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Home / History / The Age of the Tea Clipper Ships

The Age of the Tea Clipper Ships

The age of the Tea Clipper Ships

There are those moments in history when something comes along that completely changes everything. They are those things that make everything else seem irrelevant and for good reason. Perhaps in recent history, the unveiling of the original iPhone was one of those moments. Here you have everyone walking around with flip phones and a “smartphone” bursts on the scene that suddenly makes the flip phone seem useless.

The Age of the Tea Clipper Ships was much the same. It seemingly came out of nowhere, with many doubters.. those who said it would never be a reliable ship.

I. The Invention & Early Years

After the loss of its tea monopoly in India, the East India Company began to see a natural rise in competition that would eventually render their slow “East Indiamen” ships obsolete. Speed was the name of the game, the faster tea could be brought from the faraway lands of India and China the fresher it would be and the tea merchants could, of course, sell the tea quicker.

The Tea Clipper was based on a type of schooner built in Baltimore during the war of 1812, these were called Baltimore Clippers and carried two masts. With an increase in trade after the war and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 the demand for Baltimore Clippers that could sail the world’s oceans made shipbuilders across New England very busy.

The “Ann McKim,” the forerunner.

In 1832, Isaac McKim a merchant from Baltimore designed a ship with three masts based on the Baltimore Clippers. He had the ship built by Kennard and Williamson of Fells Point (Baltimore), and The Ann McKim, the first Clipper Shipobviously being a smart man named the ship the “Ann McKim” after his wife. The Ann McKim was built for the China trade and was somewhat of a hobby for Mr. McKim so no expense was spared in construction. The Ann McKim’s frame was live oak and the interior was fitted with the most expensive Spanish mahogany hatches and brass fittings, along with twelve brass cannons. The bottom of the ship was fitted with imported red copper. Total weight upon completion was 493 tons, she was 143 feet in length and 31 feet wide.

Robert E. Peabody, in Models of American Sailing Ships, says the following of the Ann McKim:

“Her frame was of live oak and much mahogany and brass was used in decoration regardless of cost. She carried twelve brass cannon……Not only was she the best known American ship afloat at the time, but she was also conceded to be the fastest, and her swift passages led others to copy her. Thus, she was the first of many clipper ships built during the next twenty-five years culminating in ships like the Flying Cloud.”

Isaac McKim died in 1837, only five years after conceiving the idea of this new type of clipper. Upon his death, the Ann McKim was sold to New York tea merchants Howland and Aspinwall. The Ann McKim was later sold to the government of Chile in 1847. It is said that the Ann McKim was sunk in 1852.


The “Rainbow,” the first extreme clipper

Two marine architects who worked near where the Ann McKim was undergoing repairs were awed by the ship. One of the architects set to work on their own version of the McKim. The man was John Willis Griffiths, and his ship The Rainbow would change the way commerce took place across the world’s oceans.

In the book “Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay” Author Richard C. McKay says of John Griffiths:

“Griffiths created no small sensation in New York shipbuilding circles when he attacked the generally-held theory that it didn’t matter how roughly a vessel entered the water so long as she left it smoothly behind her…” In short, Mr. Griffiths brought revolutionary ideas to the design of his ships.

John Willis Griffiths, designer of the Rainbow

John Willis Griffiths, designer of the Rainbow

The Rainbow was designed in 1843 and launched from the Smith & Dimon shipyard in New York in 1845. Weighing in at 750 tons, this ship was considerably larger than its predecessor the McKim. Its design was so “against the laws of nature” as one observer declared that opinion was divided as to whether The Rainbow would float or sink.

The Rainbow shattered all expectations on her maiden voyage to China, leaving New York in February and arriving back in September. Merely seven months from New York to China and back. To put this in perspective The Rainbow made the round trip in as much time as it took most ships of the time to travel one way. The Rainbow’s second round trip was made so quickly that she carried the news of her arrival in Canton (China) back to New York.

