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George Rix Seawitchartist






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The Ariel Tea Chest

The  Ariel  is my second tea chest and so the first made with commercially cut plywood, the hell of using bits of ancient real tea chests as done with the Cutty Sark chest I chose not to face again!

The  Ariel  is my second tea chest and so the first made with commercially cut plywood, the hell of using bits of ancient real tea chests as done with the Cutty Sark chest I chose not to face again!

For  high resolution image click here

The Ariel was a beautiful tea clipper built by Robert Steele at Greenock , Scotland in 1865  for Shaw, Maxton & Co being launched on 29th June that year. She weighed 1058.73 tons and her length of keel and fore-rake was 195 ft, her beam 33.9 ft. She carried a 100 tons of fixed iron ballast moulded to her timbers and carried 20 tons of movable pig iron, also required was about 200 tons of shingle ballast when she loaded a tea cargo, a lot of ballasting for these ships were sensitive, getting it right was very important. She did three voyages under the command of the very able and fabled Captain Keay, who in a letter to the historian Basil Lubbock said among other things of her " Ariel  was a perfect beauty to every nautical man who saw her in symmetrical grace and proportion of hull, spars, sails, rigging and finish, she satisfied the eye and put all in love  with her without exception'. He also said of her that in fair winds she could do 14, 15 and 16 knots for hours together. He described her handling as ticklish and requiring close watching. My own, if incomplete research indicated the Ariel may have started a trend with tea clippers to have white figureheads, of which Cutty Sark's  would be one in the form of the witch Nannie Dee.  In 1866-7 Ariel set a new record on an outward voyage from Gravesend to Hong Kong, 83 days anchorage to anchorage, or 79 days pilot to pilot, and doing this against a north-east monsoon it was a sensation in Hong Kong and barely believed in Britain,  even if this was the ship that won the great 1866 race (see below). Her fate in 1872 is a mystery as was often the case with sailing era ships. She had left London on January 31st bound for Sydney but never turned up. In August that year a lifeboat was found on King Island in the Bass strait that may have come from the Ariel, given it's teak construction and a brass fitting with a gothic script A on it. Relying on that she was probably lost in the Southern ocean beyond the Cape of Good Hope.

She was not the first clipper to bear the Ariel name, a very different American opium clipper of just 90 tons had been built in 1842 by Sprague & James of Medford USA, she won some fame beating the first of the opium clippers, the Anglona in a sporting race from the Macao roads round Linton, winning $1,000.

Ariel leads the great tea race of 1866

The Great Tea Race of 1866

The under lid painting of the Ariel tea chest celebrates the great tea race of 1866, the most exciting and close run China tea race of all.  By 1866 public interest in the tea races was growing, with clippers by now being wagered on much  like race horses, and in one case the crews of the clippers Fiery Cross and Serica  bet a months wages against each other!  Fools.  In May 1866 sixteen of the finest clippers lay at the Pagoda anchorage off Foochow awaiting the first of the seasons tea, they included famous names like Ariel, Taeping, Serica, Fiery Cross , Flying Spur  and Black Prince. 

On  28th May Ariel  having loaded 1,239,900 lb of tea, was the first ship ready, much to do with her being deemed a favorite by the shippers. Early that evening she  dropped her mooring and with the tug Island Queen  (that would soon be causing her much grief) alongside,  anchored for the night. Fiery Cross, Taeping and Serica followed twelve and more hour later.  At 5 a.m. on  29th May went down the Min river with the tug alongside.  At 8.30 a.m. she discharged her pilot and the tug Island Queen went ahead to tow. The Min river is a fast flowing one and the tide  becomes a  regular sluice wherever the channel narrows, and in that the crew of Island Queen began to lose control of their tug,  Ariel  had to drop anchor in a hurry to avoid disaster. A second attempt to press ahead with the tug lashed alongside but again she failed and the required tide passed her by and the pilot refused to carry on .  Meanwhile Fiery Cross, drawing less water was able to pass by, her crew teasing that of the Ariel with a mocking three cheers. That evening she was again in bad luck, the weather being too dense and wet for the pilot to permit departure, so the night was spent improving the ships trim by transfer of equipment and stores, Captain Keay's cabin was filled with tea chests! On the morning of the 30th she at last was able to proceed, but by now the Fiery Cross had gained a fourteen hour lead and the ships Serica and Taeping were right behind her . The damn Island Queen had one last disruption to offer, she capsized the pilots boat and an hour last lost over that. She at last filled her sails and began the next hours closing the gap between herself, the Serica and Taeping, the ships lost sight of each other in what was a wet dull evening.  The Fiery Cross under the command of Captain Robinson would lead the way at this first demanding stage of the race with it's changing unsettled weather. The Ariel, Taeping and Serica followed close together but not in sight of each other until  9th June  Ariel  was able to signal  Taeping , which puts paid to some accounts that the two didn't see each other until they arrived in the English channel.

