely reached 150 miles in a day. This meant that the ships’ owners and captains had the ability to earn much more money.

Black Prince in Brisbane

No ships that ever sailed the seas presented a finer appearance than these little flyers. They were always beautifully kept and were easily noticeable amongst other ships for their smartness: indeed, when lying in Sydney Harbour or Hobson's Bay with their yards squared to a nicety, their green sides with gilt streak and scroll work at bow and stern glistening in the sun, their figure-heads, masts, spars and blocks all painted. The green with which the Aberdeen White Star Ships were painted was a composite paint always known as Aberdeen Green. white and every rope's end flemish-coiled on snow-white decks, they were the admiration of all who saw them .

From the first to the last they were hard sailed ships, and some of the fastest were often sent across to China for a home cargo of tea, though the Thermopylae was the only bona-fide tea clipper in the fleet.  On the outward passage, whether to Sydney or Melbourne, they generally carried a few 1st-class passengers, but it was only during the very height of the gold rush that their 'tween decks were given up to a live freight.

In the days of Charles II tea had always been imported into Britain from China, carried for 150 years by the lordly East Indiamen.

In London a year's supply of tea was always kept in reserve in case the ships were captured even though they travelled in convoy. Thus the tea drunk was about 12 months old. After the Anglo-Chinese war of 1839-42 the restriction of trade by the Chinese to only Canton (below) was lifted and additional ports, Hong Kong, Foochow, (inset above) Shanghai and Hankow, were opened up for trade. Trade increased, the Honourable East India Company lost its monopoly and smaller ships were, by now, carrying the tea. With additional supply available the tea dealers in London had to find ways of increasing the sales of tea and one way was to advertise and promote its freshness. A newer tea had a better flavour and the demand grew for fresh tea.

Detail of Thermopylae at Anchor on the River Min

The gathered tea was ready for shipment in June and July but this coincided with the south-west monsoon season which saw strong winds blowing up the China Sea. Square-rigged sailing ships cannot sail very close to the wind and have to tack their way to and fro across a head wind. This meant that, before they could enter the Indian Ocean, they had to beat their way through the Sunda Straits between Java and Sumatra against a head wind which increased the overall passage time. Consequently, by the end of the 1840's several ships of around 400 tons had been designed to overcome this problem; ships that could beat to windward and reduce passage times.

Up until 1849 Britain had protected its foreign trade through the Navigation Acts. Originally enacted in 1651 in an attempt to oust the Dutch from the carrying trade the Acts required that goods shipped between England and the newly established colonies and vice versa could only be carried in ships owned, commanded and substantially manned by Englishmen. Resentment by the Americans of this limitation of trade was the cause of the American War of Independence.

The Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849 which created opportunities for foreign owned ships to bring cargoes to Britain. At the same time gold was discovered in California which led to the Americans building numerous large Clippers on the east coast to deliver the gold hungry prospectors to the gold fields. But, once this had been achieved, they could sail to China, pick up a cargo of tea and deliver to England before returning to America for another batch of prospectors. The Americans achieved a reputation which guaranteed them higher freight rates, £6-£7 against the £3-£4 per ton paid to British Shipowners. There was obviously a lot of rivalry but it began to cool in 1855 when the gold rush fizzled out and when the American Civil War broke out in 1861 all competition was removed. Competition between the British owners continued for another decade or so.

In fact it was the Americans who pioneered the 1st Clipper Ships. Based on an earlier type of ship called the Baltimore Clipper, they were fast and slender, with a narrow hull that was deeper at the back than at the front, and acres of sails on tall masts.  Some had as many as 6 tiers of sails to a mast, and a total of 35 sails.  They earned their name from the way that they 'clipped off' the miles.   The 1st true tea clipper was Rainbow, designed by John W Griffiths and launched in 1845. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days - taking more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip.  Their development was given another boost by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in Australia in 1851 - people rushing to seek their fortunes wanted ships that would transport them as fast as possible. 

The American Clippers were large compared with the British ships and this, in fact, created problems at the Chinese ports who were only geared to load the smaller vessels. Also, larger clippers were not necessarily faster and not as manoeuvrable through the hazards of the China Sea The first Clipper to take advantage was the Oriental, which arrived at West India Dock in London on 3 December 1850 - just 97 days after leaving Hong Kong. British merchants were horrified - this was 3 times as fast as the old lumbering East Indiamen which had been used by the East India Company. They resolved to build their own clippers to rival the Americans, and the 1st British Tea Clipper, Stornoway, was built in Aberdeen in 1850.

One of the most notable of these shipping pioneers was Richard Green, whose statue, together with that of his dog at his knee, can be seen close to London's Poplar Station. To him we owe a great debt of gratitude for the revival of British Shipping at a time when the Americans appeared to be driving our Clippers off the ocean trade routes. The larger and speedier American tea clippers were gaining the control of the bulk of the trade with China. It was not always our ship-owners who were at fault, as the shipping laws and their effects on the designing of the vessels were seemingly to blame for most of these discouraging circumstances and events. However, even when the Navigation Laws were eventually replaced, British owners were still loath to fashion their crafts after those of their American rivals, although some, who were less conservative in their ideas, built much better boats by combining the good qualities of the two countries.

