Friday, February 6, 2015

The 1869 tea clipper Ambassador, built in Rotherhithe's Lavender Dock

Ambassador in the year of her launch.
Thomas J. Duggan 1869
Ambassador was built in 1869 by was built by John and William Walker at Lavender Dock in Rotherhithe, a site which is now occupied by the east end of the modern residential Sovereign View development (SE16 5XH) near to the Lavender pump-house and the Lavender Lock, both of which survive today.

She was 714grt (692nrt), and measured 176ft by 31.3ft and 19.1ft.  Apparently she was fitted with the figurehead of an eighteen century diplomat, but I've been unable to find which one.

The 1868 Ordnance Survey map shows
the Lavender Dock where
Ambassador and the other Walker tea
clippers were constructed, right at the
apex of Rotherhithe.
William Walker was a shipbuilder who operated, at different times, out of Rotherhithe, Deptford, Poplar and Millwall.  Of John Walker there is no surviving record, apart from the name of the business, although he was clearly related to William Walker.  William Walker specialized in composite ships.  The company had also previously built Shun Lee, Mikado and a year later built their fastest and biggest clipper Lothair, all composites.  Lothair was described in a previous post. Composites were wooden ships built on iron frames, providing additional strength to the hull (a famous example is the Cutty Sark, which has been restored and is now in dry dock in Greenwich, London). They were lighter, requiring much less internal structural work, which also provided more internal space.  Composite ships were only accepted as a recognized class in 1867, when they were described in the Lloyds Register, which gave guidelines for their construction.  The photograph at the end of the post shows Ambassador as she is today, with only the iron frame remaining, bright orange with rust, showing how the precise form of the frame with its once beautiful lines.

"Setting Topgallants, The China Clipper Ambassador,"
1870, by Derek Gardner. Note the steamship in the
background at the right - steam eventually saw
the demise of sailing ships.
Ambassador was built for William Lund.  W. Lund and Sons established the Blue Anchor shipping line in 1869, and Ambassador was bought as the first ship of the new line specifically for the tea trade (the company was sold to the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. in 1910).  The Blue Anchor shipping line, like many others at this time, was engaged in the China shipping industry.  Ships like this are known as tea clippers but not only carried tea (although that was one of their most profitable cargoes) but china, fabrics, sundry other cargoes and quite often passengers too. As David MacGregor says in The China Bird, 1869 was a "boom" year for tea clipper building.  Other clippers built around the country in the same year were Cutty Sark, Norman Court, Deerhound, Duke of Abercorn and Caliph, whilst orders were placed for Wylo, Miako and Osaka. It is ironic that so many tea clippers were built in the same year that the Suez Canal was built, an innovation that gave steam shippers the edge over sail for the first time. 

Ships in the Tea Race of 1870
From Brian Lubbock, 1914.
Although Ambassador was a beautiful looking ship and considered to be reasonably fast, she never attained the crossing speeds of the best of the tea clippers.  In his book The China Clippers, all Brian Lubbock has to say about her was that she was  "very cranky and overmasted, though a fast ship."  She only made six tea voyages in total (a two-way voyage a season or year was standard for tea clippers travelling distances which would usually take over 100 days). Her first passage to the UK was from Foochow in the 1870-71 season under Captain P. Duggan took 115 days (she left Foochow on 25th July and arrived off Deal on the 15th November), whilst the clippers Lahloo and Leander took only 98 days to complete the same route in the same season.  She wasn't the slowest though, by any means - the slowest ships that year was Eme (135 days), who took a different route from most of the other vessels and was becalmed for some days. Ambassador's fastest crossing between Foochow and London was 108 days, in 1872. 

