Thursday 22 June 2023

Postcard of the Day No. 112, Starcross

Captain George Peacock was born in 1805 into a naval family in Exmouth. He served in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy as well as pursuing a career as a surveyor and inventor.  In 1831-32 when sailing in the Royal Navy in South America he surveyed some potential  routes for a future Panama Canal.  The value of his pioneering work was recognised by de Lesseps 50 years later when the canal was finally constructed.  Four years later he surveyed the Corinth Isthmus and proposed a route for a canal, for which he was, many decades later, honoured by the Greek sovereign. By 1840 he was sailing with the Pacific Steam Navigation Company in South America for whose benefit he set about developing business opportunities. In Chile he established the first coal mine in the continent, after which he explored nitrates in Chile and located guano deposits in Peru.  In 1841 he supervised the construction of the first railway on the west coast of South America. Inventions were many and various, including an improved screw propellor for steamships, a desalination treatment for sea water on board ship, an early form of life jacket and anti-fouling paint for the protection of iron hulled ships.

Not content with all this, after retirement to Starcross on the Exe Estuary he designed and built the Swan of the Exe in the 1860s, a 10 berth sailing yacht in the form of a swan, equipped with two large wings that served as sails. Internal fixtures and fittings were said to be comparable with those in a First Class railway carriage. Four small swan-shaped launches were built, one of which, known as Cygnet was employed to ferry passengers from the shore to the yacht and can be seen in these postcards.  This eccentric vessel became a celebrity in the Exe Estuary and was written up in the press.  By the time these postcards were on sale the Peacock Swan was over 50 years old and in the care of his descendants.  There’s a mass of conflicting information about its ultimate fate, some witnesses claim to have seen it afloat in the 1930s after which it seems to have become unseaworthy and downgraded to the status of garden ornament. Cygnet did survive and is now on display at the Museum of Topsham on the opposite bank of the Exe.  Artist and designer Enid Marx (1902-98) made a colour linocut of the Starcross swans in 1936 that can be seen by following this link.

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