Cutty Sark gutted by fire
May 21, 2007

The Cutty Sark, a London landmark and the world's last surviving 19th century tea clipper, was severely damaged in a blaze on Monday.

The ship helped build Australia's early economy by speeding prized wool shipments to London.

Built for the tea trade, it switched to fetching wool from Australia to feed England's mills when the advent of reliable steamships spelt the end of the age of the sailing clippers.

On the Australia to Britain route the ship regularly recorded the fastest time for the voyage.

The ship has been in dry dock in Greenwich since 1954.

Flames and thick black smoke shot high into the sky above the dry dock on the banks of the River Thames on Monday.

Forty firefighters brought the blaze under control. Aerial television pictures showed a mass of charred timbers that was once one of the world's fastest ships.

Early reports said damage to the vessel was extensive, but authorities later expressed confidence it could be rebuilt, adding that many crucial artefacts were not aboard due to the restoration work.

Chris Livett, the chairman of Cutty Sark Enterprises, said the ship's decks were lost, but the ship was salvageable and there was much left to work with.

"The mast, much of the planking, the coach housing and all of the artefacts were not there. We're very, very fortunate ... it could have been a lot worse," he told BBC Radio.

"It will be the old ship. This is going to make us even more determined to get this ship back up and running and keep her as original as possible.

"This ship has been through many things. She's over 100 years old. She's been through recessions, storms, hurricanes. She's been battling all her life. She's not dead yet, far from it."

Mr Livett promised to rebuild the ship.

"The old girl needs more help than ever," the trust's Chris Livett told a news conference.

"She is a national treasure. With people's help, I am confident that we will get back on track and get her reopened."

Paddy Pugh, from the conservation body English Heritage, told the BBC: "It's a tragedy. She was the Ferrari of the open seas.

"It's one of the genuine icons of London."

The ship, launched in 1869 on Scotland's River Clyde to make the run to China for the lucrative tea trade, was undergoing a £25 million ($60 million) refurbishment.

The vessel, which made its first voyage in 1870, had been due to reopen in 2009 once the restoration project was complete.

Half of the ship's timbers had been removed for renovation before the fire. The masts and ship's wheel were among the items safely in storage.

No one was injured in the blaze and police said there was no evidence the fire was started deliberately. Security camera footage is being checked and officers appealed for witnesses.

Richard Doughty, chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, expressed shock at Monday's fire.

"When you lose the original fabric, you lose the touch of the craftsmen. You lose history itself," he said.

"What is special about Cutty Sark is the timber, the iron frames, that went to the South China Sea. To think that is threatened in any way is unbelievable. It is an unimaginable shock."

Ian Allchin, an officer with London Fire Brigade, told the BBC the damage was extensive.

"I can certainly confirm that there was a substantial fire and a lot of the ship obviously has been involved," he said.

Police evacuated nearby residents and closed off the area fearing any gas cylinders on board might explode, but firefighters later said no such hazards were found.

The Docklands Light Railway, serving the Docklands business area on the opposite side of the River Thames, was also closed as a precaution, as were several nearby rail lines.

In 1954 the ship, which had been renamed a number of times after becoming a general cargo vessel, finally swapped the high seas for a concrete dry dock in Greenwich, home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Tea clippers were narrow-beamed sailing ships that could make fortunes for their owners if they were first back to London because the first tea cargo of the season could be sold at a premium.

People used to bet on which vessel would win the race and the first sighting of a clipper's tall masts off the English coast would be major news in the capital.

Originally designed to last just 30 years, the Cutty Sark is a rare construction with a wrought iron frame clad in timber.