Launched in 1866, the same year that saw such notable clippers as Argonaut and Titania slide down the ways, Shun Lee was completed towards the end of the era of fast sailing ships specifically designed for the China tea trade before that route was lost to steam in the 1870's.
One of the fifteen China clippers to emanate from various Thames yards in as many years, Shun Lee was owned and built by William Walker & Co. at Rotherhithe and laid down in 1865. Of composite design - wood planking over an iron frame - her construction was supervised by the celebrated Lloyd's Register surveyor Bernard Waymouth who, during the 1860's, had become a recognised authority on the composite technique. Additionally, Waymouth was a rising naval architect and when, two years later, he produced his design for the legendary flyer Thermopylae, this was the result of his careful study of other composite clippers such as Shun Lee observed whilst on the stocks. Like Walker's other clippers, Shun Lee had longer than usual overhangs at bow and stern but in most other respects she had all the fine-lined, heavily-sparred characteristics of her breed. Registered at 674 tons gross (650 net), she measured 158 feet in length with a 31 foot beam, and proved a worthy addition to the China fleet when she entered service even though her maiden voyage was actually to Australia under Captain Milbank. Then, after only one return trip to China, she was sold to Potter & Co. of London (in 1871) who put her into the New Zealand trade where she remained through several changes of ownership until purchased by J. Jenkins in 1885. Re-rigged as a barque since 1880, she was resold for the last time to J. Carew early in 1891 but was lost within a few months when, that September, she caught fire and burned to the waterline whilst at Rio de Janeiro. The cause was found to be spontaneous combustion although three members of her crew maliciously accused the mate of setting fire to the ship and were subsequently compelled to pay the costs of the court of inquiry.