The Rainbow was a huge success, her maiden voyage paid for the entire cost of building the ship, $45,000 and supplied owners Howland and Aspinwall (remember them?) with an equal amount in profit. Not bad for one round trip! The Rainbow only made five voyages before sinking but she was proof that the extreme clipper would not only sail but provide vast amounts of wealth to her owners. This was the beginning of what would become a boom in the design and building of these sailing ships, in just a short time clippers could be found across the worlds shipping routes.

At 750 Tons, the Rainbow was massive for her time, however, Griffiths second clipper ship the “Sea Witch,” built just a year after the rainbow weighed in at 890 tons and was considered the fastest ship on earth for the next three years. Clippers continued to expand in size and by 1850 clippers more than double the weight of the Rainbow and Sea Witch were normal.

II. The clipper becomes famous

Donald McKay’s Clippers

Donald McKay

Donald McKay

The other marine architect that was employed in the New York shipyards during repairs to the Ann McKim was Donald McKay. If there were one man that did more to bring fame to the American Clipper ships it was Donald McKay.

McKay was born in 1810 in Nova Scotia and moved to New York in 1826 to work for Brown & Bell and Isaac Webb. He remained in New York for 15 years when in 1841 he moved to Boston to open his own shipyard.

Mr. McKay, it is said was inspired by the designs and writings of Rainbow designer John Willis Griffiths. This may have been the case as Mr. McKay’s first clipper The Courier built in 1842, weighed in at a relatively light 380 tons. Remember, the Rainbow the first extreme clipper wasn’t launched until 1845. In 1850, five years after the Rainbow, Donald McKay introduced the Stag Hound; weighing 1534 tons. This is when we begin to see a steady line of massive clipper ships designed by McKay with a total of 38 clipper ships built from 1842 to 1869.

The Stag Hound

When built in 1850, the Stag hound was the largest merchant ship in history. Men in the shipping industry said that she was as pretty near perfection of the clipper ship type. This ship had somewhere between 6,000 – 11,000 square yards of canvas at full sail (depending on which source you read from). In 1861 a cargo of coal caught fire on the ship, which the crew was able to keep partially contained for a few hours before having to completely abandon for the lifeboats. While most of McKay’s clippers were called extreme clippers, the Stag Hound holds the distinction of being his only true extreme clipper due to the way she was designed.

The record-breaking Flying Cloud

Donald McKay’s second extreme clipper was The Flying Cloud. Launched in 1851 this ship was larger than the Stag hound by 248 tons weighing a massive 1782 total tons (that’s 3,564,000 pounds!). The Flying Cloud was built for Enoch Train & Co. out of Boston for the cost of $50,000 but was sold to Grinnell Minturn & Co. of New York for $90,000 while still being built. Not a bad profit for the Enoch Train & Co.

The Flying Cloud held the record for the fastest passage by sea from New York to San Fransisco taking 89 days 8 hours. This was before the Panama Canal so the trip had to be made all the way around South America. This record stood for 135 years from 1854 until 1989 when it was finally broken. This is a testament to these ships and the way they were designed, even more modern ships had a hard time keeping up with their speeds.

The Flying Cloud ran aground in 1874 and was sold and burnt for the value of the scrap metal.

All of McKay’s Clipper Ships

In his career Donald McKay’s shipyard produced 38 Tea Clipper Ships (listed by year built / name / tonnage below) including the largest clipper ship ever built; The Great Republic which weighed 4,555 tons (9,110,000 pounds!). Unfortunately, The Great Republic caught fire at the dock before making her first voyage and was sold to A. A. Low & Brother who rebuilt the ship on a smaller scale (3357 tons, which still made her the largest merchant ship of the time).

