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Clipper Ship Thermopylae

Walter Hood & Co. Pocra Quay and Jetty, Aberdeen - Sailing Ships

Shipbuilders; 1839 - 1881

The Walter Hood shipyard built many of Aberdeen's finest sailing ships, including the famous clipper Thermopylae. Many of the vessels built at Hood's yard were destined for George Thompson Jr's Aberdeen White Star Line.

The Walter Hood yard, opened in 1839, was east of Halls', next to Pocra Jetty.

Walter Hood had trained as a shipwright and was the Yard's Manager and Designer until his accidental death in 1862.  Many of the sailing vessels for George Thompson's Aberdeen White Star Line were built by Hood. These vessels sailed mainly to Australia in the emigrant and wool trade. Aberdeen Line clippers built by Hood included such famous names as Neptune, Queen of Nations and the Thermopylae (1868) 

The Phoenecian, built in 1847, was the first of the Thompson vessels with a reputation for speed.

Thermopylae was designed by Bernard Waymouth, Lloyd’s Register Surveyor.
Bernard Waymouth
Born at Pembroke, Wales on 28 Sep 1824
Died at City of London on 25 Nov 1890

Bernard was the 2nd son of John Waymouth and Eliza (nee Glanville).   His father was involved with Shipbuilding at dockyards in Wales and England and Bernard would have learned about ship design at those yards.   He joined Lloyd's Register of Shipping in 1853 as an Assistant Surveyor.   That was the time of rapid change from wooden to iron ships.   In 1868, Bernard's Rules for the design of composite ships (iron and wood) were adopted.   In the same year he designed the famous ship "Thermopylae".   In 1870, Bernard's Rules for iron ships were adopted and in 1872 he was appointed as the Secretary of Lloyds.   He held that position until his sudden death at Lloyd's offices in Cornhill in 1890.   The London "Times" reported that Bernard was "highly respected and much appreciated by all those interested in the mercantile marine of the country."   Bernard was married with no children.

As a rule these famous clippers were designed in the drawing lofts of their builders; in fact, there were only 2 outside designers of any note, Bernard Waymouth, Secretary of Lloyd's Register, and William Rennie. Waymouth was responsible for the lines of the Leander and Thermopylae, whilst Rennie designed Fiery Cross, Black Prince, Norman Court, and John R Worcester.

Clipper Leander
A composite tea clipper built in 1867 by J G Lawrie, Glasgow, to the design of Bernard Waymouth. Dimensions: 215'5"×35'2"×20'7" and tonnage: 886 GRT, 848 NRT and 848 tons under deck. She had a raised quarter deck 42 ft long.  The main topgallant sail was rigged with Colling & Pinkney's roller reefing gear.  Re-rigged as a barque in the 1890s.

At the time of its launch in August 1862, the wooden clipper Kosciusko was 1 of the largest sailing ships ever fitted out in Aberdeen. However, Thermopylae, the great rival of Cutty Sark, was the most famous vessel constructed at the Hood YardWalter Hood died accidently in 1862 after slipping in the dark and falling into the harbour. The guns of Torry Battery were fired in the hope that the concussion would bring the body to the surface but grappling irons were needed to recover his corpse.  The Yard continued to build sailing ships such as Miltadies and Sophocles for the Aberdeen Line after Hood's accidental death. However, by the 1870s screw propulsion was becoming increasingly popular. The Hood firm never built engines and could not compete in this market. The yard merged with Alexander Hall & Co. in 1881. The last vessel built at Hoods was the sailing ship Orontes

Owner: White Star Line (George Thompson & Co.) - Aberdeen, Scotland
Notable Events: Sailed on her maiden voyage from Gravesend to Hobson's Bay, Melbourne, in 63 days. The fastest passage on record.
Final Disposition: Sunk by gunfire and torpedoes by units of the Portuguese Navy at sea off the Tagus.

George Thomson 1804-1895 - Clipper Ship Owner 35 Marischal Street, Born in Woolwich and educated at Aberdeen Grammar School, he developed his own business as a Ship Insurance Broker in 1825. He became principal owner of the world famous shipping line, ‘The Aberdeen White Star Line’, which included the fast tea clipper the ‘Thermopylae’.  He was elected Dean of Guild in 1840 and Lord Provost of Aberdeen in 1847.  He never insured his own ships.

