In the British sit-com Are You Being Served? the rather stuffy floor walker, Captain Peacock, purported to being something of a military hero. Though his military history was never really explained. If anything it was somewhat spurious and, at times, entirely fictitious…except in Captain Peacock’s mind I guess.
I was reminded of the character made famous by Frank Thornton when I happened across a real Captain Peacock today at work…though, I hasten to add, I was reminded by name only. The real Captain George Peacock was about as far from the Grace Brothers floor walker as it’s possible to be.
George was born in Devon in 1805. He was the son of a naval man turned merchant shipowner and his wife who I assume was a stay at home Victorian wife and mother. Following a brief stint in school, George’s dad decided he should make his son an apprentice so, at the age of 13, George was taken to sea.
His early years were taken up with serving aboard a number of his father’s ships in Brazil and the Med before commanding a ship of his own. Then, in 1828, aged 23, he decided to leave behind the private world of merchants and nepotism and, instead, joined the Royal Navy. Interestingly he joined as a second master so either his previous work aboard his dad’s ships was taken into account or else he knew someone.
Cynicism aside, it seems that George was a brilliant officer who quickly sped through the ranks. It wasn’t long before he had been promoted to Acting Master of HMS Magnificent (1806).
Perhaps he’s aboard it above, steering the beautiful ship through a gale. Probably not because he went aboard in 1831 and the engraving was from 1812…still, I’m sure it wasn’t all plain sailing for our intrepid Peacock.
He moved from ship to ship while doing a bit of surveying. He was responsible, in a large part, for the surveying of the location for the Panama Canal and the Corinth Canal in Greece. In fact, he was awarded the Royal Order of the Redeemer from King Otho of Greece for his work on the latter.
Then came the First Opium War. George was really up for it. He’d become a bit bored with the surveying and decided that killing a bunch of poppy mad Chinese traders was where he wanted to be. The Navy, however, completely disagreed and refused to send him. Perhaps they figured he was better off surveying than killing.
We’ll probably never know but it really pissed George off and he wrote in 1840 that it was because of a “…want of influential political friends.” So, essentially, nepotism saved his life for me to write about. If he’d gone to China he may never have returned and then never invented the masses of things he invented including anti-fouling paint for iron ships.
He handed in his commission in 1840 and took a job as Marine Superintendent for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. He worked for them for the next six years during which time he led the first steamship expedition to navigate the Magellan Straits.
Clearly bored, in 1848 he took a job at Southampton Docks firstly as Dock Master then quickly as Superintendent. It was during his stint here that, along with a mate, he invented and tested his anti-fouling paint. In one famous quote he said that a couple of his so treated ships returned after “…TEN to FOURTEEN MONTHS with PERFECTLY CLEAN BOTTOMS!”
His inventive bent was legendary. When he was 17 he invented and fitted a screw propeller to the longboat of his father’s brig Fanny. While this might not sound that amazing, the first screw propeller steamship was the SS Archimedes of 1840 and George was 17 in 1822. He was very much a forward thinking chap.
Mind you, he didn’t foresee the bikini. Instead, in 1828, he invented his Nautilus Bathing Dress which he claimed was for “swimming with decorum.” The top half of it was inflatable and he always had one under his pillow. Just in case he suddenly felt the need for some decorum swimming, I guess. He even posed for photographs wearing it. Sadly I haven’t been able to find any copies of that.
In 1858 he felt like he should end his days being in the Navy and he applied to the Admiralty to be reinstated. They didn’t see it quite the same way as George and refused his re-entry. So, instead, in 1860 he commanded an unsuccessful expedition to look for nitrates in the Sahara…as you do. This expedition was under the patronage of Napoleon III so it may have been to slight the Admiralty for their attitude.
I have only just scraped the surface of George’s incredible life. His inventions and writing and surveying are too numerous to elucidate here in a blog post. He really needs a book. He was a bit of a polymath though principally in seafaring. I also reckon he was a bit of a lad.
Anyway, Captain George Peacock died at the home of his only daughter in 1883 (his wife and sons had all shuffled off their mortal coils years before him) and he was buried in the family vault in Devon.
So, here’s to Captain George Peacock a dude among men.