In this extract from Putting the Tea in Britain we relive the Great Tea Race from China to London in 1866, one of the most nailbiting races of its time!
The ending of the East India Company’s monopoly over the China tea trade in 1834 ushered in a new era on the high seas. The Company’s large, lumbering vessels had never had to compete with other shipping lines to get tea to market, but the new free market changed that. There was now a scramble to get the new season’s tea home from China ahead of rival merchants, so as to sell it at the best price. This race brought the design and construction of sailing ships to a peak of efficiency and beauty. Tea clippers, small, sleek ships that could ‘clip’ along at fifteen knots or more, lopped weeks off the time that the tubby, heavily laden Indiamen took. The first clippers built for the China trade were American, but in 1850, when the US clipper Oriental docked in London after sailing from Canton in just ninety-seven days, British shipbuilders – or more precisely those on the Clyde and in Aberdeen – took notice.
In fairness, shipbuilder William Hall of Aberdeen had been ahead of the game, scandalising his rivals by experimenting with model ships in a glass tank to produce a new shape of bow that would cut through the water. The acute ‘Aberdeen bow’, or ‘clipper bow’, first sliced through the sea in 1839 when the Hall Brothers, William and James, launched the Scottish Maid, a two-masted wooden schooner with a raked stem and a carved female figurehead. The Scottish Maid was the prototype for clippers to come. Hall Brothers went on to build many such ships for the opium, spice and tea trades, including the Torrington and Stornoway for Jardine Matheson. The Stornoway was named after the main town on the Hebridean island of Lewis, as James Matheson had bought the island a few years earlier.
Shipwrights on the River Clyde, where most of Britain’s clippers were launched, innovated too – building frameworks of iron ribs which were then clad with timber planks, making the vessels robust but light. Most were three-masted, carried vast amounts of sail and were beautiful. Perhaps the most handsome of all was the Ariel, one of about twenty built by Robert Steele & Company at Greenock. She was nearly 200 feet long from her knife-like stem to her yacht-like counter stern. Her deck was completely flush and, as a sacrifice to speed, her crew lived in cramped forward quarters. Low in the water and with her bulwarks only rising to three feet above her deck, she was a greyhound of a ship, although vulnerable to being swamped by a following sea.
In 1861 an annual £500 bonus was offered to the ship that first made it from China to London with late April’s new tea crop. By 1866 the Great Tea Race from China to London had become a national fixture in which the finest ships, skippered by the most skilful captains, competed. In May that year sixteen tea clippers were loaded at Foochow’s Pagoda Anchorage on the Min River, about twelve miles from the open sea. Lighters brought about 12,000 chests of tea to each vessel in a four-day loading marathon. The chests were stowed carefully to give each ship what its captain thought would be its best trim. The Glasgow-owned, Liverpool-built Fiery Cross had won the previous year, but a new vessel, Ariel, was that year’sfavourite. Captains scrabbled for every advantage of wind, tide and influence with the Customs officials and tug skippers as the clippers hauled anchors.
To the delight of the press, it was a classic race with a nail-biting finish. The leading ships had left Pagoda Anchorage on the same tide and once out to sea their skippers had driven them hard, setting up to 30,000 square feet of canvas to take advantage of every wisp of wind. High up among the spars, each ship’s crewmen spent days and nights adjusting, trimming, setting and resetting about forty sails. What a sight that must have been. I have seen many illustrations of clippers, but the nearest I’ve got to feeling the thrill of the race was when making a documentary series on a trawler for BBC Alba. One afternoon, aboard the Audacious north of Shetland, we sailed through the Tall Ships’ Race on its way to Scandinavia. I’d seen many tall ships before, but only close to shore and carrying very little canvas. That day more than a dozen vessels were scudding along under full sail. With a stiff breeze on my faceand a North Atlantic swell churning my stomach, it was easy to imagine that I’d entered a time warp and had been transported to the mid-nineteenth century.
After 14,000 miles and ninety-nine days at sea, three of the Great Tea Race ships of 1866 arrived at London on the very same tide, the winning Taeping docking just twenty eight minutes before Ariel. For Ariel’s captain, John Keay of Anstruther, it must have been a bitter blow because Ariel had been ahead when the two ships were taken in tow by stream tugs, but because of the height of the tide Taeping had made it into her dock first. It could have been a contentious result but the Taeping’s owners agreed to share the prize with the Ariel. The James Finlay-owned Serica had arrived just an hour and fifteen minutes after the Ariel – to the vexation of its fiery Scottish skipper, Captain George Innes.
The real winner of the race was Greenock’s Robert Steele & Company, which had built all three of the leading vessels. The victorious Taeping was owned by Fife man Alexander Rodger of Cellardyke (where a street is named after him) and skippered by Donald MacKinnon of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. MacKinnon is commemorated to this day at An Iodhlann, Tiree’s cultural centre, as much for his role in saving the steam ferry Chieftain’s Bride from sinking between Tiree and Mull as for winning the Great Tea Race the previous year. Benefiting from the close finish of the three clippers – and the sudden arrival of 45,000,000 pounds of fresh tea – was the tea-drinking public. The glut dropped the price by fourpence a pound, bringing the highest grade down from four shillings to three and eightpence.
In 1869 Cutty Sark, the most famous tea clipper of all time, was launched from Scott & Linton’s shipyard, where the River Leven meets the Clyde. The fact that she is still available to explore as part of the Royal Museums, Greenwich, is a tribute to the skill of her builders. But the year of her launch was a fateful one for tea clippers. It was the year the Suez Canal opened – slashing the length of the journey from China to London. The canal was much more suitable for steamships that year on year were replacing sail. Cutty Sark spent little time in the tea trade; she made her reputation on the Australia wool run, on which, in 1884, she completed the New South Wales to London run in just 83 days, lopping twenty-five days off the previous record.
The clippers of Aberdeen and the Clyde enjoyed just two decades of exhilarating history before the final triumph of steam, but the communities that built them got a whiff of the profits of the opium/tea trade-off and created the most beautiful sailing ships ever launched.
Les Wilson is a writer and award-winning documentary maker. Among his film credits is the 30-part series Scotland’s War, an oral history of the Second World War, and the 13-part series The Real Tartan Army, a TV history of the Scottish regiments. He is the co-editor of Islay Voices (Birlinn, 2016) and the author of The Drowned and the Saved: When War Came to the Hebrides (Birlinn, 2018), which won the Saltire Society History Book of the Year award, 2018.