Clipper Ship "Thermopylae" Preparing to leave Aberdeen for Gravesend and Her Maiden Voyage 1868. - Pocra QuayThermopylae was designed for the China tea trade, and set speed records on her maiden voyage to Melbourne - 63 days via Shanghai and Foochow, still the fastest trip under sail.

Launched in August 19th, 1868 - Thermopylae

- that was said by many to have been the finest clipper ever built and described in her day as the pride of the British merchant marine. Justly regarded by contemporary mariners to have been the fastest sailing vessel ever launched, Thermopylae was specifically designed for the intensive demands of the China tea trades and was one of a series of vessels built in Aberdeen by the firm of
Walter Hood for the local White Star Line of George Thompson & Co,

THERMOPYLAE was one of a series of vessels built by Walter Hood for the Aberdeen White Star Line and designed by Bernard Waymouth.

Aberdeen Herald, August 22, 1868
'LAUNCH - There was launched, on Wednesday, from the shipbuilding-yard of Messrs. Walter Hood & Co. a composite ship of 1300 tons, owned by Messrs. George Thompson & Co., and commanded by Captain Edward, late of the Ethiopian. The ship, which was christened "The Thermopylae" by Mrs Hardy Robinson of Denmore, has been throughout constructed after the most approved principles, built of the most durable materials, and classed in the highest range of character at Lloyds. She is intended for the London and China trade.' 
All of George Thompson's Aberdeen White Star Line vessels were noted for their handsome appearance; green hull, gilded scroll work and white masts, yards and bowsprit. The THERMOPYLAE had a white and gold figurehead of the Greek hero Leonidas, the King of Sparta, wearing Greek armour, helmet, shield and sword.

Detail of Thermopylae at Anchor on the River Min

Loading and departing Foochow.

During her early career THERMOPYLAE was presented with a statue of a golden cockerel, which was placed atop her main trunk, only to be stolen 1 night and discovered the next day at the top of her rival, the Taeping's main mast and restored to its rightful owner.  Despite the newspaper articles of the launch stating her master as Captain Edward, who Captained her from Aberdeen to London; in the event of her maiden voyage from London to Melbourne, George Thompson favoured Captain Robert Kemball. Kemball had made a name for himself on the Hall-built clipper YANGTZE in the 1867 Tea Race and proved to be a popular and highly successful Captain.  On her maiden voyage, THERMOPYLAE sailed to Melbourne in just 60 days, pilot to pilot, via Shanghai and Foo Chow, breaking records on each leg of the journey - only steamers had previously matched such speeds.  The Aberdeen Journal commented; "Thermopylae', Kemball, arrived Melbourne 9th January from London 61 days. Sailed thence 22nd, arrived Newcastle, New South Wales, 30th January." 

The Melbourne Argus reported the arrival of THERMOPYLAE thus: 13th January 1869,  'The splendid and almost unprecedentedly rapid passage made by the new clipper ship Thermopylae, from London to this port, has created more than ordinary interest in nautical and commercial circles...It seemed almost impossible, and certainly never entered into the calculations of the most sanguine, that a voyage to the antipodes could be accomplished by a sailing-ship in 59 days, the period taken by the Thermopylae to within sight of the Australian coast...She is in every respect a fine specimen of Naval Architecture, a model of symmetry and beauty; her sweeping lines and exquisite proportions, her graceful outline and general compactness, conveying an idea of perfection.' The CUTTY SARK was built the following year to compete with THERMOPYLAE in bringing back the new season's tea from China, although THERMOPYLAE twice beat her in the race. Her record day's run was 380 statute miles, a feat exceeded by no sailing ship before.  1868 Master Robert Kemball - route London to Australia
1882-83 Master J Henderson  Basil Lubbock's book 'The China Clippers' (1914, James Brown & Sons, Glasgow) mentions an encounter with HMS CHARYBDIS as the 2 ships passed Port Phillip Heads: 'Both vessels crowded sail on the same course, but as soon as THERMOPYLAE had her canvas set she began to draw rapidly away from the warship, in spite of all the latter's efforts to stay with her. At last, when the THERMOPYLAE had conclusively proved her superiority, the Captain of the CHARYBDIS could not restrain his admiration, and hoisted the following signal in the Mercantile Code as he rapidly dropped astern: "Good bye. You are too much for us. You are the finest model of a ship I ever saw. It does my heart good to look at you."  Despite her fame as a tea clipper, THERMOPYLAE more often sailed to Australia in the wool trade. 

