Captain George Peacock (1805–83): Naval Officer, surveyor, inventor, entrepreneur and recipient of Royal Order of the Redeemer


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George Peacock was a little-known yet indefatigable inventor and naval officer, born in 1805 at Navy House in Exmouth, Devon.

His father, a former Master in the Navy, owned merchant vessels on which George became an apprentice at the age of 13. He progressed quickly and in 1828 obtained his full Master’s ticket; joining the Royal Navy as engineer of the paddle steamer HMS Echo. He had always been a keen inventor – his first invention was a screw propeller for his father’s boat, which he designed when he was just 17. Aboard the Echo he continued to pursue his interests, patenting an ingenious method of making fresh water from salt, and a method of salvaging wrecks.

In 1835, while Master aboard HMS Medea, he surveyed the Isthmus of Corinth – the narrow land bridge which connects the Peloponnese peninsula with the rest of mainland Greece and marked the line of a possible canal. He presented this chart and associated plans to King Otto of Greece, and in 1882 King George of Greece honoured Peacock with the Royal Order of the Redeemer, when the building of the Corinth Canal commenced. (Western Times, 23 June 1882).

Peacock's later career

In 1840 he left the Royal Navy, accepting employment as Commander within the newly constituted Pacific Steam Navigation Company. This resulted in his contribution to the opening up of trade and communications with Chile and Panama – Peacock became the first Commander aboard steamships to navigate the Strait of Magellan to the Pacific coasts. Fifty years later, the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps acknowledged his debt to Peacock's survey in his own direction of the cutting of the Panama Canal (Western Times, 1881).
In 1848 Peacock settled down to become dock master, and subsequently superintendent, of Southampton Docks. In the same year, he formed a company, Peacock and Buchan, for the manufacture of his patented anti-fouling paint for iron ships. He was able to claim that numerous iron sailing ships had returned from India and the west coast of South America 'after an absence of from ten to fourteen months with perfectly clean bottoms'. However, in 1860, perhaps feeling the need for exploration again, he led an expedition to the Spanish Sahara, under the patronage of Napoleon III, to search for guano and mineral deposits.

Inventions and publications

Considering his illustrious career, very little seems to have been written about him. Clues to his achievements in the forms of inventions and manuscripts can be found in various museums and archives around the country. Between 1828 and 1876, Captain Peacock was credited with inventions including: an invulnerable floating battery; a refuge buoy beacon; a granulated floating poncho – termed a ‘life, limb, and treasure preserver’, the ‘Nautilus Bathing Dress’, the top half of which was inflatable and designed for ‘Swimming in Safety with Decorum’; and The iconic Swan of the River Exe, a private 10-berth yacht with the appearance of a giant mute swan (four smaller vessels called ‘Cygnets’ would transport passengers to the Swan, only one of which remains in existence today at Topsham Museum in Devon).
Peacock also published several pamphlets, among them Official Correspondence relating to his naval career (1859), Handbook of Abyssinia (1867), A Treatise on Ships' Cables (1873), The Resources of Peru (1874), and Notes on the Isthmus of Panama and Darien (1879).
The Caird Library is fortunate to store items relating to Captain Peacock, alongside an exciting possible new discovery – an unattributed plan of a ‘tell tale dial for ships wheels’ signed ‘G. Peacock’, perhaps invented by him during his time in the Royal Navy. Other well-documented items include: a copy letter book containing correspondence regarding his inventions and letters of Patent for a Propeller, the model of which is also held in the Museum stores.

Further information

For more information please see the following sources:

ZAZ6817: G. Peacock: Plan of a tell-tale dial for ships wheels, Admiralty Sailing Navy CollectionPlan showing the front elevation and side elevations of the upper dial and lower dial mechanisms for the tell-tale system on the steering wheel of warships. 10th Nov 1835.

SLR2386: Model of propellerPropeller screw – wrought iron, with blades shaped like a bee’s wing, or parabolic in their curvature. (NMM Brass Foundry)

MSS/82/045: Peacock, George, Letters of Patent for a Propeller, dated January 1855Copy of agreement and patent certificate – copy refers to diagrams (not included) – the section and sketches reside at Liverpool Record Office (387 PEA/3/16). This item also contains a Great Seal of the Realm of Queen Victoria.

MSS/79/129: Peacock, Captain George (1805 - 1883) Copy Letter Book 1858 to 1860

Ref: (ILN): Illustrated London News: Oct 30th 1860 p. 352 An article and illustration relating to the Swan boat.

Mariner's mirror, v.66, No.1, February 1980, pp.17-29'Captain George Peacock: the pioneer commander of Pacific Steamers.' Duncan, Roland. E.

Sea Breezes, new series, volume 11, pages 194-196, 1951. - 387.205 SEA'Outstanding Shipmaster of the 19th Century, George Peacock'

Drawings relating to the propeller patent MSS/82/045 are held at Liverpool Museum and the last surviving Cygnet boat, alongside more examples of his inventions, reside at Topsham Museum, Devon.

Katherine Weston, Archives Assistant

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