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Clippers (1812-1870s)
Ships built for speed*
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Known for

Opium clipper Water Witch (1831).
View full size imageOpium clipper Water Witch (1831). © NMM
Their speed and ability to transport vast quantities of tea, silks, spices and porcelain from the East.

The ships were called Clippers because they could 'clip' the journey time. Journeys that had once taken a year were now over in 100 days.

The defining characteristics of the tea clipper were a sharply-raked bow, overhanging stern, and acres of sail.

Port Connection

Tea clipper Cutty Sark.
View full size imageTea clipper Cutty Sark. © NMM
The Cutty Sark, now in dry dock at Greenwich, played an important role in the world tea trade.  She is the only surviving clipper in the world.

Interesting Facts

The great China race: The clipper ships Taeping and Ariel passing the Lizard.
View full size imageThe great China race: The clipper ships Taeping and Ariel passing the Lizard, September 6 1866 on their homeward voyage from Too-Chow-Foo. © NMM
As the first tea cargoes to arrive in port received higher prices, large financial rewards encouraged clippers to race against each other. These races generated great excitement among traders and the general public. 

Newspapers carried stories about the leading ships and the state of the race, bets were taken, and crowds gathered by the docks in London to witness the arrival of the vessels.

Life Story

Early 17th centuryEuropeans begin tea trading with China, mainly in the port of Canton.
1812In response to the need for faster transportation, (tea would sometimes take between 6-8 months to arrive in London docks), the first clippers, 'Baltimore' and later 'Ann McKim' (1832), are built in America.
1846The first British clipper, the 'Torrington' is launched.
1849The British Government lifts its ban on foreign ships offloading tea in a British port. This results in 55.5 million lbs of tea being imported into Britain, and clipper races between American and British vessels begin in earnest.
1869The 'Cutty Sark' is launched at a time when steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal results in faster journeys and the ultimate demise of the clippers.
1870sBy now, only a few clippers still operate, carrying mainly wool and various other cargos. The golden age of these graceful vessels is over.



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