The tea clippers

Great Tea Race of 1866

In the middle third of the 19th Century, the clippers which carried cargoes of tea from China to Britain would compete in informal races to be first ship to dock in London with the new crop of each season. The Great Tea Race of 1866 was keenly followed in the press, with an extremely close finish.


The Ariel leads the Taeping in the English channel near the end of the Great Tea Race of 1866. Painting by Jack Spurling.

Taeping docked 28 minutes before Ariel - after a passage of more than 14,000 miles. Ariel had been ahead when the ships were taken in tow by steam tugs off Deal, but after waiting for the tide at Gravesend the deciding factor was the height of tide at which one could enter the different docks used by each ship. The third finisher, Serica, docked an hour and 15 minutes after Ariel. These three ships had left China on the same tide and arrived at London 99 days later to dock on the same tide. The next to arrive, 28 hours later, was Fiery Cross, followed, the next day, by Taitsing.

Given the close finish, and fearing that the consignees might find reason to avoid payment, the prize, or "premium", was claimed by Taeping but shared between them and Ariel, by agreement of their agents and owners.[1](p152) 1866 was the last time that a premium was written into the bill of lading of a tea clipper for docking in London with the first of the new crop.[2](pp122–123) Though clippers raced with cargoes of tea for a few more years, the only commercial advantage was in the reputation as a fast ship, thereby securing a better rate of freight in the future.

Whilst the outcome thrilled its followers, it was clear to some that the days of the tea clipper were numbered. The auxiliary steamer Erl King had sailed from Foochow 8 days after Ariel, carrying both passengers and a cargo of tea. She arrived in London 15 days before the sailing ships.[3] The SS Agamemnon, a much more fuel efficient ship than her contemporaries, had just made the fastest ever outward passage to China of 65 days and was on her way to London with a cargo of tea that was two or three times larger than a clipper could carry. The Suez Canal was under construction (and opened in 1869). This would give a much shorter (a reduction of about 3,300 NM or nearly a quarter less distance[4]), so favouring the steamships, as the Canal was not a practical option for sailing vessels.