Thomas Selby – his life on board the Cutty Sark

Robin Selby has sent several extracts from the book, The Log of the Cutty Sark, mentioning his great-uncle Thomas Selby. The latter’s life on board the famous clipper has no direct connection with industry in Hong Kong. However, I think the following is of general historic interest and besides Thomas worked for two companies with a direct link to Hong Kong, namely the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company and Bullivants of Millwall, London.

Thomas Selby photo mate on Cutty Sark

note this photo incorrectly has Tom as “J”.

Extracts from ‘The Log of the Cutty Sark’ by Basil Lubbock, published by James Brown & Son, Nautical Publishers, in 1924.

Robin’s copy of the book is signed ‘C H Selby, Sept 1926’. Robin says, This is my great uncle Chris, who settled in Vancouver.  It is a very well researched book, running to 391 pages plus appendices.  J Selby (a mistake for T Selby) appears in the index three times, as follows:

Pages 297-298 ‘Before she casts off her tug, let me say a word or two about her crew this voyage.

Dimint was still mate, but Jacques had gone and the new second mate was J. Selby, a son of the manager of Bullivants, the wire rope makers.

Selby was undoubtedly the best officer Woodget ever had.  He served two voyages as second mate and three voyages as mate, leaving the Cutty Sark in 1891 in order to take command of her old rival, Titania.  He was, I suppose about 21 or 22 when he took the second mate’s berth in 1886, but he looked older and he was more of a man than his years indicated, being one of those quiet, reserved, well-controlled, self-reliant men who command the respect of those under them.  Though a very strict officer, who tried to inoculate his watch with his own sense of duty, energy and tirelessness, he was popular with both men and apprentices, these last looking up to him as an example of what an officer should be.  Indeed Selby was an ideal mate.  He expected perfection not only in the state of the ship but in her petty officers, apprentices and crew, and he saw that he got it, malingerers finding it very difficult to exercise their talents under his regime.  Yet there was no false dignity about him though he did keep those under him in their place, and he was not above showing anybody how things should be done.

Captain Richatd Woodget Cutty Sark

Captain Richard Woodget

He was specially good at marlinspike seamanship and a past master in the art of handling wire, in splicing it and knotting it; he thought nothing of staying up in his watch below in order to finish a piece of work, such for instance as making a stopper knot in the wire main tack.

In port he invariably was out in the boat every evening when the “Cutty” was lying off, and was most particular in seeing that the masts were aligned to the last fraction of an inch and the yards dead square.  Indeed the Cutty Sark was never more perfectly kept than when Selby was mate.  Under him her bright work was always kept well cleaned and varnished, and the white paint of the iron bulwarks, panels of the deck-houses and monkey poop was always spotless.

It was the same thing below, every voyage the skin was cleaned off and painted, the under deck swabbed and coated with pine oil, and the iron frame chipped and leaded, while the bilges were kept as clean as the more conspicuous parts of the ship.

Cutty Sark photo taken by Capt Richard Woodget

The Cutty Sark. Photo taken by Capt. Woodget

Selby was also an athlete and no mean customer with his “fives”.  In Sydney he was often to be found boxing of an evening at Larry’s.  The noble art was always very popular on the Cutty Sark, and if her people were occasionally beaten at cricket or football, not many ships could produce a crowd more skilled with the gloves than the Cutty Sark’s officers and apprentices.’

Page 324 ‘Old Jerry Dimint left the Cutty Sark in March, 1888.  I doubt if Woodget ever forgave him for being caught napping, whereby the ship was dismasted on the outward voyage.

Selby took his place, and a new second mate was shipped.  This man came from steam, and only lasted one voyage.  He did not possess the nerve and seamanship required by Woodget in a second mate.’

Pages 347-348 ‘Titania arrived home from New Westminster on 24th March, 1891, 123 days out.  It was Captain Dunn’s fifth voyage round the Horn both ways in the beautiful ex-tea clipper, and he now decided to retire.  The vacant command was obtained by Selby, who was replaced in Cutty Sark by the Titania’s mate.  Selby’s successor was a very different man to the new captain of the Titania.  Instead of being eagle-eyed he was short-sighted, and the half-deck considered him very easy-going after the strict, hard-working Selby.’

Extracts from The Return of the Cutty Sark, ‘Another of his [Woodget’s] amusements about this time was roller-skating, and many a time did his head make the close acquaintance of the “Cutty’s” teak deck.  Once he induced Selby, the mate, to put on a pair of rollers, with the result that after a few frantic gyrations he came down a frightful thump on his head with his feet waving in the air, and nothing would induce him to try roller-skating again.’ (2)


  1. Extracts from The Log of the Cutty Sark, Basil Lubbock, James Brown & Son, Nautical Publishers, 1924
  2. The Return of the Cutty Sark, C Fox Smith, Methuen, 1924


  1. Descendants of the Cutty Sark a couple of paragraphs about Thomas Selby
  2. wikipedia – Cutty Sark
  3. wikipedia – Captain Richard Woodget 1845-1928

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Thomas Selby – Cutty Sark, Indo-China Steam Navigation Company and Bullivants
  2. SS Tungshing, Indo-China Steam Navigation Company – Captain Thomas Selby
  3. Indo-China Steam Navigation Company 1873-1974
  4. Bullivant & Co, Millwall London, supplier of Taikoo Sugar Refinery’s aerial ropeway cables
  5. Bullivant & Co, Millwall London, supplier of Taikoo Sugar Refinery’s aerial ropeway cables – additional information

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