Even before the Cutty Sark, speed was the name of the game in the 19th-century English tea trade. The country was mad for the delicate Chinese leaves and great wealth and public adoration went to the ship that was first in retrieving each season’s first shipment. This was the age of the great three-mast clipper ships, designed to make this blazingly fast run from China to London in about 100 days.
The Cutty Sark, always fasionably late.
In 1896, the shrewd businessman John Wills inherited a shipping fleet from his father. Driven by a keen sense of competition, and not satisfied to merely participate in the tea trade, Wills wanted to take advantage of the great wealth due to only the fastest of the clippers. So he sought out a young ship designer with little experience but a reputation for innovation, Hercules Linton. Linton had just opened his own shipyard but was yet to gain any clients so when Wills showed up he was anxious to get his first commission.
A bit too anxious as it turned out. Wills, knowing he had the advantage in negations with the brand new concern, extracted an onerous contract from Linton which later was to be Linton’s undoing. But for Wills, whether lucky or calculated, his bet on the untested ship designer was spot on.