The Great Tea Race of 1866 - The end of the premium

The end of the premium.

The clippers that sailed at the beginning of the 1866/67 tea season had a premium of 10 shillings per ton written into their bills of lading, payable, by the consignees, to the first ship to dock in London. This is additional to the ordinary rate of freight that had been negotiated - in the case of Ariel in 1866, that was £5 per ton. The "ton" used in these bills of lading was the "freight ton", a measurement of volume; British ships loading tea in China at this time used a ton of 50 cubic feet (compared with American ships which used a ton of 40 cubic feet).

Normally, the extra payment of the premium would be compensated for by the profits to be made by selling the first of the new crop of tea. In 1866 there was a problem - the first cargo of tea had arrived over two weeks earlier in the steam auxiliary ship Erl King, a ship that was not considered part of the race.


The beginning of the end. Auxiliary steamer Erl King beat the clippers home by 15 days in the Great Tea Race of 1866, after leaving 8 days behind them.

The tea merchants were committed to a payment when their tea would sell at a loss. To add to this, the first two tea clippers had signalled off Deal early on the morning of 6 September, followed by a third (Serica) at 1:00 pm. These three ships would create a glut of new season tea, so prices were bound to fall further.

The owners and agents of Ariel and Taeping were well aware of the situation that the consignees were in. As soon as their ships had telegraphed from the Downs they became concerned that anything that might be considered a dead heat or a disputed result might lead the consignees to call the race void - there being no outright winner - and so not pay the premium for the first ship to dock. Therefore, they agreed that whichever ship docked first would claim and the other would not dispute the result in any way. In return, the two ships shared the premium between them, and also MacKinnon and Keay shared the £100 prize for the winning ship's captain. This is what happened, Taeping made the claim and shared the money equally with Ariel.

The premium payable to the first Tea Clipper to arrive in London was abandoned after the 1866 Tea Race.