Devon Perspectives

The Swan of the Exe

An engraving of 'The Swan of the Exe' from the Illustrated London News, October 30th, 1860

A most unusual craft

Rail passengers continuing westwards beyond Exeter enter upon a most pleasant phase of the journey when the panoramic expanse of the Exe estuary comes into view, with waders and other birds of the shoreline dotted across the shallow waters. Imagine the surprise for these travellers when, following its launch in September 1860, a yacht with the appearance a giant bird, having the proportions of a mute swan but four times as large, could be seen gliding by.

One such passenger was Henry Baird, who, in his humorous poem A Turrabul ride bee Rayl written in Devonshire dialect under the pseudonym Nathan Hoggnote1, is astonished to see through the carriage window

  • Vur bigger thin a rick of hay
  • Thare zwim'd a wackin burd;

The Swan of the Exe was the brainchild of Captain George Peacock who was born in Exmouth in 1805. In addition to a distinguished career as a naval officer, explorer and surveyor, he was also credited with creating many ingenious inventionsnote2. He spent his retirement in Starcross from where he commissioned an Exmouth boat-builder Mr T.D. Dixon to make his design for this remarkable boat a reality. Its much anticipated launch was accompanied by considerable fanfare but was not without incident, as this account from the Nautical Magazine for 1860 relates [2, p548]

It having become known when this elegant little yacht was to be launched, a large number of persons flocked to the beach, the novelty of her construction having attracted considerable attention during the last few weeks. The scene was of great animation and beauty, heightened by the strains of Exmouth brass band, which played some most lively music. The yacht was brought down to the water from Mr Dixon's yard on rollers. After a little necessary delay to allow the chain cable, &c., to be taken on board, the order to launch was given. The ceremony of naming was performed by Miss Peacock, a daughter of the owner, and the band struck up "Rule Britannia". In going off she unfortunately struck on a large block of stone, which being partially buried in the sand had escaped notice. This difficulty over she glided into the water beautiful and graceful as one of her namesakes, reminding us of Milton's exquisite lines:
  • ...; the swan, with arched neck
  • Between her white wings mantling proudly, rows
  • Her state with oary feet;

An exquisite contrivance

The 'Swan of the Exe' showing Capt. Peacock in the stern and Mr Dixon in the bow
An early photo of The Swan of the Exe showing the designer Captain Peacock in the stern and the boat's builder Mr Dixon in the bow.

The splendour of the yacht, both externally and below deck, was described in the London Penny Illustrated Paper of Saturday, September 23, 1865.

The vessel's exterior is painted white, with gilt mouldings, and she is fitted up in the most elegant manner. On a blue silken flag, fluttering from a brass rod in the gigantic bird's mouth, is its title, "The Swan of the Exe", on the estuary of which river it may frequently be seen floating. The length of the swan is 17ft.6in., its greatest breadth of beam is 7ft.6in., and its height from the keel to the top of the back 7ft.3in. Even in detail the proportions of a swan on an enlarged scale are adhered to. Its neck and head, beautifully carved, rise gracefully 16ft. above the water-line. The wings of the bird are represented by the sails, which are hoisted and lowered by halyards running through gilt pendent blocks attached to a gilded ring at the upper part of the neck.
The interior fittings somewhat resemble those of a first-class railway carriage. The seats are covered with green morocco and stuffed with granulated cork and coconut fibre. The ceiling is lined with a 3in. air-casing to exclude the heat. There are Venetian blinds at the sides, with oval plate-glass windows. In the centre is a table large enough for ten persons to dine comfortably at; and, with one of Captain Peacock's admirable life-preserving "poncho mattresses" spread on the top, at night a capital bed is improvised. In the table are small apertures which open to the water underneath, and thus afford the opportunity of fishing whilst sitting at table. Any aquatic prey thus obtained may be dressed in a multum in parvo cooking apparatus on board, the smoke from which is conveyed through the bird's neck and out at its nostrils, the woodwork being protected by a safe water-casing round the flue. In the breast of the bird is a ladies cabin, fitted up as a boudoir. The fittings also include a pumping apparatus, a fresh-water tank, and lockers innumerable for the storing of every necessity. The whole of the interior is either covered with morocco or delicately painted.
sketch of the Swan of the Exe

To augment the wings, various aids to propulsion were provided. Two powerful steel webbed feet fitted with feathering were driven by a lever with handles that could be operated by two or four persons. Also, the rudder was constructed like the tail of a fish, allowing it to be used to accelerate motion, and two pairs of oars were available for a similar purpose.

