Maritime tales - Captain Peacock's apparatus

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colour photograph of a black box with a wooden handle protruding from the top, a tap at the front and writing across the front of the box.

Peacock's apparatus. Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I, Stephen Guy, love the wonderfully refreshing qualities of pure water – especially from a natural spring on a hot summer’s day – and can well imagine the terrors of seafarers unable to quench their thirsts.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

These famous lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge sum up the fear seafarers have always had about running out of fresh water.

Captain George Peacock, RN, came up with an apparatus to help turn seawater into drinking water in 1828. There is a contemporary scale model of the device on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum. It was designed to remove the salt from seawater at a time when the lack of drinking water on sailing vessels was a common problem. From 1906, merchant seafarers were allocated three quarts (six pints) of water daily. The scale metal model is inscribed:

“Model of Captain Peacock’s apparatus for aerating fresh water condensed from salt water. Invented by him and fitted on board HM steam ship Echo in September 1828. On board HM steam ship Salamander in March 1833 and on board HM steam ship Medea in Feb 1834.”

Captain Peacock’s apparatus features a crank handle which operated a series of cogs and paddles in the water tank. Drinking water was then obtained from a tap.

Peacock, a prolific inventor, later became master of several steamships of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company of Liverpool. In later life he received a medal from the Columbian Government for his services in first proposing building the Panama Canal.

The display also focuses on sailors’ diet over the years. A ships’ biscuit dates from about 1914.  They were jokingly known as Liverpool Pantiles (roofing tiles) because of their shape and texture. By 1850 tinned food was readily available for use as ships’ provisions and later became standard. On display are tinned codfish, dried yeast and chicken broth manufactured by Henry Gamble & Co around 1850. Nautical cookery books on display include Cookery for Seamen by Alexander Quinlan and NE Mann (1896) and the Nautical Cookery Book for the Use of Stewards and Cooks of Cargo Vessels by TF Adkins (1916).

Before 1900 most seafarers had little choice but to accept whatever food and drink was provided. Their inadequate diet consisted mainly of poor quality salt meat, hard biscuits and dried peas or oatmeal. This led to widespread health problems, especially on long voyages. Surprisingly, salt meat and ships’ biscuits remained standard provisions for seafarers on British vessels until 1957.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.