China tea clippers

George F. Campbell



Ocean Steam Ship Company

As early as the 1830s small steam vessels owned by the EIC were sailing from India to Suez, chiefly with mails and passengers, and other steam vessels were operating in the Far East in localized voyages. In 1860 the screw steamship Scotland made the first visit to Hankow from Shanghai, followed in 1863 by the Robert Lowe which loaded a cargo direct from Hankow to London of 11,800 chests, half chests and boxes of tea together with cotton and sundry other items. This was the first intimation of a threat to the sailing clippers, and it became a reality by 1866 when an enterprising Liverpool shipowner , Alfred Holt, established the Ocean Steam Ship Company, known locally as the Blue Funnel Line. His first vessel, the Agamemnon, was unique in having the propeller aft of the rudder, but more important, she had anew type of economical engine with compound cylinders for high and low pressures. She also carried forty passengers in deckhouse cabins.

The Agamemnon made her first trip outwards via Mauritius, Penang, Hong Kong and Shanghai, returning by Foochow to pick up tea and then to the same ports homewards. One can imagine the emotions of those aboard the clippers as they lay in the Pagoda Anchorage, Foochow, when this sleek square-rigged steamship glided past. Her outward passage from Liverpool was made in 80 days to Shanghai, and homewards to London in 86 days, and the same year two sister vessels, the Ajax and Achilles, joined her, thus inaugurating a service of first rate ships to the Far East which has continued unbroken up to the present day, except for a period in World War II, the familiar tall blue funnel becoming almost a permanent seamark on the China Seas.

Steamships also had the advantage of their own derricks and steamdriven winches which rapidly increased the loading and discharging rates, especially in ports where they had to lie in an open roadstead. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, with its great reduction in distance together with additional coaling stations, brought into being anew race of steam clippers, and the sailing tea clippers had slowly vanished from the tea trade in racing form by the mid-1870s.

A few composite clippers were being built in 1869 and continued with the earlier ones to struggle for inferior tea cargoes, which they carried to the American shores, Australia, and at intervals to England, until about 1886, the Halloween being the last. Their life was not over, however, and with the addition of the new iron clipper the wool and emigrant trades to Australia and New Zealand still proved economical enough to keep them going, and on occasions to outpace their propeller driven rivals, even with rigs much reduced from those carried during the peak of the tea trade. One or two managed to earn a living into the next century, the Cutty Sark being an obvious example. Incidentally, during the reconstruction of the Cutty Sark in 1957, the master rigger for the estoration mentioned to me that as a boy he had sailed as late as 1924 in a smart little barque, rigged with main sky sail yard and stuns'ls. This was the iron-hulled E J Spence built in Sunderland in 1871 and trading between Mauritius and Australia. Although not a tea clipper, she was probably the last vessel of that era to sail with such a rig on a purely commercial basis.