The draught of the vessel was a mere 17in., reducing the likelihood of the Swan running aground on the mud-banks of the estuary; one might anticipate that such a shallow draught would lead to instability in such a tall craft, but this was mitigated by the adoption of a hull with dual keels.

A facility for bathers to enter the water from within the Swan was hastily discontinued after a near fatal accident.

The top of the dining table was originally arranged to fold back so that the boat could be used for bathing: the bathers undressing inside the cabin, bathing in the hatch, and, if they wished, swimming underneath to the outside of the boat. A lady doing this on one occasion did not appear, and her companions inside reaching for her managed to catch her hair, pulled her into the well-hole and probably saved her from drowning. Capt. Peacock rowed across to Exmouth at once, fetched the boat-builders and had the top screwed down. [3, p167]

In 1920 the Swan was then owned by a Mr Cookson, the grandson of Captain Peacock, who fitted it out each year along with its smaller tender, The Cygnet, which was launched in 1880. Three other Cygnets were built, two of which went to Paignton and the third to Bournemouth. [3, p166]

Postscript

By the time of the Second World War only The Cygnet remained, the Swan having been destroyed by fire some time in the inter-war yearsnote3, and it was actually commissioned for use by the local Home Guard as an armed rowing boat, HMS EX 359note4.

The Cygnet now has a permanent berth in the Topsham Museum. Having been lovingly restored, an example of Captain Peacock's eccentric ingenuity is preserved for future generations to admire.

The last remainining Cygnet on display in Topsham Museum

Notes

1.
The full poem can be found in [1] starting on page 16. [return]
2.
During his time in the Royal Navy, Peacock surveyed possible routes for the Panama Canal and the Corinth canal in Greece. In both cases his plans were acknowledged as providing the basis for the building of these canals 50 years later.
On resigning his commission in 1840, he joined the Pacific Steam Navigation Company and was commander of the first steamship expedition to pass through the Strait of Magellan on route to Chile. In 1848 he was appointed superintendent of Southampton docks. In the same year he formed a company, Peacock and Buchan, for the manufacture of his patented anti-rust paint for iron ships.
model of Peacock's desalination apparatus - image © Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

His list of inventions is a long one. Aged seventeen he invented and fitted a screw propeller to the longboat of his father's brig Fanny. Between 1828 and 1876, he invented, among many other things, an invulnerable floating battery, a refuge buoy beacon, Peacock's Synovia, a lubricating preparation for ships' engines, and the Poncho mattress, the "life, limb, and treasure preserver". Remarkably he also devised a method of making fresh water from condensed sea water on steamships; much to his angst the patent for this went to some unscrupulous rival who pirated his innovation. More comical was his Nautilus Bathing Dress, the top half of which was inflatable, being designed for "Swimming in Safety with Decorum". [return]

3.
The only mention of the Swan being destroyed by fire that I have seen is on Exeter Memories; however, neither the circumstances nor the date are given. [return]
4.
Information relating to the restoration of The Cygnet and its war-time role, can be found on the South West Maritime History Society website. [return]

Bibliography

1.
2.
3.
Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, p166, Vol. XI, J G Commins, Exeter, 1921.
4.
'Peacock, George (1805-1883)' by Peta Rée, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the copyright owners, Topsham Museum Society, 25, Strand, Topsham, for permission to reproduce the photo of their Cygnet exhibit, and to The South West Maritime History Society, on whose website I first encountered a larger version of this image, for tracking down the copyright holders and obtaining their permission.
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