They nearly met again of Anjer (aka Anya) West Java, on June 20th, with Ariel six hours ahead, both  still being led by the Fiery Cross that passed this milestone two days ahead of them. The run ahead to Mauritius across the Indian Ocean with it's steady south-east trade winds was a place where clippers excelled with all sail out and made their best times and this was no exception, the Fiery Cross did 328 miles on  24th June,  the Taeping  319 on  25th June, the Ariel  330 on  26th June, and Serica  291 on  29th June. They passed the longitude of Mauritius in the same order, with Fiery Cross still two days ahead of her rivals on 29th June. Between here and the Cape of Good Hope a mixture of unfavourable weather be it heavy storms or light winds was ridden out and it was passed by the Ariel a few hours behind the Fiery Cross , on  15th July, the Taeping  half a day behind her, they had closed the gap. Then Serica passed by this point three days later.............


........ out into the South Atlantic Fiery Cross and Ariel steered the same course and suffered light winds, while Taeping sailing 300 miles closer to the African coast did better and by 19th July  these three ships were abreast if out of sight of each other, Taeping, forging ahead, was first to pass St. Helena, finally taking the lead off the Fiery Cross , while Serica, following the path of the Taeping,  managed to get ahead of the Ariel  for a day or two. Between St. Helena and Ascension Island Ariel gained an edge and passed her by, drawing level again with Fiery Cross, both still behind Taeping by a day at Ascension on August 1st, meanwhile, the Taitsing, the fifth  ship in the race began to close the gap on her rivals passing Ascension on July 8th.

On  4th August Taeping, Ariel and Fiery Cross all  crossed the equator more or less level, with Serica two days behind them, I doubt very much that in the heat of such a battle anyone wasted time doing a 'crossing of the line' ceremony, nonetheless, I'll bet superstitious sailors would have offered some inanimate sacrifices of value to father Neptune, after all, everyone was needing all the help they could get!  Beyond the equator some very close racing went on, Taeping and Fiery Cross exchanged signals on 9th August, Ariel  was one day behind them, but took the lead a few days later. Taeping and Fiery Cross stayed in company until August 17th, competing for second place, that would soon change though, for while Fiery Cross sat dead in the water  her crew could see the Taeping pick up a fresh breeze that carried her out of sight, while she herself would have barely have steerage over the next 24hrs.  The Cape Verde Islands had been passed on August 12th by Ariel, and 13th by the following three, Serica had gained ground again and even the trailing fifth ship, Taitsing had closed her gap by two days. On 29th August the four leaders passed Flores Island in the Azores within 24hrs with Ariel still leading Fiery Cross  , and Taitsing had finally got truly on the leader board passing this point just a day behind the rest.  Westerly winds drove them on mostly over the next six days