In the 1890s, after more than 2 decades as a China tea clipper and then an Australian wool clipper, THERMOPYLAE was sold by her Aberdeen owners to a Canadian company. She was put on the rice and timber carrying trade between Rangoon and Vancouver. Despite shortened masts and being cut down to a barque rig in July 1893 and her crew reduced from 35 to 20 men, she continued to make speedy passages. On one occasion she crossed the Pacific in 29 days, a world record at that time, and on another kept level for 3 days with the Canadian Pacific steam liner EMPRESS OF INDIA, which was capable of 16 knots.  In 1897 she was sold to the Portuguese Navy as a training ship and renamed PEDRO NUNES, after a 16th century Portuguese Mathematician and Geographer. The vessel was converted to a coal hulk and finally sunk by gunfire as target practice on 13th October 1907.  In June 2003 a group of professional Portuguese divers found the remains of THERMOPYLAE about 30 metres down on the seabed off Lisbon. The hull is mainly buried beneath the sand but enough is visible to identify her as THERMOPYLAE

Diving on the Thermopylae

The figurehead of King Leonidas is just visible in this Victoria BC Mill image

In 1890, 'Thermopylae' was sold to Mr Redford of Mount Royal Milling & Manufacturing Co. of Victoria, British Columbia for the sum of £5,000 where after a refit and changes to her rigging (reduced to barque rig) she traded the northern Pacific. She carried Canadian timber and coal to the Orient and returned with rice. It is claimed that on one occasion she managed to keep pace for 3 days with Canadian Pacific's Liner the 'Empress of India' which was steaming at an average 16 knots. In 1983 the City of Victoria struck a One Dollar coin commemorating the 'Thermopylae's' association to the area.

At the Sea Wall - San Francisco 1880

Model of the Thermopylae

While researching the "Thermopylae" models they located 5 seamen who had served on the vessel at various times. A Mr Sewell of Manly joined the ship in 1876 as an apprentice; so too did Mr Charles Fyfe of Melbourne in 1877; Mr Garner of Melbourne was the ship's bosun in the later days; Captain R B V McKilliam was her 3rd and 2nd mate successively, and later Master of the Aberdeen Line's clipper ship "Salamis"; while Captain Bilton of Victoria, British Columbia, served in her during her Canadian ownership.

All these men formed a voluntary advisory panel as their information was invaluable, especially for the deck layout. 


Head to Head Race

On 16th February 1870, Cutty Sark left London bound for Shanghai, via the Cape of Good Hope, on her first voyage. Commanded by Captain George Moodie, she carried "large amounts of wine, spirits and beer? (Captain's abstract log). The arrival of the ship at Shanghai, with 'manufactured goods', is listed in The North China Herald of 2nd June 1870. Departing with around 1,450 tons of tea on 25th June, she arrived back in London on 13th October 1870.

This is the first of 8 voyages the ship successfully made to China in pursuit of tea. However, Cutty Sark never became the fastest ship on the tea trade.

Dogged by bad winds and misfortune, she never lived up to the high expectations of her owner during these years. The closest the ship came to winning the tea race was in 1872, when she had the opportunity to race the Thermopylae head-to-head for the first time.

After arriving at Shanghai in late May 1872, she met the Thermopylae when loading her tea cargo. With both sailing from Woosung on 17th June 1872, the two ships closely matched each other through the China Sea and into the Indian Ocean. By 7th August, and with a good tail wind, Cutty Sark found herself a good 400 miles ahead of the Thermopylae. On 15th August, disaster struck when Cutty Sark's rudder gives way. After reconstructing the rudder twice in heavy seas, the ship arrived back at London on 19th October, around 7 days after her rival. The courage and determination of Captain Moodie and his crew won Cutty Sark great credit, but Moodie retired from his command of the ship due to stress and the ship was never to get this close to winning the tea race again.

