The Great Tea Race of 1866
13th August 2015
In the middle of the 19th century, clipper ships were sent all around the world, with the most popular routes being from England to China, for tea; New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn, for gold; and India to China, for Opium. Since the 18th century, tea has been immensely popular in the UK and by the 19th century it was regarded as high fashion.
On many an occasion, these clipper ships would race each another and one of the most reported clipper races of all time was the ‘The Great Tea Race of 1866’. Five ships would participate in the race: Ariel, Fiery Cross, Serica, Taitsing, and Taeping. All very different ships, all shared the same aim; to be the first ship to travel from China to London with a full cargo of tea.
The captain of first ship to arrive in London would receive £100 and each of the officers and crew on board would receive an extra month’s wages. Additionally, as an extra incentive, the owners were offering ten shillings per ton to the ship that arrived first.
The race was not only a question of who could sail the distance in the shortest amount of time, but also a test of efficient management at the port of departure. Between the ships, over five million pounds of tea was loaded. Ariel was the first to be loaded, and the others shortly followed. All five ships set off from China at roughly the same time and by the 30th of May 1866 all ships had made it to sea.
Three months had passed since the clipper ships had set sail from China and there was great excitement in London. On September 5th, the telegraph ticked in London. A sighting of two ships, Ariel and Taeping, had been recorded at Lizard Point, the southernmost point of England. Not only had the two ships been sighted in close proximity, but it was also at this point that the captains of both ships had spotted each other.
This sparked a furious race to the finish line, with both captains eager to reach London and receive the prize after three months of vigorous sailing. All of Ariel’s 38 sails were in full swing as she flew along the English Channel, but Taeping was not far behind.
At 9:45pm on September 6th, the first of the tea clippers finally moored in the Old London Docks. Taeping was the winner of the race, but the captain and crew had barely begun celebrating before Ariel arrived, a mere 38 minutes later. So small was the difference in time of arrival after 99 days of sailing that the owners of the two ships decided to split the prize evenly.
As for the other ships, amazingly, Serica docked a mere hour and 15 minutes after Ariel. The other two ships were not far behind either, with Fiery Cross arriving 28 hours after Serica and Taitsing the following day.
Whilst this may have been one of the last graceful moments of the traditional clipper trading ships, it is possible to relive the sailing experience today. Star Clippers three ships - Royal Clipper, Star Clipper and Star Flyer – can each take you on a journey around some of the most beautiful regions on earth such as the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.