Find of the month - Experimental improvements in the construction of ships - November 2015

Eloisa and I have been extracting documents from the archive that relate to the ‘First and Famous’ ships; these form part of Lloyd’s Register’s pilot digitisation project. As Eloisa explained in the recent blog post ‘Cataloguing the First and Famous – First Steps’, these ships have been chosen because they are the first of their kind or famous. Among the documents we are cataloguing are those relating to two composite ships, the famous Cutty Sark (now a museum ship in dry dock at Greenwich) and her contemporary Thermopylae, pictured below.[1] Composite ships were a new design of the mid-19th century, ships built of an iron frame with wooden planking.


Cutty Sark, by Allan Green, source Victoria State Library Allan C. Green collection glass negatives


Clipper Thermopylae, source Georges Jansoone, licensed under CC BY 3.0

As you can see from the survey reports below, Thermopylae was built in 1868 by Walter Hood and Co. of Aberdeen, and Cutty Sark in 1869 by Scott & Linton at Dumbarton. Thermopylae was in fact designed by an employee of Lloyd’s Register, Bernard Waymouth. He began his career as a naval architect before moving to Lloyd’s Register as a Surveyor, later becoming Secretary to the General Committee at Lloyd’s Register.[2] Cutty Sark also has a link to Lloyd’s Register – her designer was Hercules Linton, whose father was a surveyor for Lloyd’s Register (in Belfast and Aberdeen).[3] Hercules Linton also applied to be a Lloyd’s Register surveyor in 1865, but was unsuccessful.


Thermopylae: survey report dated September 1868


Cutty Sark: survey report dated January 1870

These two ships are clippers – ships designed to be as fast as possible, with concave bows and raked masts. They became symbolic of the tea trade between China and Britain. Thermopylae and Cutty Sark competed with each other, famously racing each other from Shanghai to London in 1872 to bring the first of that season’s tea back to London – Thermopylae won after Cutty Sark lost her rudder. From 1882 Thermopylae took part in the Australian wool trade, as did Cutty Sark from 1883; on this route the tables were turned, and Cutty Sark proved herself the faster ship.[4]

As clippers, these ships showcased elegant lines and swiftness as well as new technology. They were designed to help earn their owners more money and prestige, and also to keep a competitive edge over the newly emerging technology of steamships during the mid-19th century. To help enhance this purpose and design, they were built with iron hulls and masts, wire rigging and steam winches and capstans, alongside more traditional wooden planking. For a time this was the best of both worlds – they avoided the issues with steamships such as poor fuel consumption, but used the strength of wire and iron to produce stronger rigging that could take more pressure and build larger hulls with more internal cargo space. Thermopylae was six times as long as she was broad.[5]


Much of Thermopylae was made of East India teak


The survey of January 1870 shows Cutty Sark was made of materials including iron, East India teak, Red Pine and Rock Elm

During their lifespans, Thermopylae and Cutty Sark were surveyed by Lloyd’s Register surveyors. As you can see from the reports of surveys on the Cutty Sark in January 1870 at Dumbarton and in October 1870 at London, as with other ships, composite ships required maintenance. Cutty Sark had extra bilge plates fitted at Dumbarton and her “yellow metal sheathing” was repaired in London.


Cutty Sark had extra bilge plates fitted in January 1870


Plan of Cutty Sark‘s midsection from 1922; the box in red is the approximate area in which bilge plates would be fitted


General remarks from the Annual Survey of October 1870 regarding Cutty Sark‘s yellow metal sheathing


Damage to wood by teredo worms, which yellow metal sheathing of wood protected against. Image source: ‘Timber tunnelings by Teredo navalis, the Teredo Worm. Stevenston Beach, North Ayrshire, Scotland‘, by Rosser1954, licensed under CC-A-SA 3.0 Unported.

Shipyards began building composite ships in the 1850s (the very first to appear in the Register Book was the Tubal Cain of 1851). Lloyd’s Register began developing a set of Rules for these new ships which were published in 1868.[6] A competition was held among surveyors for illustrations for the Rules, which was won by Lloyd’s Register Ship Surveyor Harry Cornish. These illustrations are held in our archive. Here is a picture of one of the set of 17 drawings that he produced – they were exhibited in Moscow and Paris.[7]


Illustrations for the Rules of Composite Ships, by Harry Cornish


Illustrations for the Rules of Composite Ships, by Harry Cornish – Upper Deck Waterways


