Patrick explained that a clipper ship was a type of mid-19th-century merchant sailing ship, designed for speed. Developed from a type of schooner known as Baltimore clippers, clipper ships had three masts and a square rig. They were generally narrow for their length, small by later 19th century standards, could carry limited bulk freight, and had a large total sail area.
Clipper ships were mostly constructed in British and American shipyards, though France, Brazil, the Netherlands and other nations also produced some. Clippers sailed all over the world, primarily on the trade routes between the United Kingdom and China, in transatlantic trade, and on the New York-to-San Francisco route around Cape Horn during the California Gold Rush. Dutch clippers were built beginning in the 1850s for the tea trade and passenger service to Java.
The 1st true tea clipper was Rainbow, designed by John W Griffiths and launched in 1845. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days – taking more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip. Their development was given another boost by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in Australia in 1851 – people rushing to seek their fortunes wanted ships that would transport them as fast as possible.
The American Clippers were large compared with the British ships and this, in fact, created problems at the Chinese ports who were only geared to load the smaller vessels. Also, larger clippers were not necessarily faster and not as manoeuvrable through the hazards of the China Sea. The first Clipper to take advantage was the Oriental, which arrived at West India Dock in London on 3 December 1850 – just 97 days after leaving Hong Kong. British merchants were horrified – this was 3 times as fast as the old lumbering East Indiamen which had been used by the East India Company. They resolved to build their own clippers to rival the Americans, and the 1st British Tea Clipper, Stornoway, was built in Aberdeen in 1850.
The boom years of the clipper ship era began in 1843 as a result of a growing demand for a more rapid delivery of tea from China. It continued under the stimulating influence of the discovery of gold in California and Australia in 1848 and 1851, and ended with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. While composite clippers continued to be built into the 1870s, the next generation of sailing ships were iron-hulled. The last full-rigged composite passenger clipper (Torrens) was launched in 1875, while iron hulled clippers in the Australian wool trade continued to be built into the 1890s.
From 1839, larger American clipper ships started to be built beginning with Akbar, 650 tons OM, in 1839, and including the 1844-built Houqua, 581 tons OM. These larger vessels were built predominantly for use in the China tea trade and known as “tea clippers”. Smaller clipper vessels also continued to be built predominantly for the China opium trade and known as “opium clippers” such as the 1842-built Ariel
During the time from 1859 British clipper ships continued to be built. Earlier British clipper ships had become known as extreme clippers, and were considered to be “as sharp as the American” built ships. From 1859 a new design was developed for British clipper ships that was nothing like the American clippers. These ships built from 1859 continued to be called extreme clippers. The new design had a sleek graceful appearance, less sheer, less freeboard, lower bulwarks, and smaller breadth. They were built for the China tea trade and began with Falcon in 1859, and finished with the last ships built in 1870.
Decline in the use of clippers started with the economic slump following the Panic of 1857 and continued with the gradual introduction of the steamship. Although clippers could be much faster than early steamships, they depended on the vagaries of the wind, while steamers could keep to a schedule. The steam clipper was developed around this time, and had auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of wind.
An example was Royal Charter, built in 1857 and wrecked on the coast of Anglesey in 1859. The final blow was the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, which provided a great shortcut for steamships between Europe and Asia, but was difficult for sailing ships to use. With the absence of the tea trade, some clippers began operating in the wool trade, between Britain and Australia.