As good as the combination of such qualities was, the results did not bring forth an equal to the American ships, which still held the supremacy until soon after Richard Green had declared his decision not to be beaten by them. He had a new tea clipper built at his yard at Poplar, called the Challenger, of 699 tons, and she was sent off to China in 1852. Having loaded tea at Shanghai, she set out for London, calling in at Anjer, where she met the American ship, Challenge, which was on her way to London with a cargo of tea from Canton. The Challenge was a 2,000 tonner, built expressly for speed and capacity, and was the largest clipper built by the Americans until that time. So it was that a race home was started by these 2 vessels, the smaller British clipper gaining London 2 days ahead of her huge rival. Naturally, this set the hearts of all the British owners aglow, and was instrumental in urging on the efforts of our shippers to capture the China trade. Towards the close of the year 1855, it was convincingly proved that British ships could more than hold their own in speed, and that they were able to convey their cargoes in much better conditions than their rivals.

In the early 1850's the British Shipowners went to the Aberdeen Shipyards for their ships and, as a result, the yard of Alexander Hall & Sons built some of the fastest Clippers of that decade including Reindeer (1848), Stornoway (1850), Chrysolite (1851), Cairngorm (1853), Vision (1854) and Robin Hood (1856).  All these ships were full-rigged carrying 4 or 5 yards on each mast, deployed studding sails on each side and had the distinctive Aberdeen Clipper Bows which were less ornate than the traditional practice. The design of the Cairngorm embodied the builder's ideas of what a Clipper should be and was built without a firm order from an owner.

A big risk for the shipbuilder but Alexander Hall & Sons were proved right as the Cairngorm was purchased by Jardine, Matheson & Co for the tea trade and she proved to be one of the fastest clippers during the 1850's. She cost £15,434 to build and was registered at 939 tons and was acknowledged as 'Cock of the Walk' as she made many fast passages. In 1858-9 she made her fastest homeward passage from Macau to Deal in 91 days.  CAIRNGORM left Whampoa 6 November, 1858 along with WYNAUD, CHIEFTAIN and LAMMERMUIR.  Participated in 1st Tea Race under Ryrie. Agreed bonus of £200 for Master and Mates to be divided pro-rata for 1st ship home. CAIRNGORM docked first and gained the bonus.

The Glentaner, William Punton, Lightning, Acasta, and Torrington were also built for the Opium/Tea Trade for the renowned mercantile house of Jardine & Matheson & Co.  It was Jardine that convinced the British Government  to embark on the Opium Wars to protect his debilitating drug trading interests which was then ruining the Chinese economy because of the spread of opium addiction.

Jardine & Matheson

Originally, the term 'Clipper' was applied to any fast ship but today's researchers have laid down some conditions which must be met before a ship can be classified as a Clipper.

They must have the lines of a yacht and capable of high speeds at all times; cargo carrying capabilities are not a consideration.

The larger American clippers achieved speeds of up to 21 knots but, even so, some smaller British Clippers such as Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were capable of achieving 17 knots or 360 miles a day.





Alexander Hall & Sons weren't the only shipyard building Clippers. On the Solway Firth Benjamin Nicholson of Annan built the Annandale, the Queensberry and the Shakspere, and further south, at Sunderland, John Pile built the barques Spirit of the Age and Spirit of the North while his brother William built Crest of the Wave, Spray of the Ocean, Kelso and the Lammermuir. Further south on the River Thames Bilbe and Perry of Rotherhithe built the Celestial, the Lauderdale and the Wynaud.

When gold was discovered in Australia in 1851 a number of extremely Sharp Clippers were constructed entirely in iron. Although some were used in the tea trade they were viewed with suspicion as it was suspected that lack of ventilation in the hold damaged the quality of the tea. Two of the ships built in 1853, on the River Clyde, were the Gauntlet (William Rennie Designer) and the Lord of the Isles considered to be 'the most perfect clipper ship ever launched on the Clyde, and she appears more like a yacht of large tonnage than a private merchant ship'. (London Illustrated News) The LIN's accolade applied to the Gauntlet but it equally applied to the Lord of the Isles whose fastest passage from China to London was 90 days (87 to the Lizard) achieved in 1858-59. In those days the measurement of a passage time was inconsistent. It could mean either the time elapsed between losing sight of land and seeing it again on arrival or the time between dropping the harbour pilot on departure and picking one up on arrival.

During the time from 1859 British clipper ships continued to be built. Earlier British clipper ships had become known as extreme clippers.  From 1859 a new design was developed for British clipper ships. These continued to be called extreme clippers. The new design had a sleek graceful appearance, less sheer, less freeboard, lower bulwarks, and smaller breadth. They were built for the China tea trade and began with the Falcon in 1859, and finished with the last ships built in 1870. It is estimated that 25 to 30 of these ships were built, and no more than 4-5 per year. The earlier ships were made from wood, though some were made from iron, just as some British clippers had been made from iron prior to 1859. In 1863 the first tea Clippers of composite construction were brought out, combining the best of both worlds. Composite Clippers had the strength of iron spars with wooden hulls, and copper sheathing could be added to prevent the fouling that occurred on iron hulls.