Year Built Ship Name Tonnage Year Built Ship Name Tonnage
1842 Courier 380 Tons 1854 Champion of the Seas 2447 Tons
1849 Helicon 400 Tons 1854 James Baines 2525 Tons
1849 Reindeer 800 Tons 1854 Blanche Moore 1787 Tons
1850 Moses Wheeler 900 Tons 1854 Santa Claus 1256 Tons
1850 Sultana 400 Tons 1854 Commodore Perry 1964 Tons
1850 Stag Hound 1534 Tons 1854 Japan 1964 Tons
1851 Flying Cloud 1782 Tons 1855 Donald McKay 2594 Tons
1851 Staffordshire 1817 Tons 1855 Zephyr 1184 Tons
1851 North America 1464 Tons 1855 Defender 1413 Tons
1851 Flying Fish 1505 Tons 1856 Henry Hill 568 Tons
1852 Sovereign of the Seas 2421 Tons 1856 Mastiff 1030 Tons
1852 Westward Ho! 1650 Tons 1856 Minnehaha 1695 Tons
1852 Bald Eagle 1704 Tons 1856 Amos Lawrence 1396 Tons
1853 Empress of the Seas 2200 Tons 1856 Abbott Lawrence 1497 Tons
1853 Star of Empire 2050 Tons 1856 Baltic 1372 Tons
1853 Chariot of Fame 2050 Tons 1856 Adriatic 1327 Tons
1853 Great Republic 4555 Tons 1858 Alhambra 1097 Tons
1853 Romance of the Seas 1782 Tons 1867 Helen Morris 1285 Tons
1854 Lightning 2083 Tons 1869 Glory of the Seas 2102 Tons


 III. The British are coming! The British are coming!

The British had such a huge lead on the Americans in the size of their merchant fleet that they initially worried little about the new American ships. Soon the Americans began to take large portions of the trade and profits and the Brits were forced to follow the path of the Tea Clipper Ship.

The British began building their own Tea Clippers in 1859 with the release of the Falcon. The falcon was a 937-ton wooden-hulled clipper ship built by Robert Steele & Co. for Shaw, Maxton & Co.

During the next ten years, British shipbuilders produced nearly 30 clipper ships of note. Six of the British built clippers became famous for reasons we will discuss shortly, those ships were the  “Ariel,” “Black Adder,” “Cutty Sark,” “Sir Lancelot,” “Taeping,” and “Thermopylae.”

Year Built Ship Name Tonnage Year Built Ship Name Tonnage
1859 Falcon 937 Tons 1867 Lahloo 779 Tons
1859 Isle of the South 821 Tons 1868 Thermopylae 947 Tons
1860 Fiery Cross 888 Tons 1868 Windhover 847 Tons
 1861 Chaa-sze 600 Tons 1868 Cutty Sark 921 Tons
1861 Min 629 Tons 1869 Caliph 914 Tons
1863 Belted Will 812 Tons 1869 Wylo 799 Tons
1863 Serica 708 Tons 1869 Kaisow 795 Tons
1863  Taeping 767 Tons 1869 Lothair 794 Tons
1863 Eliza Shaw 696 Tons 1869 Norman Court 834 Tons
1863  Yang-Tze 688 Tons 1870 Blackadder 917 Tons
1863  Black Prince 750 Tons
1864 Ariel 853 Tons
1864  Sir Lancelot 886 Tons
1864  Ada 686 Tons
1864 Taitsing 815 Tons
1866 Titania 879 Tons
1867 Spindrift 899 Tons
1867 Forward Ho 943 Tons
1867 Leander 883 Tons

The Clippers were engineered to near perfection as evidenced by the speed they cut through the water, this carried through to how efficiently tea could be loaded into the ships leaving no space for waste. The loading tea cutaway image below is an excellent example of this and can be found in a number of tea publications including “The Social History of Tea” which I talk about in Recommended Books for Tea Lovers

Loading tea into a clipper ship

IV. Off to the Races

The logical next step when you have all of these ultra-fast clipper ships sailing the world’s oceans is clearly to beat out the other ships. Each crew competing against the next to be the first to return with a ship full of tea and a number of other goods that they could pack into the hold meant for some great excitement and often considerable extra pay for the winning ship. We have incentive!

