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Historic Clipper Ship Damaged by Fire

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A fire in London has badly damaged the historic sailing ship Cutty Sark. The vessel was the fastest ship of its day and it was one of the last relics of the 19th century tea trade between China and Britain when clipper ships raced each other to bring tea to London.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: The fire broke out just before 5 o'clock this morning in a dry dock beside the River Thames where the Cutty Sark was undergoing a $50 million restoration. The fire was brought under control within two hours but it was soon clear there had been extensive damage to the ship. Eric Kentley works for the Cutty Sark Trust. He said the damage was considerable but not beyond repair.

Dr. ERIC KENTLEY (Consultant, Cutty Sark Trust): It can be saved. It's certainly not completely devastated. The timbers of the lower part of the hull look to be scorched but intact. I mean, they are five, six inches thick timbers so they should be okay. I don't think there's any question of losing the Cutty Sark. We will put her back together, but it's going to take much, much longer and a lot more money than we originally thought.

GIFFORD: The Cutty Sark has become a London landmark, with a best-selling brand of whiskey named after it and 15 million visitors since it opened to the public.

280 feet in length and weighing in at 979 tons, it was regarded as the ultimate development of a merchant sailing vessel when it left on its first voyage to Shanghai in 1870. The ship made a number of record-breaking runs from China to England, bringing the first tea of the season to the London market. But sail power was soon replaced by steamships and for the last 50 years, the vessel has been preserved as a tourist attraction on London's River Thames.

Chris Livett form the Cutty Sark Trust called the ship a national treasure.

Mr. CHRIS LIVETT (Chairman, Cutty Sark Trust): If you think of three famous ships in the world, the Cutty Sark would probably be the top. She's significant in many, many ways. For her construction, for what she did for England when she was trading, the way she used her sails, the type of trade that she was engaged in, the type of construction, the people that were involved in that construction. She is part of our national heritage and is something that we are determined to conserve.

GIFFORD: Police say they are treating the fire as suspicious. Surveillance cameras showed several people in the area in the early hours of the morning when the fire started, but investigators say so far they have no evidence of arson.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

SIEGEL: Here's my question about the Cutty Sark, why is it called that? Well, by even asking, it's proof of what a Scotsman I am not. Cutty Sark is from the most famous line of one of the most famous poems by Scotland's most famous poet, Robert Burns.

The 1790 poem is called "Tam O'Shanter." What it did for nautical names is nothing compared to the poem's legacy in the hat business. Anyway, young Tam encountered some witches including one that is wearing a Cutty Sark - a skimpy or short undershirt. A sark that is cutty. A garment that she wore as a girl but has outgrown. Here's how that part of the poem goes, read by Marilyn Wright.

Ms. MARILYN WRIGHT: (Reading) Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn, that while a lassie she had worn. In longitude tho' sorely scanty, it was her best, and she was vauntie.

SIEGEL: Tam is so taken by this spectacle that he yells out the most famous line in the poem...

Ms. WRIGHT: Weel done, Cutty-sark!

SIEGEL: The witches hear him and chase him and during the pursuit, the witch with the cutty sark pulls the tail off his horse but Tam escapes.

The figurehead of the ship named Cutty Sark portrayed Robbie Burns' beautiful young witch from the poem Tam O'Shanter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.
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