The Thermopylae

Thermopylae chromolithograph by M. Reilly

Chromolithograph by M. Reilly

For the tea in China, ‘Heroin’ and crack clippers

On June 18th 1872, the Thermopylae and Cutty Sark left Shanghai harbour on a race to London

Prize money was on offer for the clipper that reached the Thames with the first tea harvest from China

‘I wish that I’d sail the darkened seas

On a great big clipper ship

Going from this land here to that’

‘Heroin’ – Velvet Underground.

Crack tea clipper the Thermopylae was built by Walter Hood & Co. for the Aberdeen White Star Line in 1868. Costing a princely £9000, she boasted a white and gold figurehead of the Greek hero Leonidas. The Battle of Thermopylae was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states under King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes over the course of three days during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC.

On her maiden voyage the Thermopylae sailed to Melbourne via Shanghai and Foochow to collect wood, a sixty day long trip, the fastest over that distance propelled by sail. Only steamers could match such speeds.

On June 18th 1872, the Thermopylae and Cutty Sark left Shanghai harbour together on a race to London. Prize money was offered for the ship that reached the Thames with the first of the Chinese tea harvest. The ships carried other goods – lace, rice, alcohol, and cargo left unrecorded for understandable reasons.

The Thermopylae won the race to London, arriving in the Thames a full week before her competitor, though the Cutty Sark had lost her rudder in a storm. The Cutty Sark was designed by Hercules Linton (1837-1900). A shipbuilder and partner in the Scott and Linton yard on the Clyde, Hercules Linton was born – and is buried – at Inverbervie in Kincardineshire.

After over two decades on the tea routes and then work as a wool clipper, the Thermopylae was assigned to the rice and timber trade between Rangoon and Vancouver. Despite shortened masts and being cut down to a barque rig, she continued to make speedy passages, crossing the Pacific in 29 days, a world record at the time. On another occasion she kept level for three days with the Canadian Pacific steam liner Empress of India, which was capable of 16 knots. In 1897 she was sold to the Portuguese Navy as a training ship and converted into a coal hulk. She was sunk as part of a target practice exercise in 1907. In June 2003 Portuguese divers found her remains at a depth of 30M off Lisbon.  Doric Columns – a comprehensive study of the Thermopylae

Aberdeen Maritime Museum has bought the original shipbuilder’s model of the Thermopylae.

The model had lain undiscovered for 147 years before it was put up for sale by descendants of Walter Hood & Co.

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