In the 1860's the shipbuilder Robert Steele & Sons of Greenock were to assert themselves as the builders of more stylised clippers. Although long established, having already built the Kate Carnie and Ellen Rodger, it was more likely the building of the Falcon launched in 1859 which brought the company to prominence as builders of tea clippers.

In 1860 the Fiery Cross, designed by renowned Marine Architect William Rennie, had been built by Chaloner of Liverpool and was fast and successful. 185 feet long, maximum breadth 31.7 feet with a hold depth of 19.2 feet she was registered at 695 tons and first ship home to claim the £1 per ton, first to dock in London, premium in 1861, 1862, 1893 and 1864, due in a lot of respects to the sailing skills of her first two captains, John Dallas and Richard Robinson.

The success of the Fiery Cross inspired other shipbuilders including Robert Steele & Sons who went on to build the Taeping (1863), the Ariel (1865), the Sir Lancelot (1865), the Titania (1866), the Lahloo (1867 and the Kaisow (1868). These ships were fast and in 1866-67 the Ariel took only 80 days from dropping the pilot in London to picking up the pilot in Hong Kong; in 1869 Sir Lancelot took 84 days between Foochow and the Lizard and in 1871 the Titania did the same voyage in 93 days. The success of these ships was due to being able to maintain relatively high speeds in light winds and being able to beat to windward in a stiff breeze.

The Ariel was an extreme composite Clipper built in 1865 by Robert Steele & Co., Greenock, dimensions: 197'4×33'9"×21', tonnage 1058,73 tns, 853 NRT. She had 100 tons of fixed iron ballast moulded into the timbers. An undated sail-plan in the Science Museum, London, shows her rigged with double topsails and main skysail.  The Taeping's last voyage came in the early 1870's. She sailed from Amoy to New York and was wrecked on Ladd's Reef. Only the Mate's boat, with 6 men aboard, was found after 3 days of drifting.

However, aside from the glamour of winning the 1st home premium and constructing beautiful ships the underlying consideration was always money, the ships had to be profitable. The shipbuilders were competing against each other for orders and, consequently, construction costs, or control of them, was important. Robert Steele & Sons were probably quoting no more than £18 per ton which would have meant building a composite hull: iron frames with wooden exterior planking. The Cutty Sark is a perfect example of this type of construction which enabled extremely long lives as the planking could be easily replaced.

Races between the 'full bloods', as the crack clippers were affectionately called, were a regular event, the most famous being in 1866 between the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Serica, the Taeping and the Taitsing. The ships left the Padoga Anchorage at Foochow, China, in that order, at the end of May to race to the London Docks, a distance of some 16,000 miles. After 20 days the Fiery Cross arrived at Anjer first having beaten down the China Sea. The Taitsing having left Foochow a day later than the others made up some time as they caught the favourable trade winds on the run down the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. At the Azores the 1st four ships were within a day of each other but on the approach to the English Channel the Fiery Cross dropped back. Logging 14 knots the Ariel and the Taeping ran up the channel within sight of each other for most of 5th September. The Serica, at this time was out of sight near the French coast. At 8.00 am on the morning of 6th September the Ariel signalled her number to the signal station at Deal, 98 days 22.5 hours after dropping the pilot at Foochow. Ten minutes later the Taeping did likewise. Both ships docked later the same day as did the Serica who just managed to squeeze in before the lock gates closed. The tea dealers were furious. While the rest of England celebrated the dealers had a glut of tea which led to depressed prices. The 1st home premium was later abandoned to prevent a repetition.

The last China clippers were acknowledged as the fastest sail vessels. When fully rigged and riding a tradewind, they had peak average speeds over 16 knots (30 km/h). The Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. China clippers are also the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever made. Their speeds have been exceeded many times by modern yachts, but never by a commercial sail vessel.

After 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal that allowed competition with steam vessels, the tea trade then collapsed for Clippers. From 1870 the clipper trade increasingly focused on trade and the carrying of immigrants between England and Australia and New Zealand, a trade that had begun earlier with the Australian Gold Rush in the 1850s. British-built clipper ships were used for this trade, as were many American-built ships which were sold to British owners. Even in the 1880s, sailing ships were still the main carriers of cargoes to and from Australia and New Zealand. Eventually, however, even this trade became unprofitable, and the aging clipper fleet became unseaworthy

The honours for the year (London-Australia) for the year 1855 were taken by the Duthie built Aberdeen Clipper BALLARAT 1852 owned by Duncan Dunbar, which went out to Sydney in under 70 days and came home Melbourne-Liverpool in 69 days with 110,000 ounces (wool).

SS Inverness

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Last modified: 01/09/2013