The Clipper races took place with the season’s first teas coming out of China. They were literally the talk of the town during tea season. Telegrams would be sent and read aloud with much excitement when the ships passed certain points once they reached the English Channel. Tea buyers and merchants would often spend the night at the docks or nearby lodging once the Clippers reached an area known as Gravesend. This meant the ships would be docked soon and everyone wanted to be the first to purchase and re-sell the new season’s teas to their customers.

The tea races began in the 1850’s and ended after 1871 with the 1860’s being the peak of their popularity. They were highly competitive between the crews with the ships often sailing within a few miles or closer of each other during the entire trip from Foochow, China into London. The faster tea could be fully loaded in China, the faster the ships could then head for home and the potential for big bonuses was on everyone’s mind. The winning ships were as follows:

Year Winning Ship Trip Time Nationality Second Place
1859 Sea Serpent 130 Days American Ziba
1860 Falcon 110 Days British Ellen Rodgers
1861 Fiery Cross 101 Days British Falcon
1862 Fiery Cross 122 Days British Ellen Rodgers
1863 Fiery Cross 104 Days British Ziba
1864 Serica 109 Days British Fiery Cross
1865 Fiery Cross  106 Days British Serica
1866 Taeping* 99 Days British Ariel
1867 Sir Lancelot 99 Days British Ariel
1868 Spindrift 97 Days British Ariel
1869 Sir Lancelot 89 Days British Thermopylae
1870 Lahloo 97 Days British Windhover
1871 Titania 97 Days British

*The 1866 race is the most famous, it is often referred to as The Great Tea Race of 1866. The Taeping defeated the Ariel by merely 28 minutes into London. Both ships left on the same tide from Foochow, China 99 days earlier. This was also that last year that a premium was paid for the first ship arriving, although the races lived on for another five years giving prestige to the winners (which isn’t quite as nice as prestige + money but hey!).


V. Who needs wind? We have Steam!

The Tea Clipper, a version of the old Baltimore Clippers came to dominate the world’s oceans in only a matter of years. The speed at which these ships traveled made many merchants wealthy and left bystanders to the Great Tea Races in awe. For a time there truly was what could be called the Golden Age of the Tea Clipper.

This golden age was not to last and perhaps that is why it was considered such because it took up such a small space of time in the history of the tea trade. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meant that the steamship could now more efficiently carry tea and other cargo than the sailing ships. Within a few years, the best of the tea trade had been captured by the steamships as they could offer larger shipping capacity and more exact arrival times that the Clippers simply couldn’t compete with.

Most of the Clippers that remained beyond the late 1860’s were sold off and used for other purposes such as the Donald McKay which was used in the Canadian Lumber trade. Today the only known surviving clipper is the Cutty Sark which has been converted into a dry museum.

The Clippers had short life-spans, some as we have learned never made it off the building docks before being destroyed. Others lasted only a few voyages while some defied the elements to provide years of service.

The Fate of the Clippers

Ship Name Fate Year Lost
Staffordshire Sunk 1854
Sea Witch Wrecked 1855
Flying Fish Wrecked 1858
Sovereign of the Seas Wrecked 1859
Northern Light Abandoned 1861
Stag Hound Fire 1863
Spindrift Wrecked 1869
Serica Wrecked 1869
Yang-Tze Sunk 1872
Flying Cloud Fire 1874
Champion of the Seas Sunk 1877
Forward Ho Lost at Sea 1881
Taitsing Wrecked 1883
Windhover Wrecked 1884
Donald McKay Lumber Trade ?
Ariel Lost at Sea ?


There once was a golden age of tea trade. This was the age of the tea clipper ships. A time when speed was king of the ocean and the Tea Clipper ruled…


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Models of American Sailing Ships – Robert E. Peabody
The Amiable Baltimoreans –  Francis F. Beirne
The Clipper Ship Era: An epitome of famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews – Arthur Hamilton Clark
The Colonial Clippers Basil Lubbock
Some Famous Sailing Ships and their builder, Donald McKay – Richard C. McKay