Significance of 'City of Adelaide'

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The City of Adelaide is of major historical importance. Its status is conferred by a number of essential elements and the clipper fulfils, or largely fulfils, all ten of the criteria for assessing historic ships as defined by the UK’s National Register of Historic Vessels. The City of Adelaide is of national significance specifically to the United Kingdom and to Australia and, because of its rarity, is of international significance. It is:

  • the world's oldest surviving clipper ship of two that survive – the other is the Cutty Sark; built 1869,
  • one of only three large ocean-going composite built ships in the world which have survived intact – the others are the Cutty Sark and HMS Gannet built 1878,
  • one of only four surviving sailing ships to have taken emigrants from the British Isles to any destination in the world – the others are the Edwin Fox, Star of India and SS Great Britain (also a steamer),
  • the last survivor of the timber trade between North America and the United Kingdom,
  • part of the National Historic Fleet of the United Kingdom, and
  • listed in the prestigious Core Collection of the United Kingdom, where the City of Adelaide is considered to be one of the twelve most important historic ships to survive


Criteria for National Register of Historic Vessels

When considering whether a vessel suitable for including on the UK’s National Register of Historic Vessels, a ship needs to meet these criteria:

1. What is the vessel’s ability to demonstrate technological innovation?

The City of Adelaide was built in the years prior to Lloyds publishing their rules for composite ship construction and thus is an important example in the development of composite ships.

See also Demonstration of Technical Innovation


2. Is the vessel a good example of type (vessel design) and construction?

The City of Adelaide is one of only two surviving composite clippers and is in reasonably good condition for a vessel of its age.

See also Good Example of Type and Construction


3. Is the vessel a good example of a maritime function (purpose for which it was built)?

The City of Adelaide is the only surviving purpose built passenger sailing ship.

See also Good Example of a Maritime Function


4. Does the vessel exhibit a positive aesthetic impact?

Clipper ships are regarded as being the most graceful of all the sailing ships. The City of Adelaide will need considerable husbandry to improve its cosmetic appearance.

See also Exhibition of a Positive Aesthetic Impact


5. Does the vessel have historical associations with significant people, places and events?

The City of Adelaide is the only surviving sailing ship built to give regular passenger and cargo service between Europe and Australia, and represents a whole foundation era of Australian economic and social history.

See also Historical Associations with Significant People Places and Events


6. Does the vessel have significant socio-economic associations?

The City of Adelaide is regarded as a vital icon of the making of modern Australia, and of the relationship between Britain and the Australian colonies.

See also Significant Socio-Economic Associations


7. Can the percentage of the original fabric (with reference to that surviving at the end of the vessel’s working life) be estimated?

The City of Adelaide has its original hull planking and composite framing and some of its deck timbers are believed to be of 19th century origin.

See also Percentage of Original Fabric Surviving


8. What is the vessel’s age?

As of today, the City of Adelaide is 150 years old.

See also Significance of Vessel Age


9. How scarce are the examples of this vessel type or construction?

The City of Adelaide is the only two surviving composite clipper ships.

See also Scarcity of Vessel Type or Construction


10. How scarce are examples of this maritime function?

The City of Adelaide is the only surviving purpose built passenger sailing ship.

See also Scarcity of Examples of this Maritime Function


Demonstration of Technical Innovation

The Clipper Age brought the development of a highly skilled set of sailors and craftsmen, and great notoriety for both the ships and crews that sailed them. Clippers were designed for speed and this resonated with the 19th Century’s fascination for speed. Today they still represent some of the fastest ocean-going sailing vessels in the world. Clippers were instrumental in opening new trade routes. The Great Clipper Races, relating to the transport of Australian wool and grain and Chinese tea to the London markets, are an enduring memory of the importance of the clippers.

Wrought iron hulled vessels were first being built in the 1820s. By the time of the launch of the City of Adelaide in 1864, wrought iron was a mature technology for ship hulls. However the speed of wrought iron hulls was significantly impacted by marine growth, particularly during long voyages through the tropics. Whereas wooden hulled ships could be sheathed with copper to inhibit marine growth, iron hulled ships could not because of bimetallic corrosion.

Innovation then led to the development of ships designed with wooden planking over wrought iron frames – composite construction. The wood planking allowed the application of copper sheathing essential for fast ocean crossings while the iron frame made the ship lighter and took up less interior space than wood framing.

Composite ships were not able to get formal recognition and endorsement from Lloyds Register until 1867 when Lloyds issued their rules for composite construction. Prior to this, all composite ships were labelled “experimental”. The City of Adelaide was built in the years prior to Lloyds publishing their composite ship rules and thus is an important example in the development of composite ships. The Cutty Sark built in 1869 is an important example of the construction of composite clippers following the publishing of Lloyds Rules.

