The age of sail has inspired a canon of literature which is far more than just an adjunct of historical fiction. At the heart of this are the ships themselves with their clouds of canvas, evoking romance and hardship in roughly equal measure. Few vessels can be as romantic as the clipper ships of the mid 19th century, and few clippers have had such a story to tell as the City of Adelaide. On 20 October 2013, she began her last voyage, retracing the course she first steered 150 years ago to travel halfway across the globe.
The City of Adelaide moored near the Old Royal Navy College, Greenwich, with the rigging of the Cutty Sark visible above the trees on the left
On 18 October, the vessel arrived in Greenwich a short distance from her fellow clipper the Cutty Sark, for a ceremony to prepare her for the long journey ahead. After decades languishing on a Scottish slipway, a partial flooding, a sinking and being hi-jacked by a forlorn protester, the world’s oldest surviving clipper was finally on her way to her spiritual home in Southern Australia, where she will be conserved. On Saturday 19 October, I went up to Greenwich to see her on her barge moored on the Thames – a last opportunity to catch a glimpse of this historic ship in the UK. (Almost – she was towed to the Medway on Sunday, where she will be fumigated, shrink-wrapped and lifted onto a heavy-lift ship, before finally taking once more to the ocean).
City of Adelaide seen through the Water Gate at the Old RN College, Greenwich
Clippers were ocean-going merchant ships built primarily for speed rather than capacity, comfort or longevity. Most were of so-called composite construction, with an iron internal structure covered by wood planking. They were fine of form, with sharp bows, narrow beam and smooth lines, and carried large rigs. By the time the City of Adelaide was built, an even more uncompromising form known as the ‘extreme clipper’ was beginning to emerge – the Cutty Sark is one of these even narrower, finer craft.
The sharp, flared bow which helped to give the clippers such exceptional speed
The City of Adelaide’s smooth curves and clean lines are apparent from the stern
The City of Adelaide was built in 1864 for the express purpose of carrying emigrants from Britain to Australia, and in all 23 voyages were made for this purpose. No doubt each one could provide material for at least one novel. The diary extracts from emigrants published by the Clipper Ship ‘City of Adelaide’ Ltd website show how each passage meant a group of probably mismatched people forced into close proximity for several months, facing everything the oceans could throw at them. The diary of F.A. Edelstone reveals initial irritation with his fellow passengers (‘polite to all more especially to those even I most abhor, no friend with whom to chat…’) and the conditions (‘that beggardly shark finished up taking my spinning bait!’). Eventually, Edelstone softens towards his companions and we start to learn something of the community onboard. The scene turns quickly from the tragic to the blackly comic. A Mrs Obdahl had been seriously ill and not expected to recover. She finally died on 2 September 1867.
‘Mr Prince read the service.. the coffin was placed on two planks.. at the words “we commit her body to the deep” these were raised and the coffin slid off into the water: not however to sink: for as soon as it touched the water the lid burst open and floated away…’
The City of Adelaide was considered experimental by Lloyds at the time of her building. Her structure turned out to be extremely strong, allowing her captain to drive her as fast as her fine lines would allow
There follows moments of wonder at the beauty of the southern constellations and shoals of flying fish, the embarrassment of Mrs Tuck who got drunk and made a pass at the captain, the diarist forced to apologise for pelting the wrong passenger with rancid vegetables, and slapstick episodes of rats being chased around the passenger cuddy…
A custom cradle was painstakingly designed and built by the Australian team which has moved mountains to bring the ship to its ‘spiritual’ home in Adelaide
This was merely the beginning of the City of Adelaide‘s journey through a century and a half. Later, she took emigrants to Canada and brought timber back in return, and subsequently became an isolation hospital at Southampton. In 1923, she was bought by the Navy and renamed the Carrick, serving faithfully for many years as a RN Volunteer Reserve training ship on the Clyde. She then became the of the HQ of the RNVR Club and offered an unforgettable venue for lucky guests.
Those wrought iron frames and teak planks have seen many sights now vanished forever. In her current state, she appears as tatty, rough around the edges and missing the towering rig and gleaming copper that would have characterised her in her heyday. Beneath the splintered planks and flaking paint, the clean, graceful lines of the clipper shine through. The City of Adelaide will have a few more stories to tell yet.
The historic clipper ship moored by the Old RN College, across from the glass towers of Canary Wharf in London’s former docklands
The Clipper ‘City of Adelaide’ Ltd website can be found at cityofadelaide.org.au