Illustrations for the Rules of Composite Ships, by Harry Cornish – Rivets 

Both Thermopylae and Cutty Sark eventually retired from trading. With advances in iron and steam technology – including improved cargo capacity and fuel consumption – and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 (through which sailing ships needed to be towed at great expense), sail as a means of powering ships began to decline.[8]

Thermopylae was sold to the Portuguese Navy as a training ship in the last years of the 19th century. The Sydney Morning Herald records in an article on Friday 2 May 1913 that 

“The famous old clipper ship, Thermopylae, which was one of the fastest sailers in the Australian trade many years ago, has at last been destroyed. Until recently she was used as a training ship by the Portuguese on the river Tagus, but being too old for further service it was decided to do away with her. As the old vessel had such a fine reputation in days gone by, it was decided not to sell her, but to give her a naval funeral. She was accordingly towed out to sea by two Portuguese men-o’-war, and sunk.”[9]

Cutty Sark has had a much longer life – she was used as a cargo ship until 1922, when she became a training ship until the 1950s. She was put on public display at Greenwich, where she still is today.[10]


The sleek lines and ‘yellow’ hull of Cutty Sark today


Cutty Sark at Greenwich

As exemplars of new technology that combined well-tried building techniques with new innovations, the documents in the archive regarding composite ships Thermopylae and Cutty Sark are not only tangible objects that are part of the history of famous ships, they are also tangible links to “experimental improvements” and evolution in shipbuilding technology, and to the methods and procedures Lloyd’s Register used to engage with this evolution.


Bilge plate

The bilge is the area on the outer part of the ship’s hull where the bottom curves to meet the vertical sides: the lowest part of the ship inside the hull. Bilge plates are situated at the turn of the hull. In composite ships they lay between the timber of the hull and the ship’s frame.[11]


The capstan is a broad cylinder that revolves on a vertical axis, and is used for winding rope or cable.


Clipper ships were fast sailing ships, especially of 19th-century design with concave bows and raked masts

Composite ships

Ships with an iron or steel frame and wooden planking


The main body of a ship or other vessel, including the bottom, sides and deck but not the masts, rigging, superstructure (the parts of the ship other than masts and rigging that are built above its hull and main deck) or other fittings.

Naval architect

Ship designer


Long, thin, flat, rectangular pieces of wood used in the structure of a ship, especially as the floor that is walked upon


The ropes, cables or wires used to support the mast (standing rigging) and control and set the sails (running rigging)


A short metal pin or bolt for holding together two plates of metal.

Teredo worm

Species of saltwater clam, also known as shipworm because it looks like a worm and because it bores through wood.

Yellow metal sheathing

Wooden hulls were covered below the waterline with copper, zinc or a combination of the two which was called yellow metal – this was to stop such things as barnacles and weed sticking to the hull and slowing the ship, and to stop sea creatures like teredo worms, a type of saltwater clam that look like worms, from burrowing in and destroying the wood.[12]


A device for hauling or lifting – a rope or chain winds around a horizontally-rotating drum, turned by a crank or motor


[1] Sources of images: Image 1, Cutty Sark, by Allan Green, source Victoria State Library Allan C. Green collection glass negatives; Image 2: Clipper Thermopylae, source Georges Jansoone, licensed under CC BY 3.0

[2] Nigel Watson, Lloyd’s Register: 250 Years of Service (London: Lloyd’s Register, 2010), p. 32. 

[3] Watson, Lloyd’s Register, p. 118.

[4] Royal Museums Greenwich, Collections, The tea clipper Thermopylae. Accessed 10/11/2015, 

[5] Nigel Watson, Maritime Science and Technology: Changing our World (London: Lloyd’s Register Group Limited, 2015), p. 71. 

[6] Watson, Maritime Science and Technology, p. 72. 

[7] Watson, Lloyd’s Register, p. 279. 

[8] Watson, Maritime Science and Technology, p. 73. 

[9] ‘An Old Clipper: Fate of the Thermopylae’, Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), 02 May 1913, p. 4. Accessed 10/11/2015,

[10] Royal Museums Greenwich, Cutty Sark History, 1895-1922. Accessed 10/11/2015

[11] Captain Paasch, From Keel to Truck: Dictionary of Naval Terms (London: David Nutt, 1908), Plate 13, No. 15; Personal communication, David Taylor, 11/11/2015. 

[12] J.R.Harris, ‘Copper and Shipping in the Eighteenth Century’, Economic History Review 19 (3) (1966), 550-68; Charles F. T. Young, The Fouling and Corrosion of Iron Ships: Their Causes and Means of Prevention, with Mode of Application to the Existing Iron-Clads (The London Drawing Association, London, 1867), p. 41.