ABERDEEN BUILT SHIPS


Name
THERMOPYLAE
Construction
COMPOSITE
Type
CLIPPER
Date
1868
Official Number
60688
Description
Rig: SHIP

Launched 19 August 1868

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

The THERMOPYLAE was one of the fast clipper ships; she was designed for the China tea trade, and set speed records on her maiden voyage to Melbourne - 63 days, still the fastest trip under sail. The CUTTY SARK was built the following year to compete with THERMOPYLAE in bringing back the new season's tea from China. In 1872 she raced the clipper CUTTY SARK from Shanghai back to London and won by seven days after CUTTY SARK lost her rudder. Her record day's run was 380 statute miles, a feat exceeded by no sailing ship before. From 1882 she took part in the Australian wool trade.

Aberdeen Herald, 22 August 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.

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 one 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 Foochow, 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 61days. Sailed thence 22nd, arrived Newcastle N.S.W., 30th January."

The Melbourne Argus reported the arrival of THERMOPYLAE thus:
13 January 1869, page 6,
'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 fifty-nine 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.'


1868 Master Robert Kemball - route London to Australia
1881-84 Master John Henderson
1884-1888 Master Nathaniel Allan

Basil Lubbock's book 'The China Clippers' (1914, James Brown & Sons, Glasgow) mentions an encounter with HMS CHARYBDIS as the two 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 two 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 three 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.


Sydney Evening News, 25/02/1871:
Cape Otway - ship THERMOPYLAE, from London, 58 days out, passing south.

Sydney Empire, 08/03/1872:
THERMOPYLAE departed 7 March for Shanghai, Master Kemball.

South Australian Register (Adelaide), 05/03/1873:
Sydney Shipping - 3 March, THERMOPYLAE from Melbourne.

Sydney Morning Herald, 12/04/1878:
THERMOPYLAE departed 6 April for Shanghai, Master Matheson, cargo 1186 tons coal.

Sydney Morning Herald, 01/09/1879:
Arrived 30 Aug., THERMOPYLAE, Capt. Matheson, from the Downs, 1 June.

Sydney Evening News, 27/12/1879:
The Tea Ship Race - the new Aberdeen Clipper THERMOPYLAE, which arrived London 4 Oct., reached the Lizard from Foo Chow in 88 days, but sailing distance from the Lizard to London Dock occupied upwards of 2 days. The SIR LANCELOT beat THERMOPYLAE by fully 24 hours.

South Australian Register, 10/01/1880:
London, 6 Feb. - arrived THERMOPYLAE from Sydney 19 Nov.

Sydney Morning Herald, 27/12/1884:
London, 24 Dec. - arrived from Sydney, THERMOPYLAE, sailed 8 Oct.

Sydney Morning Herald, 02/05/1913:
The famous old clipper ship THERMOPYLAE has at last been destroyed. Till recently she was used by the Portuguese as a training ship on the River Tagus, but being too old for further service it was decided to do away with her. As the old vessel had such a fine reputation in days gone by, it was decided not to sell her, but to give her a naval funeral. She was towed out to sea by 2 Portuguese Men O'War and sunk.

The following is from the book "Clippers for the Record" by Marny Matheson, 1984.

With Charles Matheson's promotion, Captain John Henderson took over THERMOPYLAE and sailed her for three voyages from March 1881 to January 1884. He captained her on her last visit to Foochow in 1881, returning in one hundred and seven days. The next two years saw him following Charles' previous route via Sydney, returning with wool round Cape Horn.

Under Allan THERMOPYLAE'S routines changed. In 1885 she sailed for Melbourne, arriving there on 8th April. Two weeks later she set out to visit Lyttleton, the port of Christchurch N.Z., with coal from the bustling Newcastle. She returned to Sydney by 16th August with a typical New Zealand cargo of produce.



Shipbuilder
Walter Hood and Co
Shipowner
Aberdeen White Star Line (George Thompson & Co)
Dimensions
length 212' x breadth 36' x depth 20' 9"
gross tonnage 947 ton
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