Ambassador's sister ship, Lothair
In 1874 Ambassador was reduced to a barque rig and changed routes  Steam ships were becoming increasingly successful and with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 steamers could reach China from London in much better time, making sailing ships in the China trade progressively redundant. Tea clippers were unable to use the Suez Canal due to the difficulty of the winds in the Red Sea, where the Suez Canal terminated.  Instead, the clippers were used on a more diversified set of routes where steam was still unable to compete due to the need to store fuel at convenient points along their routes. Accordingly,  Ambassador began to serve the Australian wool industry, which was still out of the reach of steamships who needed multiple re-fuelling bases along their routes, and also sailed between Hong Kong and New York and Yokohama and New York.  In the 1876-77 season she went up against her sister ship, the notoriously fast Lothair, also made by Walker at Lavender Dock a year after Ambassador in 1870. Both ships were sailing from Yokohama to New York.  Here's MacGregor's account of that race, which contains an intriguing temporal ambiguity:

Ever since Ambassador and Lothair found themselves together in Sunda Straits bound for the same port they must have made a race of it.  Lothair had knocked eight days off her lead down the China Sea and although the shipping reports give her a lead of two days off the Cape of God Hope, the two ships were also report in company on 11 January at 11 January in 35degreesS, 19degreesE.  Lothair still held her two-day lead on paper as she crossed the Equator two days ahead in longitude 25degreesW.  Ambassador crossed it at 34degreesW and went on to get into port four days ahead, although her overall time was four days greater.  Maury recommended ships bound for America to cross the Equator at about 33Degrees30'W, and Ambassador's gain of six days on Lothair ably proves his point.
Ambassador towards the end of her life, with
reduced rigging
David MacGregor in "The Tea Clippers describes how in 1877 a rather more traumatic journey took place.  Travelling from New York to Melbourne under the command of Captain C. Prehn running before a westerly gale force 10 in the South Atlantic, Ambassador's deck "was swept by a enormous sea, carrying overboard her master, four crew her steering wheel and the boats."

In 1888 Ambassador sold to George Milne of the Inver Line in Aberdeen, but he kept her for only a year, after which she was sold to G. Shaddick, Swansea, in 1889.  Again, she exchanged hands very rapidly and in 1891 Sold to Burgess and Co. of London.  Three years later, in 1894, she was again sold, this time to Aktieselskabet Kristians and then to Ole G. Olsen, Kristians and was employed on the routes between the Atlantic ports to the Pacific around Cape Horn, sailing under a Norwegian flag.  The rounding of Cape Horn was notoriously dangerous and is the subject of numerous seamen's shanties.  Brian Lubbock says that in  July 1895 a hurricane around Cape Horn was so bad that 14 ships put back for repairs, six of which went into Port Stanley and the remainder into Monte Video.  En route from Florida to Hawaii, Ambassador, damaged and leaking, was one of the ships that put into Port Stanley, together with Priorhill, GW Wolff, Eagle Crag, Ratharina and Gladys.  Sadly, Ambassador never sailed again.  She was condemned in Port Stanley in December 1895 and put up for sale.  

The remains of Ambassador today
On 10 January 1896 sold to Frank Townsend for £850.  Townsend was presumably hoping to re-sell her for a profit because he had her moved to Ponte Arenas off the Chilean coast, where she was again put up for sale.  This time she was purchased by  a company called Jose Menendez and Mauricio Braun for £1,250.  Although they were ship owners, as well as merchants, they used her as a storage hulk. Her career as a sailing ship was over but she was retained for storage purposed for another forty years, passing into the hands of the  Sociedad Ganadera y Comercial Menendez. In 1899, when they no longer required her, she was towed to her present location at Punta Arenas, in the Straits of Magellan, Chile, and beached.  She survives today as an iron frame with virtually none of her wooden covering surviving.  She was placed on the National Historic Landmarks List of Chile in 1973.

With thanks to Brian Lubbock and David R. MacGregor for their great books.


Unknown said...

Would opium also have been shipped on these vessels?

Andie said...

Hi. Yes, some of them were, mainly between 1830 and 1850. Basil Lubbock wrote a book about it called "The Opium Clippers." One of the Rotherhithe clippers, Wynaud (which I've written about on another post at was built for use in the opium trade.