At the entrance to the Indian Ocean at Anjer, Java the Thermopylae was ahead by 1.5 miles but 26 days later, on 16th August, 1872, when Cutty Sark lost her rudder in a heavy gale. John Willis's brother was onboard at the time for the benefit of his health and tried to order Moodie to put in at Cape Town for repairs. After a blazing row, during which Moodie threatened to put Willis in irons for mutiny, a jury rudder was devised by the ship's carpenter, Henry Henderson, who became the hero of the occasion.


Henderson came from Kincardine in Firth and was a Master Shipwright on the construction of the Cutty Sark. It was he who selected the timbers that went into her construction. He then sailed in the ship as ship's carpenter and served under the 1st 3 captains. He was a firm favourite of the owner old John Willis. The jury rudder was made up of spare spars and iron stanchions in conditions which were severe. The gale was still blowing and heavy seas were still sweeping the decks but at the end of 6 days the job was completed but not without drama.  On 1 occasion, while working the bellows on the brazier needed for forging the ironwork, the captain's son was covered in embers when the brazier was overturned in the force of the gale.  On another occasion the sail-maker narrowly missed having his face burned by a red hot bar when the Blacksmith was swept off his feet.  The rudder was worked by chains linked to the ship's wheel and the whole operation was an amazing feat of seamanship. For his achievement Henry Henderson was awarded a Testimonial and a cheque for £50 by the owner who recognised his genius. However, the owners had ample reason to reward Henderson's achievement. It later transpired that both the ship and the freight were uninsured. When the ship arrived home Captain Moodie, who was still furious with the owner's brother, resigned his command and transferred to Steam.

The Cutty Sark nearly met her end on the Goodwin Sands at the latter end of 1877.

Between the 10th - 12th November a great winter gale raged and over 60 ships where sheltering in the Downs off Deal. The Cutty Sark's anchors parted and she drove through the anchorage causing damage to 2 ships before becoming stuck hard on the mud bank. Tiptaft set of flares to seek assistance and on the following Monday morning the tug Macgregor just succeeded in pulling Cutty Sark clear before she stranded.  With the help of the tug Benachie she was towed into the River Thames where she was repaired and refitted. Claims by the other ships for damages could not be proved with thanks, in part, to Henry Henderson who had the foresight to throw a broken nameboard from 1 of the other ships overboard.

Other close finishes were:-
1861 Ellen Rodger, Robin Hood, Falcon, Fiery Cross, and Flying Spur
1866 Ariel, Fiery Cross, Serica, Taeping, Falcon, Flying Spur, Black Prince, Chinaman, Ada, Coulnakyle and Taitsing
1867 Maitland, Serica, Taeping , Fiery Cross, Whiteadder, Zilba, Flying Spur, Taitsing, Black Prince, Yangtse, Ariel, Chinaman, Deerfoot, Min, Sir Lancelot, Belted Will and Eliza Shaw
1869 Ariel, Leander, Lahloo, Thermopylae, Spindrift, Taeping, Ziba, Sir Lancelot, Kaisow, Black Prince, Windhover, Serica, Falcon , Forward Ho, Titania, Taitsing , Whiteadder and Maitland
1870 Oberon, Titania, Cutty Sark, Serica, Forward Ho, and Belted Will
1871 Thermopylae, Forward Ho, Undine, Titania, Norman Court , Lahloo, Cutty Sark and Ariel

Cutty Sark

Hercules Linton (1 January 1837 - 15 May 1900) son of a Shipwright was a Surveyor, Designer, Shipbuilder, Antiquarian and local Councillor.  He was best known as the designer of the Cutty Sark (garb of the witch Nannie Dee in Burns'  Tam O' Shanter) and partner in the yard of Scott & Linton who built her at Dumbarton.

