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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Grant

Great Tea Race of 1866

Enjoy a great cup of luxury green tea with this tale.

For a few decades, clipper ships ruled the world. They burned brightly and briefly: their boom years began in 1843, fuelled by the Chinese tea trade, but the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, gave steamships the edge and saw their popularity plummet. It may have been a reign of fewer than thirty years, but clippers captured the imagination of the world and they are still renowned today.

Originally clippers were developed to carry low-volume, high-value goods that depended on greater speeds, such as early season tea clippings. It was not from these clippings that the ships took their name, but rather from the pace at which they could ‘clip’ over the waves rather than ploughing through them. They frequented routes between England and the Far East and carried opium, spices and even people as well as tea.

The speed these ships could achieve became a matter of international interest, with their route times being published in newspapers and ships racing each other home with their cargos. The culmination of this competition was the Great Tea Race of 1866, where at least 57 ships are known to have raced from China to London with the season’s first crop of tea.

International interest was at an all-time high, with premiums paid to the first ships back and bets placed across the globe on the race’s outcome. After a journey spanning more than 14,000 miles, Taeping beat Ariel to the docks by just 28 minutes over a 99 day crossing.

For all the attention, the rise of steamships, soon to be elevated further by the opening of the Suez Canal, meant the days of the clipper were numbered. Though they’d had their moment, the force behind their popularity – the tea trade – would carry on and go from strength to strength.


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