Walter Hood – the man, his shipyard, and the ship
Walter Hood is three things – the man, his Aberdeen shipyard and the elegant clipper he built there in 1852.
“an eminent builder, whose reputation stands deservedly high, and whose skill and scientific knowledge in the construction of ships, combining both sailing and carrying power, have never been excelled”1
Walter Hood, the man, was born near Aberdeen in 1802. He learned the trade of shipwright from J & T Adamson and set up his own company in 1839. He began to build ships for George Thompson, an Aberdeen commission agent and ship broker, delivering him his first ship, Anemone in 1840. That sale led to a close partnership and friendship between the two men that lasted for decades, with Hood designing and building many ships for Thompson’s Aberdeen White Star Line.
Several of these ships were sent to home port in London to sail the increasingly lucrative London to Sydney route, taking household and manufactured goods to Australia and bringing back the wool clip, copper ore, whale products and gold. The push for faster sailing ships that could still carry a good tonnage led Hood to design ships with a clipper bow, by raking the stem well forward to form the cutwater. This ‘sharper entrance’ meant that the ship cut more efficiently through the water, increasing its speed while keeping plenty of cargo room. The clipper style design with its overhang also allowed a higher tonnage for the ship’s keel length, which was a tax advantage in the 1840s.
“the firm of Messrs Walter Hood and Company have also turned out some remarkable vessels”2
Walter Hood and Company shipyard of Aberdeen went on to build many ships during the 1840s and 1850s, including Centurion, John Bunyan, Woolloomooloo, Star of Peace, Wave of Life and Damascus. In 1849, the Hood-built Phoenician sailed from London to Sydney in just 90 days (100 days was considered good time), establishing Hood’s reputation for building fast, good-looking clipper ships.
By the early 1850s, with increasing competition from American lines wanting to carry the lucrative Asian tea market, the race was on to build faster and faster ships. This trans-Atlantic rivalry also played out in the now-famous schooner race around the Isle of Wight in 1851, won by America, which took the victor’s cup back to the New York Yacht Club, where it remained for the next 132 years.
“Substantial yet elegant proportions”3
Walter Hood, the ship, was built in 1852, 204 feet (62m) long from her figurehead to the taffrail at the back, with a keel length of 161 feet (49m). She had three masts, all square rigged, weighed 937 tons and had a carrying capacity of 1500 tons measurement goods and 1300 tons deadweight.
She was classified as a ‘9 year’ ship, which meant she wasn’t built to the highest standard or using the best materials. Instead of the preferred but increasingly scarce English oak, her keel was American elm and the frames were reinforced with iron knees, which allowed the use of cheaper and thinner structural timber that took up less of the cargo space. Her deck was Quebec yellow pine and Hood also used mahogany, teak, iron bark and stringy bark.
In February 1852, Surveyor Alexander described her for Lloyd’s as:
“This vessel is formed with the clipper bow. Full poop and top gallant forecastle. Is square sterned without transoms. Stern and counter timbers filled in and abut to after cant frame and bound internally with hooks same as fore end of vessel.”
In 1852, the Walter Hood was the biggest ship ever built in Scotland and 50 per cent bigger than anything Hood had built before. She could carry 3,363 square yards (2,812 sqm) of sail, or enough to cover about 6 netball courts.
The engraving below, by Walter Mason in the Illustrated Sydney News shows her in all plain sail entering Sydney Harbour although that was his interpretation of her rigging rather than what he actually saw. When she passed South Head he would have seen her with already shortened sails and her fifth sails (sky sails), plus their masts and spars removed.
During Walter Hood’s first voyage to India and China in 1852 her captain, Hugh Sproat, discovered that although she was fast in front of the wind, she was not weatherly, meaning she made too much leeway when close-hauled and beating into the wind. This compromised her ability to make a fast passage home with the season’s new tea so she was allocated to the London-Sydney-London run.
The London-Sydney-London run took advantage of a southerly ‘great circle’ route, where a square-rigged ship could run in front of strong westerlies as it circumnavigated the globe, via the east coast of South America, the Cape of Good Hope, then a long run with the ‘Roaring 40s’ at 43 degrees south around Tasmania, up the coast to Sydney and then back to England sailing south of New Zealand and around Cape Horn.
From 1854 to 1869, the Walter Hood made 18 return voyages to Australia under four captains – Sproat, Donald, Pirie and Latto. She was well-known in Australian waters and always a welcome sight in Sydney Harbour where she was admired for her sleek lines, and elegant green gold and white paintwork.
A journalist for the Empire was obviously a big fan of the “noble lines of clipper ships” of the day, especially the Walter Hood:
On her first voyage to Australia, the Walter Hood had arrived in a record-breaking 80 days. This was a very important event for sailing ships at the time as the development of steam ships, especially coming from the USA, was threatening their survival.
On her return journeys to England, the Walter Hood carried several thousand bales of wool. Although wool was a valuable cargo and could be tightly packed in the hold, it was also difficult as it was too lightweight to create enough ballast for the ship. Below the wool there were casks of tallow, whale oil and coconut oil packed in sand and sometimes bags of copper ore from South Australia. For her outbound journeys, the ballast deadweight was usually iron rails or casks of cement. During the 1850s there were also often 40-50 passengers both London-Sydney and Sydney-London but, by the late 1860s, there were usually only a few passengers.
Although the Walter Hood never did beat her first 80 day run to Australia, her sleek lines, high tonnage and reliable appearance in Sydney each year in summer-autumn meant that when something terrible happened to her, as it did in April 1870, it shocked the whole nation.
What happened on the Walter Hood’s voyage in April 1870?
1 – from the Aberdeen Herald, 7 January 1852
2 – from The Times (London) 17 December 1850
3 – from the Aberdeen Herald, 7 January 1852