The technology of sail was sidelined by the development of steam powered propulsion. As a result, for commercial service, sail power drew less interest and the improvements and developments, which might have been sought if the technology had remained at the forefront of shipping trade, did not occur, and the few attempts at new developments have not, to date, drawn sufficient interest to enable them to be proven commercially viable. Sail technology has developed greatly since the 19th century but has been driven by sporting and leisure interests. Nineteenth century ship rig, therefore, represents an important stage in the technology of industrial sail power, so a vessel which was designed to be rigged in this form is itself of technological significance.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1857 and ongoing improvements in steam ship technologies ultimately led to the brief reign of composite clippers as the fastest mode of transport between Europe and Asia. In maritime history, the composite clippers were to become the final stage in the evolution of fast commercial sailing ships and thus represent the pinnacle of sailing ship technology.

The only two remaining examples of this important era of composite clipper design are the City of Adelaide and the Cutty Sark. The City of Adelaide is also rather unique in that it was designed as a passenger ship – and is important in the history of migration to the Australian colonies. In May 2007, the Cutty Sark was nearly lost to the world when a horrific fire engulfed the ship. Composite Clippers are an endangered species on the verge of extinction. That the City of Adelaide and the Cutty Sark have survived to this day is a testament to the designers and builders of composite clippers.


Good Example of Type and Construction

The City of Adelaide is one of only three large ocean-going composite built ships in the world which have survived intact and with the integrity of their structure not compromised. The others are the Cutty Sark', built in 1869 and preserved at Greenwich, and HMS Gannet' at Chatham, built in 1878.

Other known examples of the type survive only as incomplete wrecks and are severely limited in accessibility. The iron framing of the hull of City of Adelaide is in very good condition, and it has been argued is in better condition than that of Cutty Sark.

Composite construction was a relatively short lived construction method, in comparison to wholly wooden hulled forms and to iron and steel hull construction, but it is noticeable that a high percentage of the vessels constructed in this way were renowned for quality and commercial success. They were the highest quality available, as they could preserve high value cargos and sail through the tropics without losing performance due to fouling. They were inherently more expensive than iron. Accordingly they were reserved for quality and high profitability markets. And as such they represent a peak in the skills of the shipbuilder, making the survival of good examples especially valid for the study of the history and development of naval architecture.


Good Example of a Maritime Function

The clippers as a group were significant both technologically and economically at their time of operation. They were an important element in the growth of British and Colonial trade and similar importance was carried by their equivalents in other countries.

The City of Adelaide is unique in being the only surviving sailing ship built to give regular passenger and cargo service between Europe and Australia.


Exhibition of a Positive Aesthetic Impact

Aesthetically, the clipper was among the finest, most graceful and most spectacular types of large sailing vessels. The type is highly significant in the history of naval architecture. The allocation to the City of Adelaide of a category-A listing was entirely appropriate, not only in terms of the vessel’s technological and historic importance, but essentially because it is a superb and high quality example of ship design and construction.

The City of Adelaide will need considerable husbandry to improve its cosmetic appearance.


Historical Associations with Significant People Places and Events

The City of Adelaide is the only surviving sailing ship built to give regular passenger and cargo service between Europe and Australia.

It is clear that for large numbers of people in the former colonies, the establishment of their own communities' histories is of paramount importance. It should be noted that the City of Adelaide was not associated particularly with the great or with the peculiarly significant in the history of South Australia, but genuinely had a long running importance for the development and economic growth of the region. Its historic status in that country has grown out of its original function. The City of Adelaide provides material evidence of the conditions of ocean voyages of that period, including emigrant circumstances, a genuine link, which adds considerable value and realism to contemporary documentation.

Compared to some other historic ships in the public domain the City of Adelaide is a less well known example of a preserved vessel but this lower public profile does not however reflect its real importance. It seems likely that continued existence of the City of Adelaide as a ‘working’ vessel may have obscured the fact of its preservation.

The heavy appearance of the added superstructure on the City of Adelaide also concealed the quality and integrity of the surviving composite clipper hull beneath.

For twenty years service of the City of Adelaide as a naval drill ship in Greenock, followed by over forty years as a clubroom, located in central Glasgow, meant that, although City of Adelaide was a familiar feature to the local Clydeside communities, its historical significance was generally overlooked and probably not known to many people.

Beyond the West of Scotland, the City of Adelaide was, until recently, relatively unknown even within the world of historic ship specialists. Now, with the public attention and interest in preserving the City of Adelaide growing as a result of the efforts to save the ship from deconstruction the historical significance is far more widely accepted.


Significant Socio-Economic Associations

The City of Adelaide is regarded as a vital icon of the making of modern Australia, and of the relationship between Britain and the Australian colonies.

