Cutty Sark

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“Weel done, Cutty Sark!”

Cutty Sark, Greenwich riverside

Cutty Sark before its restoration
The Cut­ty Sark, seen before its encase­ment in a ‘crys­tal cush­ion’

Built in Dum­b­ar­ton in 1869, the Cut­ty Sark weighs 963 tonnes, has a 152-foot main mast and boast­ed a top speed of 17 knots. This famous clip­per made record-break­ing voy­ages bring­ing tea from Chi­na and wool from Aus­tralia back to Britain.

The ship’s name – and the inspi­ra­tion for its fig­ure­head – comes from a Scot­tish leg­end, retold by Robert Burns, of Tam O’Shanter’s admi­ra­tion for a grace­ful young witch who wore a ‘cut­ty sark’, the dialect term for a short chemise.

Her cut­ty-sark, o’ Pais­ley harn
That while a lassie she had worn,
In lon­gi­tude tho’ sore­ly scanty,
It was her best, and she was vaun­tie, –
Ah! lit­tle ken’d thy rev­erend grannie,
That sark she coft for he wee Nan­nie,
Wi’ twa pund Scots, (’twas a’ her rich­es),
Wad ever grac’d a dance of witch­es!*

In 1895 the clip­per was renamed the Fer­reira and trans­port­ed goods between Por­tu­gal and its empire until 1922, when it was bought by Wil­fred Dow­man, a retired wind­jam­mer skip­per. Dow­man restored the Cut­ty Sark’s orig­i­nal appear­ance – and its name – and put it into ser­vice as a naval cadet train­ing ves­sel.

After fea­tur­ing as a show­piece at the Fes­ti­val of Britain, the ship was pre­served for pos­ter­i­ty by the Cut­ty Sark Soci­ety, under the patron­age of Prince Philip, Duke of Edin­burgh. The Cut­ty Sark was brought to Green­wich in 1954 and opened to the pub­lic three years lat­er by Her Majesty the Queen.

Cut­ty Sark sta­tion opened on the Dock­lands Light Rail­way in 1999. The orig­i­nal plan for the DLR exten­sion to Lewisham did not include a sta­tion here, but its poten­tial con­ve­nience for tourists prompt­ed key local insti­tu­tions to help fund the con­struc­tion costs.

In 2006 the ship was deemed to be ‘struc­tural­ly in dan­ger’ and the attrac­tion was closed to per­mit exten­sive con­ser­va­tion work to be done. A year into this project a fire broke out on board, caused by an indus­tri­al vac­u­um clean­er that had been left switched on for two days. The ship’s masts, saloon and deck­hous­es had been removed and put into stor­age before the fire but repair­ing the dam­age nev­er­the­less added con­sid­er­able time and cost to the restora­tion pro­gramme.

Reopened in May 2012 – with the Queen again doing the hon­ours – the Cut­ty Sark has been raised about eight feet high­er than shown in the pre-fire pho­to­graph above, sup­port­ed by cant­ed steel props that are enclosed in a glass sur­round resem­bling a crys­tal cush­ion.

The project cost £50 mil­lion and it is hoped that no fur­ther large-scale preser­va­tion work will be need­ed for anoth­er 50 years. Fundrais­ing for the next phase has already begun.

Because the ves­sel has been lift­ed up, vis­i­tors can walk beneath the Cut­ty Sark as well as go on board, stroll the decks and learn about its his­to­ry in the muse­um, which now boasts the oblig­a­tory ‘inter­ac­tive fea­tures’.

Some crit­ics were not impressed by aspects of the restora­tion, with the direc­tor of the Vic­to­ri­an Soci­ety claim­ing that it pan­ders to the “cor­po­rate hos­pi­tal­i­ty mar­ket” and Build­ing Design award­ing it the (deroga­to­ry) Car­bun­cle Cup, com­plain­ing that “from street lev­el, the once thrilling lines of the ship’s stern and prow have now been obscured behind the new glass enclo­sure.” Nev­er­the­less, in the first year after reopen­ing, cus­to­di­ans Roy­al Muse­ums Green­wich report­ed that more than 350,000 vis­i­tors had toured the attrac­tion, a 150 per cent increase on pre-clo­sure atten­dances.

Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark Clipper Ship, King William Walk, London SE10 9HT
Phone: 020 8312 6608 (ticket purchase) and 020 8858 4422 (National Maritime Museum switchboard)
Website: Cutty Sark Greenwich
Open: 10am–5pm daily (last admission 4.15pm)
Admission: £13.50 (adults), with various concessions for children, students, families, etc. – and a discount for buying online in advance
Nearest station: Cutty Sark (Docklands Light Railway)
The title of this article is taken from Robert Burns’s poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. The Alexandria Burns Club website has the poem in full and a translation.
* The picture of the Cutty Sark at the bottom of the article is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Matt Buck, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.