The race now entered the western approaches and at 1. 30 a.m. on 5th September  Ariel  sighted the Bishop Light, and with as much sail as possible, raced into the channel, at daybreak a ship was seen to starboard...." Instinct told me it was the Taeping" wrote Captain Keay in a letter to historian Basil Lubbock, and it certainly was. For all that day the two ships raced together up the channel at 14 knots with stunsails and flying kites  set, a westerly wind driving them, the Lizard Lights were passed at 8 a.m. and Start Point at noon. Off Portland, around 6 pm. both vessels hauled in their Jamie Greens (a sail below the Jib boom on the Dolphin Striker) so as to get the anchors over ready for use. The high cliffs of Beachy Head were passed at around midnight, with Ariel maintaining a slight lead. At 3 a.m. approaching Dungeness, she shortened sail and began to burn blue lights and send up rockets to attract a pilot, and at 4 a.m. she hove to, a mile and  a half from the light and  still signalling. An hour later Taeping arrived, also signalling but not showing any sign of heaving to,  so Captain Keay, fearing the Taeping's   Captain MacKinnon wanted to knick in and get first pilot , bore up athwart her hawse , this daring manoeuvre worked and Captain MacKinnon hove to as well. At 5.30 a.m. pilot cutters were sighted and Captain Keay put the Ariel  between them and the Taeping.  At 5.55 a.m.  a pilot boarded the Ariel  and saluted Captain Keay as the first ship to arrive from China that season., however, his decision just wasn't  a final one. Both ships left immediately with their pilots and pressed on up the channel, the Taeping  hoisting more sail than the Ariel  in a bid to pass her by and be first to get a tug, she failed to do that and had to reduce sail off Deal in Kent. It was here that both ships signalled for steam tugs and ironically Taeping  would benefit from being in second place, for the best steam tug approached from behind and threw it's lines to that ship, no doubt to the glee of her crew!  However, it wasn't al bad, Captain Keay could have taken a second tug but he expense would have been pointless as by now it was clear that they would both have to wait at Gravesend for the high tide to access the river Thames in London, as soon as that was high enough both ships proceeded and Ariel arrived outside the East India Dock gates at 9 a.m. , Taeping had further to go and didn't reach the London Docks until 10.a.m. but she drew less water than her rival and managed to dock twenty minutes sooner. Never had Britain seen such a closely run tea race as this, and this is what concerned the ship owners most, that a draw may be declared.  While the ships were approaching London the two owners had met and secretly agreed that both ships would head for their respective docks and allow the one that had the advantage, even if only by a few minutes, claim while the other would not contest it. The fear was the tea merchants would call a draw if there was dispute, or that there was no clear winner and the premium on the cargo, a hefty 10 shillings per ton, wouldn't have to be paid. That year the teas were selling at a great loss, for not only had three ships arriving together with two not far behind flooded the market, the steamship SS. Erl King   ...the shape of things to come, had arrived a week earlier anyway,  so they wouldn't miss a chance to do that.  They had agreed they would share the prize. The agreement was stuck to and Taeping claimed the prize , Captain MacKinnon shared the 100.oo prize that Captains got with his counterpart Captain Keay.  This race was the last one where that premium was paid, it did little if anything to break the culture of racing that it had fostered though, and the fastest clippers had yet to be built. Meanwhile Serica , under Captain Innes, had been romping up the French side of the channel, passing through the Downs at noon and just slipped through the gates of the West India Dock before they closed at 11.30 a.m.  The Ariel, Taeping and Serica had all docked on the same tide, just 99 days out of China, and hey....all the Captains were Scottish which would have caused it's own celebrations.

But what off the Fiery Cross that Captain Robinson had kept in the lead for so long earlier in the race? She had been only a little over a day behind the others, she had sighted the Isle of Wight at 10 a.m. on 7th September while being driven by a fresh westerly winds that alas turned to a gale that blew so hard she was forced to drop anchor when she arrived at the Downs, and was unable to dock in London until 8 a.m. on 8th September. The Taitsing, the fifth ship arrived the next day, and so ended the great tea race of 1866 because all other ships were far behind. Given that the tea races were on par with the Grand National to the general public I'll bet there was a lot of discussion and bickering about the outcome!

The SS. Erl King

SS. Erl King, the shape of things to come

A week after the first tea clippers had left Foochow the 1671 ton iron auxiliary steamship SS. Erl King... essentially a steam assisted sailing ship, had loaded and left with 1,108,100 pounds of tea bound for London, it arrived over a week   ahead of the first sailing ships, and this without the Suez canal that would follow in 1869, as said before, it was not in the race and didn't collect the premium for being first in, and it would seem the Victorian fear that an iron hull would spoil the tea was fading too. In a remarkable twist of fate, Captain MacKinnon's wife was one of the  passengers aboard, being pregnant he  didn't want her having a rough ride in a racing clipper. She gave birth to a boy about four days from Cape Verde

Shaw, Maxton & Co House Flag

Above is the house flag of Shaw, Maxton &Co. As with many shipping companies their name was often changed. Being called Phillips, Shaw & Lowther until 1865, the year they took delivery of Ariel ,   when they became Shaw, Lowther & Maxton until  1871,  I haven't found out which name was in use at that point. In 1871 they became Shaw, Maxton & Co. This is the name I chose to put on my tea chest because if anything it's the easiest name to paint into a short space. In 1891 there was another change of identity to the name Shaw, Busby & Co,  and a new flag was adopted. 


The House carried by Ariel, Shaw, Lowther and Maxton


 Ariel, the meaning of the name

The name Ariel  can mean a lot of things, but the white, winged figurehead of this clipper leaves no doubt as to which applies. Ariel is the king of air elementals, and rules all the powers of air. His winds circle the earth. Shakespeare mentioned him in The Tempest, saying that with his song, he could bind or loose the winds. A fitting name for this flyer! 


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