Friday, February 13, 2015

The 1866 clipper "Shun Lee," built at Rotherhithe's Lavendar Dock

Shun Lee by Montague Dawson
Shun Lee was built in 1866 by John and William Walker at Lavender Dock in Rotherhithe.  The site 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.  More about John and William Walker can be found on my previous posts about the tea clippers Ambassador and the fast ship Lothair, which was the  last large sailing ship to be built in Rotherhithe.

As with the other Walker ships, Shun Lee was a composite,with wooden planking laid over an iron frame.  To get an understanding of what the wrought iron frame looked like and how it worked, see the last photograph on my post about Ambassador or go and visit the wonderful Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London.  Composites had many benefits over ships made entirely of wood.  The wood made ships light and streamlined but the iron frames provided longevity and strength. Most importantly, a composite had no need of the giant beams required by a wooden ship, which left more room for cargo.  The earliest known composite hull was the schooner Excelsior of 1850, built by John Jordan, and one of the earliest clippers to be built was Bilbe and Perry of Rotherhithe's 720 ton Red Riding Hood.  Although built by John and William Walker, the work was overseen by Bernard Waymouth, who was a renowned surveyor for Lloyd's Register and became an authority on composite ships.  The experience he gained working with shipbuilders like John Walker stood him in good stead when later, as a naval architect, he went on to design the famous Thermophylae.   

Lavender Dock
She was 674grt (650 nt), 158ft long, with a 31ft beam and was Register A1 at Lloyds.  The only unusual design features were longer than average overhangs at both bow and stern. A description of her was published in the "London and China Telegraph" at the time of her launch:
The frame is of double-angle iron, diagonally trussed, with extra angle and bulb iron stringers worked longitudinally on frames right fore and aft.   The bottom is double to the underside of the wales, the inner bottom being fastened to the frames with galvanized iron bolts, and the outer bottom being worked diagonally and fastened to the inner bottom with pure copper bolts.

The above description, full of technical details, illustrates the real interest in shipbuilding innovation that existed at the time. 

Advert for passage on Shun Lee, from The London
and China Telegraph, Volume 11, 1869
Shun Lee was owned and operated by the Walker company for the first years following construction.  Although ostensibly designed for the China tea trade, Shun Lee's first voyage under Captain Milbank was to Australia.  She did one China trade trip and was sold in 1871 to Potter and Co. of London for work on New Zealand trade routes.  Shun Lee changed hands several times.  In 1874 she was sold to M. Ion & Co. and subsequently to J. Graham who apparently re-sold her to M. Ion & Co.  In 1885 she was purchased by J. Henkins and in 1891 by J. Carew.

In 1880 her full rig was reduced to barque rigging, a standard procedure for former tea clippers when they were no longer required to achieve the high speeds demanded by the tea trade over such long distances. With shorter rigging they were easier to handle and required fewer crew hands to man them. 

Shun Lee by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton
Royal Museum Greenwich, London (PY8575)
There are no particular tales to tell about Shun Lee.  There seems to be no record of her China voyage, how long it took or what cargo she was carrying.  In his book "White Wings," Sir Henry Brett says that under Captain Langlands, sailed from England on May 18th 1871, arrived Port Chalmers, Otago in New Zealand on December 2nd with  passengers on board.  Emigration to New Zealand provided the clippers with an outward cargo that contributed to their profitability.

Shun Lee never saw the end of 1891.  In the September of that year she was in Rio de Janeiro when she caught fire and burned.  Three crew members falsely accused the mate of deliberately setting fire to the ship, were found to be lying and had to pay the costs of the inquiry.  The cause was actually declared as internal combustion.

Shun Lee by Montague Dawson

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