Fire rips heart from star of the seas
By Jim Gilchrist
May 22, 2007

In Robert Burns' epic poem Tam O' Shanter, Cutty Sark was the beautiful but vengeful witch in a saucy shift who pursued Tam but managed only to rip the tail off his hapless grey mare, Meg. Now, the legendary tea clipper named after her has been overtaken by disaster and badly damaged by a fire, which may have been started deliberately.

Arguably the world's most famous sailing ship, and regarded by many as the most beautiful vessel ever built, the Cutty Sark was undergoing a £25 million renovation project at its dry dock in Greenwich, south-east London. As much as 50 per cent of its fabric had been put in storage and escaped the flames. However, the fire, which ripped through the 138-year-old, Clyde-built clipper in the early hours of yesterday morning, gutted its hull and damaged the unique composite construction of wrought iron frame and timber cladding which shaped its elegant lines.

The world's last surviving tea clipper, and a huge tourist draw, Cutty Sark was one of only three similarly built ships surviving today, two of them clippers. One is the Victorian naval sloop HMS Gannet, while of the two clippers, one is the Cutty Sark while the other is the ill-starred City of Adelaide,which has been mouldering away at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine for the past 15 years and is now scheduled for demolition.

The Metropolitan Police believe that the fire, which ravaged almost 140 years of peerless and irreplaceable maritime craftsmanship, may have been started deliberately. "The fire is being treated as suspicious," said Superintendent Martin Mitchell.

Police have been checking security camera footage from the area, which was evacuated after the fire broke out around 4:45am yesterday and flames and thick black smoke erupted above the Thames-side dry dock where the vessel has become a maritime heritage shrine.

"When you lose the original fabric, you lose the touch of the craftsman, you lose history itself," was how a devastated Richard Doughty, chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, put it yesterday. " It will take us a significant amount of effort and funding to get the work back on track. £25 million was needed to preserve the ship; we had £18 million raised already and now we are appealing for help to close the funding gap and get us through the crisis and return the ship to its former glory."

Now, in fact, it may take as much as £35 million to restore the vessel. However, the Cutty Sark was a third of the way through a major restoration project and much vital material, including masts, the magnificent panelling of the master's saloon and its famous figurehead, was in storage and escaped damage.

However, her decks are another matter, said Dr Eric Kentley, a curatorial consultant to the trust. "If you'd seen her ablaze at seven o'clock this morning, then seen what I'm seeing now, you'd think it's not as bad as it could have been... but she still looks disastrous.

"The main deck seems to have been completely burned away and between decks is in a terrible state. There were a lot of tears round the office this morning, I can tell you."

It may be a couple of weeks before inspectors can assess how badly the vessel's unique structure has been affected," added Dr Kentley. "We've got 200 planks to put back and if the frame is distorted it's going to be an absolute nightmare, but more importantly, we'll have lost the fundamentals of her.

"She was of that last flowering of the sailing ship. They never got any faster or better than the clipper ships, and the Cutty Sark is the last of that generation."

Launched on 22 November, 1869, from Scott and Linton's shipyard at Dumbarton, the Cutty Sark (Scots for "short shirt", the nickname given to Nannie, Burns's scantily clad witch) represented the peak of clipper design but had her fair share of bad luck right from the start. At 250ft long and carrying 11 miles of rigging and a billowing 32,000 sq ft of sail, she was commissioned by Captain Jock "White Hat" Willis, who wanted to challenge the fastest clippers on the China tea run; but the Dumbarton yard went bankrupt and the vessel had to be completed by another local yard, Denny's.

The opening of the Suez canal, which was closed to sailing ships, and the introduction of fast, economical steamships meant that Cutty Sark's tea-carrying days were numbered and she made her last tea run in 1877. Her heyday came, however, with the expansion of the Australian wool trade, and she soon became the fastest ship on the route, clocking up her best time of 72 days from Sydney to London, via Cape Horn, in 1885.

Described yesterday by Paddy Pugh, of English Heritage, as "the Ferrari of the open seas", even the Cutty Sark could not outsail changing times, and in 1895 she was sold to the Portuguese shipping company Ferreira, whose crews nicknamed her Pequena Camisola - a direct translation of Cutty Sark.

After being de-masted in a storm and re-rigged as a barquentine, she seemed destined for obscurity until 1922, when she was restored and used as a stationary training ship at Falmouth, Cornwall.

After a spell with the Royal Navy, she was brought to Greenwich by the Cutty Sark Preservation Society and in 1954 installed in a concrete dry dock. Since then she has been visited by more than 16 million people.

The fire at Greenwich means only one other clipper of the same period and construction survives in its original state. The City of Adelaide, which for many years served as the RNVR club, HMS Carrick, at Glasgow, but which for the past 15 years has been decaying at Irvine, while the Scottish Maritime Museum tried, unsuccessfully, to raise £15 million required to restore it.

Like the Cutty Sark, the City of Adelaide, built in 1864, combines a cast iron frame with a wooden hull and is the only vessel in Scotland designated an "A" listed building by Historic Scotland. However, it is scheduled for "recorded deconstruction". Despite speculation to the contrary, the Cutty Sark fire is unlikely to prompt any 11th-hour rescue.

"I'm pretty certain the fire doesn't change the situation at all," says Jim Tildesley, a consultant to the museum. "Cutty Sark will be restored, whatever, even though the frames won't be original. There is no funding for the City of Adelaide in Scotland, and obviously there won't be any in England, because that will all be going to the Cutty Sark.

"We have very few historical vessels of national and international importance. Cutty Sark is in the top ten; so is the City of Adelaide. We've now got one damaged today, so it is no longer original, and the other about to be dismantled. So little is left."

. Additional reporting by Frank Urquhart


22 November, 1869: Tea clipper the Cutty Sark is launched from Scott and Linton's yard at Dumbarton, one of the last vessels of her kind.

1871: She makes her fastest tea run from China to London, in 107 days.

1877: She carries her last cargo of tea from China.

1885: Now the fastest ship on the Australian wool run, she sails from Sydney to London in an astonishing 72 days, via Cape Horn.

1895: Cutty Sark is sold to the Portuguese shipping company Ferreira, with whom she spends the next 27 years, sailing between Europe, the Americas and Africa.

1916: The clipper is de-masted in a storm and converted to a barquentine.

1922: She is bought by Captain Wilfred Dowman and, moored at Falmouth, Cornwall, becomes the first vessel since Sir Francis Drake's ship, Golden Hind, to be displayed as a museum. She is also used as a cadet training ship.

1938: Following Captain Dowman's death, the Cutty Sark is transferred to the Thames Nautical Training College and used as an auxiliary to the training ship HMS Worcester.

1951: The clipper goes on display at the Festival of Britain, then in 1953 is taken by the Cutty Sark Preservation Society to Greenwich.

1954: She is floated into a purpose-built dry dock at Greenwich.

1957: Following two and half years of restoration, the Cutty Sark is finally opened to the public with a ceremony attended by the Queen. Since then, she has become a major heritage attraction, visited by more than 16 million people.