The Last Great Clipper Race Remembered

THERMOPYLAE - Clipper Ship model, 1954

This guest blog is by David Henry, a Trustee of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and member of the organising committee of the Clipper 150 events, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Great Tea Race between the Aberdeen-built Thermopylae and the Cutty Sark.  
On a grey October day 150 years ago, an elegant, three masted, square rigged, clipper ship, with her distinctive green painted hull, the Thermopylae, slipped into her berth in London, a full seven days ahead of her arch rival, the Cutty Sark.  What was, arguably, the last of the great Tea Clipper Races had just been won.  

These annual races had been an annual institution and were ferociously competitive. In the beginning, wealth and prestige awaited the first to bring the new seasons crop home from China. Each year the nation was gripped by the head-to-head challenges that resulted, with regular reports of progress being made by the press. These last two ships, both sleek ‘greyhounds of the seas’ had loaded alongside each other in Shanghai, then, on 26 June 1872, set off with the aim of claiming the prize of being the first ship back to London. 

They raced neck and neck through the South China seas before Cutty Sark managed to pull well ahead.  However, on 15 August 1872, disaster struck, when Cutty Sark lost her rudder in a storm off the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. Thermopylae quickly regained the lead while her rival made urgent repairs, holding on to the advantage for the rest of the race. To considerable acclamation, Thermopylae arrived back in London on the 10th of October 1872, 106 days after setting off. 


model of the sailing ship 'Thermopylae' made by Mr Ross
model of the sailing ship 'Thermopylae' made by Mr Ross, 1977


The clippers were fast – achieving speeds over long ocean distances not really exceeded until the advent of air travel. The best, such as Thermopylae and Cutty Sark, had peak average speeds of over 16 knots (30 km/h).  The highest speed ever achieved by a large sailing ship, the aptly named Champion of the Seas, clocked up an average of 22 knots (41 km/h), on her run to Australia in 1854, covering a breath-taking 465-nautical-miles (861 km) in a day's run. That 24-hour sailing record wasn't broken until 1984.  

The rivalry of the tea clipper races had begun in 1834 when the East India Company’s monopoly on the trade in tea with China ceased. The Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing), signed in August 1842, then opened up new ports in China to foreign trade.  With demand for the brew back in Britain booming, it soon became apparent that the traders who brought the first of the new seasons tea back to Britain could command the highest, premium prices for it. As competition between merchants heated up, their traditional, slower, merchant ships - which took at least four months to reach London - were superseded by purpose built new clippers, which were built for speed. The wealth was there, and the honour beguiling, and so the ship owners looked for ever more efficient designs to help them win the day.   

Thermopylae was one of these cutting edge craft. Constructed in 1868, by Walter Hood & Co., of Aberdeen, for George Thompson and his world-renowned Aberdeen White Star Line, her composite hull had copper sheeting over planking of elm and teak, fastened onto an iron frame, making her light but strong. Thermopylae was designed with one thing in mind: speed. Slim and lean, the amount of cargo she could carry was a secondary consideration. Winning was-almost-everything. 


Thermopylae Sailor Built Clipper Ship Waterline Model
Thermopylae Sailor Built Clipper Ship Waterline Model, 1935, A Hay


Winning margins could be tight. In 1866, for example, just two years before the launch of Thermopylae, the Taeping had docked a mere 28 minutes before its competitor the Ariel after both had voyage over 14,000 miles around the globe. A third ship, the Serica, docked within two hours of the victors. As things turned out, 1866 would be the last year in which a prize was offered for bringing back the first teas of the season. Despite the excitement and the acclaim, the premium proved to be unsustainable. Huge harvests in 1865 and 1866 had caused a glut in the market which meant that the cargoes of the first ships home were met with lower prices from the buyers in London. 

For the clippers, worse was to come that year, 1866. The auxiliary steamer Erl King, a hybrid of sail and steam, built in Glasgow, had sailed from China eight days after Ariel, carrying both passengers and a larger cargo of tea. She arrived in London 15 days before the two sailing ships.  

By the time Cutty Sark and Thermopylae raced in 1872, the writing was well and truly on the wall. Steamships could carry more, faster, and were not so weather dependent - but they were still more expensive to fuel. The wind, after all, was free.  Yet the Suez Canal had opened three years earlier in 1869. This was a much shorter route for shipping, shaving off nearly a quarter of the distance from China, and favoured the steamships even more, since the Canal route was not a practical option for the clippers, as they would have to be towed through – by steamships. The balance had clearly tipped in the steam ships favour. 

So, the race between Thermopylae and Cutty Sark was the last to truly capture the public’s attention. These graceful, and majestic, racing craft had been eclipsed by industrial progress and were relegated to the margins of history. Thermopylae was forced to switch industries and began working for the Australian wool trade in 1885, still racing the Cutty Sark, which had switched over too, and then in 1890 she was sold on to a Canadian timber company. Her ignominious end came as a training ship with the Portuguese Navy, before being torpedoed and sunk for target practice in 1907. 


details of model of the sailing ship 'Thermopylae' made by Mr Ross
details of model of the sailing ship 'Thermopylae' made by Mr Ross

Now, a century and a half later, keen sailor, and businessman Tim Holmes, who is a member of the family whose ancestors built the Thermopylae, has arranged a day of events on 15th October 2022 in her birthplace, Aberdeen, to celebrate these majestic craft.  

Tim said; “In their day, these ships had the best captains, crews and technology. They were at the cutting edge of maritime innovation and performance. They weren’t just powered by the wind, but also by skill, competition and commerce – attributes that we still hold dear today. There is a lot that even now we can learn from the story of the last great tea clipper race.”