Linton was asked to use the lines of the John Willis vessel The Tweed; however he felt that the stern was too barrel shaped and gave Cutty Sark (1869) a squarer stern with less tumblehome. The broader stern increased the buoyancy of the rear of the ship, making it lift more in heavy seas so it was less likely waves would break over the stern, and over the helmsman at the wheel - a common occurrence. The square bilge was carried forward through the centre of the ship.  In the matter of masts Cutty Sark also followed the design of The Tweed, with similar good rake and with the foremast on both ships being placed further back than was usual

He was born in Inverbervie. On his 19th birthday in 1855 Hercules Linton was apprenticed to Alexander Hall & Sons who at the time, were the leading Shipbuilders in in Aberdeen and whose schooner the Scottish Maid (1839) with its sharp bow and entry helped coin the term the Aberdeen Bow. Linton progressed through his apprenticeship and eventually rose to a senior position at Alexander Hall and Sons.

Eventually he left Alexander Hall and Sons to become a Lloyds Register Surveyor based at the Lloyds offices in Liverpool and subsequently moved to the Liverpool Underwriters Registry where from early in 1862 he was assisting John Jordan who was the Chief Surveyor. It is thought that he left the Liverpool Underwriters Association in May 1864 but still associated on a free-lance basis.

When Cutty Sark was launched Linton's wife had given birth the month before, and his house had been seized to help cover his debts.  Linton subsequently found employment with a series of Scottish Shipbuilding Yards. He also became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in November 1876.
found him working in Montrose where his 10th child was born. His wife died in 1885, and Hercules later moved back to
Inverbervie, where he was elected to the Town Council in 1895. He died in 1900 and there is a figurehead memorial to him in Inverbervie

Linton spent his final years in the house in which he was born, serving as a councillor in Inverbervie for a time, and is buried at Inverbervie Kirkyard.

A Lloyds inspector went to inspect the Cutty Sark, which was moored off Greenhithe, Kent.  As well as doing all the usual inspection duties he thrust his knife into the hull-timbers to check their state - much to his amazement the blade snapped off at the hilt, ... Weel Done - Cutty Sark!

Ships Lines
The delightful form of the hull of a tea clipper, gently twisting from a hollowed curve and flare at the bows to a slight inward inclination or
tumblehome and then reversing the twist again into the grand sweep under the counter stem, all being moulded perfectly into the curves toward the keel, must surely rank as the most aesthetically perfect manmade shape." There is much to be learned about the purpose of life in looking back - as in our regard of the Tea Clipper'


Some hundreds of Clipper ships were built between 1845 and 1875, mostly in the U.S. and Scotland, and tested against each other in what became highly publicized “tea races” as they vied to be first home with the new season’s cargo.  Today, the Clippers are regarded as the apogee of ship design during the sailing era. They were distinguished, 1st by the rakish bows that gave them their name, which swept forward at an angle of up to 50 degrees and lent the vessels a lean and eager look, and, 2nd by their narrow beam and lofty sail plans. Below the waterline they boasted radical new lines, with knife-edge stems, narrow foreparts, a long flat run aft to the rudder, and a sharp “rise of floor”- the slope at which the hull angles outward from the central keel to the ship’s sides.

The Clipper Bow, was to improve hydrodynamic efficiency

A Clipper designer would also devote much attention to smoothing his ship’s “run,” her bottom at the after end. This practice lessened friction and added speed - but it also had its dangers. Too clean a run could result in an excessively fine form above the waterline and a consequent lack of buoyancy which often led to a ship being pooped - that is, swamped by a following wave.  Ariel was one of a number of ships that suffered from this tendency, and when she vanished without trace while on passage in 1872 it was generally assumed that a following sea had struck from behind and washed her helmsman overboard.  With no hand on the wheel, the Clipper would have swung broadside to the following wave and been struck with such ferocity she would have sunk almost instantly.

The locally built Thermopylae. This was the fastest sailing ship in the world at the time and until recently was a feature on the emblem of Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce

Steamship Thermopylae
Hall Russell & Co
: S.S. Thermopylae - Shade, bridge and forecastle deck plans (1891)
Shade, bridge and forecastle deck plans of the steel screw steamer SS Thermopylae (no. HR 264).
Scale: ¼ inch: 1 foot 1 plan, paper, backed with card

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Last modified: 01/09/2013