An engraving of 'The Swan of the Exe' from the Illustrated London News, October 30th, 1860
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
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
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;
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.
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.
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
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.
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]
By the time of the Second World War only The Cygnet remained, the Swan having
(allegedly) been destroyed by fire some time in the inter-war yearsnote3. The Cygnet was 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
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.
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".
A model of Peacock's desalination apparatus - image © Liverpool Daily Post and Echo
Was The Swan of the Exe
destroyed by fire sometime between the 2 World Wars? That's what we understood, but, NO. She definitely was not.
Several local residents have been quick to explain that she was kept in the grounds of Regent House right up until the 1960s,
where she was used as a summerhouse. Photographs exist... [return]
I found information relating to the restoration of The Cygnet
and its war-time role
in Article 1098 on the South
West Maritime History Society
website, but I can no longer find a publically available link to this article [return]
'Peacock, George (1805-1883)' by Peta Rée, Oxford Dictionary of National
Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
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.