She was launched at Dumbarton on the River Clyde, Scotland, in 1869. The name comes from Robert Burns’ poem, Tam O’Shanter; Tam meets a group of witches, most of whom are ugly, but for Nannie, who is young and beautiful and is described as wearing only a “cutty sark”, i.e., a short chemise or shirt. The ship’s figurehead is a representation of this witch.
Broadly, the parts of the ship visible above the waterlinewere constructed from East India teak, while American rock elm was used for the ships bottom. The keel (16.5×15 inches) had on either side a garboard strake (28×31 cm) and then 15.5 cm planking reducing to 12 cm at 1/5 the depth of the hold. Teak planking began at approximately the level of the bilge stringer. All the external timbers were secured by Muntz metal (brass) bolts to the internal iron frame and the hull covered by Muntz sheeting up to the 18 foot depth mark. The stem (38×38 cm) and sternpost (42×38 cm) were of teak while the rudder was English Oak. The keel was replaced in the 1920s with one constructed from 38 cm pitch pine. The deck was made of 9 cm thick teak while the ‘tween deck was 7.6 cm yellow pine. Her length was 64.74 meters with a draft of 6.40 meters and a dead-weight of 921 tons.
The Cutty Sark’s sleek lines and enormous area of sail made her the fastest ship in the race via the Cape of Good Hope for the then particularly money-spinning tea trade with China. With the opening of the Suez Canal and the introduction of steam ships she was no longer suited for the tea trade. For the next 45 years she took different cargos of various qualities around the world. For example, she took coal from Nagasaki in Japan to Shanghai; jute from Manila to New York; and jute, castor oil, tea and the Australian mail from Calcutta to Melbourne in March 1881. Later, from 1885 to 1895, she was used in the wool trade with Australia, bringing the new season’s clip from Sydney to London, setting new speed records year after year.
By 1895, she was again losing money for her owner and was sold to the Portuguese as the Ferreira, although interestingly enough her crews called her Pequina Camisola (‘little shirt’). She was worked by her new owners between Oporto, Rio, and Lisbon for over thirty years until 1920, when she was sold again, this time becoming the Maria do Amparo. In 1922 she underwent a refit in the Surrey Docks, London, and was driven to shelter from a storm in Falmouth harbour on her way home. A Captain Wilfred Dowman saw her there, and bought her from the Portuguese owners, returning her to British ownership again.
On Capt. Dowman’s death in 1938, his widow presented her to the Thames Nautical Training College at Greenhithe on the Thames, where she was used as a training vessel. After the Second World war she again became surplus and eventually she was towed to Greenwich and placed in a specially constructed dry dock in 1954. After a lot of restoration work she was opened to the public in 1957. Since then more than thirteen million people have visited her. In 2012 she completed 6 years of conservation work that included a unique method of supporting the hull providing an un-obstructed view of her underwater shape.