The Cutty Sark - the fastest wool clipper to have sailed

Once one of the fastest sailing boats in the world, taking an incredible 110 days to sail from Shanghai fully laden with tea to London, the Cutty Sark was at the pinnacle of marine engineering in its day.

Initially built to transport tea

Commissioned by the Scotsman John Willis to transport tea from China to London, a little known fact is that the Cutty Sark only completed eight tea voyages. Over its active lifetime, the ship transported many goods, actually spending 12 years shipping wool from Australia to London, which is one of the reasons why we are taking an interest: most of the wool in our blankets and picnic rugs is shipped from Australia.

Cutty Sark Wool Cutter

The opening of the Suez Canal transformed the tea trade

The reasons for the Cutty Sark's owners swapping cargos was down to a number of factors ranging from improvements in engineering, economics and trade between countries.

Such was the pace of change even in those days that the Cutty Sark's days as a tea clipper were numbered just five days after it launched. On the 17th November 1869, the Suez Canal opened, cutting 3,300 miles off the journey from Shanghai to London and ten to twelve days off the journey times, which tipped the balance in favour of the steamer ships which had a much larger cargo capacity.

Cutty Sark became the fastest wool clipper

Failing to find enough tea to fill the ship's hold, John Willis repurposed the Cutty Sark to carry Merino wool from Australia to London. The speed of the cutter's was a significant advantage, allowing their owners to ship wool from the Newcastle New South Wales, Sydney and Brisbane in time for the London sales in the first three months of the new year.

On her first voyage the Cutty Sark made it back to London in 84 days, notching up the fastest trip by any ship that year and arriving 25 days ahead of any of the other ships. Over the next twelve years between 1883 and 1895, she established herself as the fastest of the wool clippers, putting in trips of 70 days or less. In fact she spent more of her life shipping wool than the seven years she shipped tea, arguably the cargo that she is best known for carrying.

The cargo hold of the Cutty Sark was able to carry an impressive 5,000 bales of wool, which, by our calculation, is enough wool to weave around 555,000 of our pure new wool picnic blankets.

Some facts about the Cutty Sark and the Australian wool trade

We've put together a few facts about the Cutty Sark and its links to the Australian wool trade.

  • Wool bales weighed between 110 to 204 kg
  • Each bale contained the wool from about 60 sheep
  • First sheep were brought to Australia in 1788
  • 1797 - date the first Merino sheep was imported
  • 1805 - date Merino sheep from the flock of George III are imported
  • 1807 - date Australian wool is sold in England for the first time
  • 1821 - The first auction of Australian wool in London takes place at Garraway's Coffee House in London
  • 1830 - date the Australian sheep population reaches two million and the value of exports is £2 million, which starts to challenge Spain and Germany as the main suppliers of wool to the English market.
  • 1838 -date wool becomes Australia's largest export
  • 1850 - date the value of Australia's wool exports reaches £41 million
  • 1870 - date the sheep population reaches 41.6 million and Australia surpasses England as the world's number one wool producer.
  • 1883 - date the Cutty Sark loads her first cargo of wool
  • 1892 - date the Australia sheep population passes 100 million
  • Cutty Sarks' wool cargo would make more than 1,250,000 jumpers
  • Merino is the most common breed of sheep in Australia and it is the softest and finest of the sheep wools.
  • One Australian Merino Fleece makes 18 jumpers
  • Cutty Sark could carry more than 5,000 bales of wool

This is not the first time we've written about a humble bale of wool. Indeed, there is a scarlet bale of wool in the House of Lords, called the wool sack, and in Tetbury every year, competitors compete in the Tetbury woolsack race, carrying sacks of wool between pubs along a 240 yard course.

If the history of the Cutty Sark has caught your imagination, you may also be interested in our blog about how wool has played an integral part in Britain's history: British wool: a tale of war, taxes and trade with Europe.




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