Historically, the association of the City of Adelaide with the successful colonial and economic expansion of 19th century Britain and, particularly, the development of South Australia, is of primary importance. In the world today where international economics and multinational businesses appear to dominate, and yet in contradiction, nationalist aspiration and self-determinism grow apace, such an icon of that era of empire and conquest may seem slightly out of place as a monument. But self determination, while it can lead to a desire to cut threads with the past and to a political and emotional distortion of the reality of relationships, can also strengthen interest in history.


Percentage of Original Fabric Surviving

The City of Adelaide hull is essentially complete, with only detailed alteration (addition of ports for light and access, removal of knightheads, bulwarks and some stanchions) from the original.

Examination of the structure undertaken as part of the past restoration process has identified individual features of interest, for example, heavy timber beams along the main deck between poop and forecastle and more diagonal bracings than had been interpreted from the Lloyd's Survey report. Some errors in the underdeck diagonal bracings and in one of the diagonals to the stem have also been noted. There are no known major replacements of structural components with exception of the replacement of some hold stanchions and provision of additional beams using heavy steel sections to support the guns.

The half round and deck of the poop are thought to have been replaced, though further study is required.

Comparison of the hull itself, which has been cleared of all later fittings, with documentary evidence of the accommodation has enabled accurate identification of the original layout. Of particular note within the whole structure is the ironwork, which is remarkable in its completeness, condition and quality. The hull provides an important and excellent opportunity for the detailed study of 19th century shipbuilding techniques, craftsmanship and design.


Significance of Vessel Age

As of today, the City of Adelaide is 150 years old. For the thousands of (land) buildings of historic and architectural merit preserved around the world, many of great age, there are by comparison very few ships even over 120 years old. Ships are as more complex than a building in their construction and in their function and far more fragile. As a major tool of human communication and transport they have an important place in the history of human society and especially in the development of remote settlements into important nations. A well documented vessel such as City of Adelaide provides a tangible link with an enormously wide variety of human activities and circumstances.


Scarcity of Vessel Type or Construction

City of Adelaide is the oldest of the three composite ships and the only one to have been built prior to the establishment of the Lloyd’s rules on composite construction. More than 700 composite ships were built, and the City of Adelaide was amongst the first 100 composite ships constructed. The City of Adelaide is the only survivor of the ships built by William Pile, a recognised high quality shipbuilder. It is also a rare survivor from the period when Wearside was a world centre of shipbuilding.

The various conversions to the City of Adelaide are in themselves interesting and worthy of recording and research. Old ships reduced or converted into accommodation or training hulks were once common around the coasts of Britain, not only a feature of the landscape but also often an important feature in the life of the local community. Few examples of ships used in that way now survive in good condition.


Scarcity of Examples of this Maritime Function

The City of Adelaide is one of only two ship-rigged passenger ships in the world which have survived. The other, the iron-hulled Star of India (ex Euterpe), preserved at the San Diego Maritime Museum, California, has been restored in its barque rig converted form.

In Select Company

The City of Adelaide is the fifth oldest former ocean-going merchant ship in the world of only eighteen that survive from prior to the 20th Century.

The City of Adelaide (as HMS Carrick) is the thirteenth oldest former ocean-going military ship in the world of only twenty-three that survive from prior to the 20th Century.

The City of Adelaide is the seventeenth oldest former ocean-going merchant or military ship in the world of only forty that survive from prior to the 20th Century.

Year Merchant Ship Military Ship Overall
Age Rank
Ship Name Age Rank Ship Name Age Rank
1509 Mary Rose 1 1
1628 Vasa 2 2
1765 HMS Victory 3 3
1776 USS Philadelphia 4 4
1797 USS Constitution 5 5
1817 HMS Trincomalee 6 6
1824 HMS Unicorn 7 7
1841 Charles W. Morgan 1 8
1843 SS Great Britain 2 9
1843 Dom Fernando II e Glória 8 10
1854 USS Constellation 9 11
1860 HMS Warrior 10 12
1860 Jylland 11 13
1861 USS Cairo 12 14
1863 Edwin Fox 3 15
1863 Star of India 4 16
1864 City of Adelaide 5 HMS Carrick 13 17
1865 El Horria 6 18
1865 Huáscar 14 19
1868 HNLMS Buffel 15 20
1868 HNLMS Schorpioen 16 21
1869 Cutty Sark 7 22
1873 James Craig 8 23
1874 ARA Uruguay 17 24
1875 HSwMS Sölve 18 25
1877 Elissa 9 26
1877 HNLMS Bonaire 19 27
1878 Falls of Clyde 10 28
1878 HMS Gannet 20 29
1885 Polly Woodside 11 30
1885 Wavertree 12 31
1886 Balclutha 13 32
1887 Sigyn 14 33
1888 af Chapman 21 34
1892 USS Olympia 22 35
1895 C.A. Thayer 15 36
1896 Glenlee 16 37
1896 Rickmer Rickmers 17 38
1899 Albatros 18 39
1899 Presidente Sarmiento 23 40

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