Back in May 2007 when I saw the images of the old Cutty Sark ablaze and the subsequent gutted ruins when the fire was extinguished I, along with many others, never thought that this magnificent vessel would ever be restored yet, amazingly, funding was put in place to not only restore her but also to radically transform the manner in which she was displayed in the dry dock.


The Cutty Sark ablaze and as a charred wreck (photos: Daily mail website)

The Cutty Sark had been moved into the dry dock in Greenwich in 1954 by River pilot Ernest Coe after which the dock was sealed up and she has remained there every since as a museum ship. Although popular as a visitor attraction the major problem is that ships are designed to float in the water and not sit on their keel in a dock for any length of time and this factor, along with the normal corrosive elements of climate on old wood and steel, took its toll and for the last 30 years  she was becoming increasingly decrepid and in danger of falling apart. In 2006, funding was secured for a major restoration and the vessel was dismantled with most of the original wooden hull and deck houses being removed into a warehouse. When the fire broke out there was very little of the original vessel left on board, the decks having been patched up and repaired many times over the years. The subsequent investigation concluded that the fire had been started by an industrial vacuum cleaner which had been left running.

Revised Plans

Following the fire, surveys revealed that although the steel structure had been distorted by the fire, the damage could be rectified and she wasn’t a total loss but the original restoration budget would need to be doubled. At that time many options were discussed in detail including restoring her to sea-going standards and thus return her to her natural element.

In the end many maritime eyebrows were raised when a firm of industrial (rather than naval) architects, Grimshaws, were awarded the contract and more effrontery was caused to maritime traditionalists when the plans for the ship and dry dock were unveiled

Raised on steel girders!       (Photo: JCB)

Thinking outside the box!

Having examined the ship and the dock and realised that the stresses on the hull caused by keeping the ship sitting on its keel would eventually result in the same problems of hull distortion Grimshaws came up with the radical plan to suspend the ship 3m above the dock with strong steel girders transferring the weight to the dock walls. As well as taking the strain off the keel and the hull structure, this plan also then permitted the previously inaccessible space underneath the hull to be used for a greater appreciation of the hull form. The final design element was to enclose the dock with a glass sea located along the loaded line of the hull formed as if the vessel was sailing at speed. Enclosing the dock space in this manner not only camouflaged the steel supports but also enabled the space beneath and around the hull to be used as an exhibition space and cafe. Judging by the queues on the (out of season) day we visited, the ship has been given a new lease of life and hopefully an assured future


Once on board, the interior is very much unchanged from the original museum layout. Entering into the cargo hold, the interior has been laid out with mock up cargoes of tea and wool and a video area offers an interesting account of the history of the ship including  the story of the name and trades she served. The tween deck and main deck cabins and deck houses are all the original and have been restored to a high standard, as have the masts and rigging.





She really looks great. My only criticism is that access to the maindeck is via an unsightly glass box located just aft of the fo’c’sle and that the figurehead collection, which used to be located on the bulkheads of the cargo hold, are now grouped together under the bows with no clear labelling as to the vessels they were from. In my opinion they would look far better placed around the empty dock walls. Despite this the ship is well worth a visit and being part of the maritime museum a joint ticket is available. Members of course go free.

Full information on the Royal Museums Greenwich website:

A comprehensive history of the ship is here                                                                    JCB

Photos JCB

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