"Those were the days of the old-time clippers,
The tall ships ready for the setting forth to sail.
Every spar and rope would quiver
As they went down London River,
To welcome once again the kiss of spindrift, wave and gale."
In the days of sailing barques, brigs, brigantines and clippers, Poplar was, to the Eastern ports and North and South Americas, a more widely known place-name than London. Here it was that the biggest efforts were made by the shippers and shipbuilders to compete against the great American companies, by building the best and swiftest vessels in order to gain access to the heart of commerce in the Eastern and, in fact, all seas.
One of the most notable of these shipping pioneers was Richard Green, whose statue, together with that of his dog at his knee, can be seen close to Poplar Station. To him we owe a great debt of gratitude for the revival of British shipping at a time when the Americans appeared to be driving our clippers off the ocean trade routes. The larger and speedier American tea clippers were gaining the control of the bulk of the trade with China. It was not always our shipowners who were at fault, as the shipping laws and their effects on the designing of the vessels were seemingly to blame for most of these discouraging circumstances and events. However, even when the Navigation Laws were eventually replaced, British owners were still loath to fashion their crafts after those of their American rivals, although some, who were less conservative in their ideas, built much better boats by combining the good qualities of the two countries.
As good as the combination of such qualities was, the results did not bring forth an equal to the American ships, which still held the supremacy until soon after Richard Green had declared his decision not to be beaten by them. He had a new tea clipper built at his yard at Poplar, called the Challenger, of 699 tons, and she was sent off to China in 1852. Having loaded tea at Shanghai, she set out for London, calling in at Anjer, where she met the American ship, Challenge, which was on her way to London with a cargo of tea from Canton. The Challenge was a 2,000 tonner,built expressly for speed and capacity, and was the largest clipper built by the Americans until that time. So it was that a race home was started by these two vessels, the smaller British clipper gaining London two days ahead of her huge rival. Naturally, this set the hearts of all the British owners aglow, and was instrumental in urging on the efforts of our shippers to capture the China trade. Towards the close of the year 1855, it was convincingly proved that British ships could more than hold their own in speed, and that they were able to convey their cargoes in much better conditions than their rivals.
One outstanding instance of - one might almost say British "cheek" - occurred in 1862, when four of the noted racing clippers of the period were hung up in the "doldroms" in the Atlantic, just north of the Equator. There was also resting there in the calm a small frigate of Blackwall, the Kent, owned by Money Wigram; and as soon as the merest sign of a wind blew up from the north-east trades, this impudent little frigate moved off, leaving behind the four big clippers, one of which (the Ellen Rodger) had gained the distinction of creating the record for the run from Foochow to London that very year. When the wind freshened later, the clippers soon overtook the frigate, and in turn left her in their wake. However, the captain of the Kent was a "hard-driver," and he was determined to give chase to these fine ships. After a strenuous journey he did not catch sight of them any more until, arriving off Dungeness, he discovered two of their number away up the Channel, still some considerable distance ahead. Signalling for a tug, he decided to beat them even yet; and he finally landed his little boat in the East India Dock half an hour in front of the Robin Hood and the Falcon, the two large clippers first sighted. This exciting race in which an ordinary frigate beat two of the swiftest racing clippers of the period was long remembered in shipping circles, and is even now looked upon as an historical event by some of the older "sea-dogs."
The woollen trade with Australia was another trade in which these clippers were employed, wool being a cargo which was eagerly sought after, being in itself not too heavy and, therefore, very suitable for fast passages. It could also be easily packed tightly into the holds - a distinct advantage inasmuch as it was not so likely to become a combustible product. Loosely packed wool, on the other hand, was liable to admit a certain amount of moisture, thus causing harm from fire due to spontaneous combustion.
One among many of the famous London owners who were connected with the Australian trade was Duncan Dunbar, whose passenger boat (named after him) was the first English-built vessel of its kind to be put into this trade with Australia. Green’s passenger boats were renowned for their greater comfort on the Australian route, and were therefore more popular than the over- crowded vessels of some of the other ports of the country.
To mention a few of the famous clippers seen in the Poplar Docks, and whose memories are revived by the names of some of the streets in this neighbourhood, we at once think of the Thermopylae (suggested by), a tea clipper whose beauty of line and structure cannot be equalled to-day among any of the vessels seen on the river. This boat was built for the Aberdeen White Star Line at Walter Hood’s yard in Aberdeen. The Macquarie (formerly the Melbourne) represented in the neighbourhood by "Macquarie" Way, will bring back recollections of the last-known clipper to have returned home to Poplar. Plimsoll Street will also remind us of the Samuel Plimsoll of that line, which was commanded by Captain Simpson (afterwards Commodore) - "the merry blue-eyed skipper" of Froude’s Oceana.
Other names will conjure up for us the early trading days, such as the streets named after Cuba, Calcutta, Canton, Lodore, Malabar, Manilla, Nankin, Pekin, Samuda, Tobago, and Trinidad. The Colonies are also represented in Hudson’s, Montreal, Ontario, Ottawa, Quebec, Toronto, and Winnipeg Buildings, St. Lawrence Cottages, Melbourne, and Sydney Buildings.
Still further can our imagination roam over such streets as Barque, Boat, Brig, Crew, Launch, Quadrant, Ship, Commodore Court, and Naval Row; whilst merchandise will be recalled in Castor Street, Cotton Street, Cording Street, Corn Place, and Ropemaker’s Fields.
Gone, then, are the gay ships with fancy riggings, the figureheads, and foreign vessels that once sailed over from Honduras, loaded with mahogany; or the whalers in from Hudson’s Bay; yet their memory will still live on in history for those who have time and the inclination to recall stories of high-seas adventure and mercantile pioneer work.
One can scarcely picture the Chinese settlements of these far-away days, with their opium dens and queer haunts, where knives were used for other purposes than merely cutting into animal flesh or food produce; and where pigtails were still the fashion. The Chinese, it is true, are plentiful in Poplar to-day, but their mode of living has become more sober, with the progress of civilisation and the requirements of law and order.