They mark our passage as a race of men. Earth will not see such ships as these again.
-John Masefield, Ships, 1912
Museums, castles, churches and other historic buildings are often taken for granted in current society. Although ancient structures may be admired for their antiquated architecture, they are frequently merely regarded as part of the landscape. Some museums successfully convey the past to the current generation, but there are some bygone days that a modern exhibition cannot do justice, for instance, maritime history.
The United Kingdom is fortunate enough to have retained a number of ships and boats that had a significant role to play in British nautical history. From the Tudors up until the World Wars, ships and boats have been a great asset to our island nation, and life today would not be the same without their existence. Of the few that have survived to date, Cutty Sark, berthed in Greenwich, is the most famous and valuable of all.
The Cutty Sark‘s history is so eventful, it is astonishing that she remains fairly intact today. Opened to the public by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, and now listed as a World Heritage Site, the ship is visited by a considerable number of tourists each day, teaching them about the numerous journeys she undertook in her heydey.
In parallel with today, England of the 1600s relied on countries throughout the world for a bulk of commodities and comestibles. Looking at labels on products goes to show the distance some of the items have travelled, and quite often this information receives as little as a fleeting thought. Before planes and high-speed vehicles, foreign products were not so easy to come by, but, in order to transport the desired merchandise, ships such as Cutty Sark were built.
In the late 1650s, Charles II’s future wife, Catherine of Braganza, made drinking tea fashionable amongst English nobility. This sparked a greater desire for the leaves resulting in the construction of clipper ships to sail to China to exchange silver for the precious cargo.
Cutty Sark was commissioned by a retired ship’s master, John Willis, in 1869, one of the first composite ships to exist, Until this date, most ships were built entirely of wood, however, Cutty Sark is an amalgamation of a wrought-iron framework and wooden planks. As a result, the boats could hold more cargo and go much faster than their predecessors.
The Cutty Sark experience (Adult £13.50, Child £7) provides visual and physical explanations about the ship’s famous voyages, the trials she faced and replicates the conditions sailors would have lived in for weeks on end. Although being able to view and touch enables education, there are some details that cannot be easily visualised, for example, why is Cutty Sark named thus?
It is common for all ships to receive a name or title on completion of construction, usually in honour of a place or person. In John Willis’ case, all his previous ships had been christened after rivers and villages near his hometown in the Scottish Borders, however, the name Cutty Sark broke away from this tradition. Obscurely, it comes from a Robert Burns poem, Tam O’Shanter (1791), which features a group of witches, one of whom is wearing a “cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn“, or, in plain English, a short dress.
As weird as it may be to name a ship after a piece of clothing, it explains the significance of the hair wielding figurehead who clung proudly to the prow. Dressed in a “cutty sark” with arm outstretched is Nannie, the young witch seen wearing a short dress in Tam O’Shanter. In the narrative poem, Tam, on horseback, is chased across Ayrshire by the wild witch. Although he reaches safety, his unfortunate horse loses her tail in Nannie’s grip. To coincide with the story, every time Cutty Sark was in port, a bundle of rope was placed in the figurehead’s hand to represent the horse hairs.
Nannie is now located in the Sammy Ofer Gallery underneath the 936-ton clipper ship. Originally, Cutty Sark sat on a concrete ground, but after restoration from 2006-12, she was raised over three metres in order to take the weight off her precious wooden hull and iron framework. This has resulted in an extensive area in the dock for exhibitions and refreshments at the Even Keel Café. Most significantly, the dock has become the permanent location of the world’s largest collection of merchant ship-figure heads. It is here that Nannie is located amongst several wooden friends.
Excluding Nannie, the 50-odd figures came from the Long John Silver Collection owned by Sydney Cumbers (1875-1959) who purportedly earned himself the nicknames Long John and Captain Silver on account of his distinctive eye-patch. His passion for marine artefacts led him to collect over 100 figureheads and models. In 1953, he donated his precious hoard to the Cutty Sark. These figures come from a variety of ships and many have little known about them. As well as being fascinatingly prepossessing, they serve as a memorial to those who served in the merchant service.
The curators at Cutty Sark know the names of 49 figureheads in the collection, and the majority either share it with the name of the ship they featured on, or are from unknown whereabouts. Most are female, however, there are a few male figures representing people of certain prestige.
Amongst the well-known titles are Hiawatha (from a ship of the same name), Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, King Solomon (the figurehead aboard the Ophir), Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, William Wilberforce, William Pitt the younger, Abraham Lincoln and Garibaldi (incidentally from Garibaldi). Presumably, these figureheads were named in honour of these celebrities, either during their prime – for instance, the prime ministers – or after their deaths.
Florence Nightingale was the figurehead of the Florence Nightingale, a merchant schooner believed to have sailed and traded in the Mediterranean. Details of who owned her and when she was built remain unknown, the ship no longer exists. However, it can be assumed that it rode the waves after the Crimean War (1856) because Florence Nightingale was not publically known beforehand.
Apart from the loss of an arm, Florence Nightingale is in excellent condition. Wearing an off-white blouse and skirt and a blue jacket, she is depicted as a prim, virtuous woman. Her hair is fashioned in a bun as she gazes off into the distance with her head slightly to the left, whilst her right and only remaining arm rests upon her hip. Although lacking a bonnet, the figure and hairstyle strongly resemble the photographs and paintings of the young nurse.
Ships and their figureheads were also named after fictional or mythological characters. Some names make more sense than others, but similarly to Cutty Sark, they may have been named after the owners’ favourite stories. Sir Lancelot is one example of this, from England’s greatest legend, and another is King Leonidas, a Spartan warrior from the BC500s. King Leonidas allegedly died on the Battlefield of Thermopylae, thus being a suitable character to adorn a ship named after the Greek location.
From mythology, Amphitrite was chosen to be the figurehead of a ship that remains unidentified. As the sea-goddess and wife of Poseidon, Amphitrite was a fitting character to embellish a merchant ship. It is feasibly possible that the owner named the figurehead, and perhaps the ship, after this fairly unknown mythological individual for luck and safe passage across the tempestuous seas.
The figureheads come in all sizes and weights, perhaps in relation to the style and dimensions of the ship. Two particularly large busts of women stand out from the collection under Cutty Sark. One of these has regrettably been undesignated and nothing is known about where she was found or who she belonged to. She has Snow White-like features – pale skin and black hair – and wears a light blue dress. Upon her head, she has two tiaras which suggest she is someone of high esteem, but who remains a mystery.
The other distinctively large female is also anonymous, however, there are some theories about where she came from. Dubbed the Spanish Woman, she is perhaps the oldest figure in the Long John Silver Collection. Sydney Cumbers’s notes reveal that she was found at the Deptford Dockyard in London and may have come off the British ship, Georgina, who sailed during the 19th century. Her dress – red with a ruffled collar and high waistline – is similar to the fashion from 1800-1812. In spite of that, it is unclear why Cumbers gave her the title of the Spanish Woman.
For whatever purpose you decide to visit Cutty Sark, whether it be for the figureheads or the ship itself, be prepared to be impressed and come away with a wealth of knowledge. It is suitable for both adults on their own and those with children, however, be wary of uneven floors and low hanging ceilings. During school holidays, special events for children may be taking place, so make sure you check online before you visit. Remember to bring your camera along for some unique photo opportunities.