In Cook’s Log in 2002, Alan Leventhall provided brief accounts of the lives of the three men who, having sailed to the Pacific with Captain Cook, sailed in Bounty with William Bligh: Joseph Coleman, David Nelson, and William Peckover.1 In discussing Peckover’s post-Bounty career Leventhall quotes J. C. Beaglehole’s transcription of an undated memorandum written by Joseph Banks that survives in the Banks Papers at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.2
Wm. Peckover Late Gunner of the Irresistible superannuated wishes to be made an established Tide waiter naming Preferable Commissioners
No 13 Lower gun alley wapping3
Leventhall then goes on to note that “Banks was either unable, or unwilling to help his former colleague as Peckover never became a... Tide Waiter”.
As it turns out, however, Peckover did become a “tidewaiter” (sometimes “tide-waiter” or “tide waiter”). We know this because in an obscure parliamentary document there is an entry under the heading “Retired Allowances for Superannuations, &c.” for “William Peckover, preferable tidewaiter, London... deceased”.4 From this it appears that Peckover had been receiving an “allowance” or “compensation” of £30 a year up until the time of his death in 1819.5 Unfortunately, the entry does not provide any further information about Peckover’s service as a tidewaiter or about the date of his retirement. Moreover, the entry appears under the heading of “Colchester” rather than “London”, which raises the question as to whether he was employed as a tidewaiter in London or whether he worked, instead (or as well as, or later) in the Essex port of Colchester. My hunch is that he worked in London, but retired to Colchester, and received his annual “allowance” or “compensation” there.
In his history of the United Kingdom’s department of Customs and Excise, its sometime librarian and archivist Graham Smith explains that “as their name suggests” tidewaiters “boarded vessels on the tide to ensure that there were no illegal landings of goods before the vessels arrived at the quays”,6 when they were handed over to a landwaiter.7 It is easy to imagine that Peckover would have been suitable for such a job. Soon after the arrival of Bounty in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, in late October 1788, for example, Bligh recorded in his Log, “deputed Mr. Peckover the Gunner to manage our Traffic with the Natives”.8 Moreover, from the journal that David Samwell kept on Cook’s Third Voyage we learn that on at least two occasions it was the gunners of each ship (Robert Anderson in Resolution and Peckover in Discovery) who were put in charge of trade in the Tongan islands of Nomuka on 18 April, 1777, and of Tongatapu on 12 June.9 This suggests that it might have been common practice for gunners to be employed in this way. Presumably, as well as valuing Peckover’s previous experience in the role, his ability to speak Tahitian, and his familiarity with Tahitian customs, Bligh must have had trust in Peckover’s personal ability to manage both people and goods.
I have yet to ascertain what “preferable” means in this context. It appears, however, that the post of “preferable” tidewaiter was different from that of “established tidewaiter”, the post for which Peckover sought Banks’s assistance. It seems nevertheless to have been a formal, commissioned position that required high levels of literacy and numeracy, as well as administrative and organizational skills.
Indeed, the responsibilities and demands of the role of tidewaiter were so complex that the edition of Set of Instructions for the Tide-Waiters, who are Employed to Watch Ships, and to Prevent any Manner of Goods from Being Irregularly Landed in the Port of London, published by the Commissioners of Customs in London in 1795, runs to 45 pages.10 Given the scant details we have about Peckover’s life, however, it is impossible to say how demanding his duties as a “preferable tidewaiter” may have been. It would not be the least bit surprising to discover that the post was, in his case at least, something of a sinecure.
In his undated memorandum, Banks describes Peckover as “Late gunner of the Irresistible superannuated”. According to the record of his service supplied to the Board of the Admiralty by the Navy Board on 3 June, 1801, Peckover’s service in Irresistible ended on 30 December, 1800.11 In an article by Jeff Thomas in The UK Log, however, it is suggested that Peckover’s service on Irresistible came to an end only on 25 May, 1801, when, having declared himself unfit for duty, he was discharged, and applied for a pension.12 This was apparently 17 days after Bligh had been appointed to the ship’s command, making it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Bligh did not want Peckover on his ship. After all, we know that in a letter written soon after the Bounty voyage, Bligh said to Banks
Should Peckover my late Gunner ever trouble you to render him further services I shall esteem it a favor if you will tell him I informed you he was a viscious and worthless fellow. He applied to me to render him service, & wanted to be appointed Gunner of the Providence but as I had determined never to suffer an officer who was with me in the Bounty to sail with again, it was from that cause I did not apply for him.13
There are marked differences between the record of Peckover’s service supplied by the Navy Board to the Admiralty, and that laid out by Leventhall in these pages. Frustratingly, although Leventhall writes that “William Peckover’s Naval record has been discovered”, and provides a transcript, he does not give any information about where it was found. Thomas provides an identical transcript (possibly copied from Leventhall), and another identical transcript appears in the entry for Peckover on Wikipedia,14 but in neither case are any details given about the original source.15 Among other discrepanes is that Leventhall has Peckover serving in Gelykheid from 14 May, 1801, whereas Thomas says Peckover was discharged from Irresistible on 25 May 1801. In the Navy Board’s letter about Peckover’s service he is said to be “Gunner of the Gelykheid”. At this time Gelykheid (sometimes Gelikheid), a captured Dutch ship of the line, had been repurposed as a prison ship at Chatham.16 So, it seems clear that he was appointed to Gelykheid, at least nominally, at some point after his service on Irresistible had come to an end.
To deal properly with Peckover’s naval career after the voyage of Bounty would take another article, and knowledge and skills I do not claim to have. Suffice it to say here, that it appears that it may well have consisted of a series of undemanding, if not more-or-less nominal, appointments. For example, although the Fourth Rate HMS Antelope, in which Peckover is recorded as having served from 9 December 1790 to 12 June 1791, had been ordered from the dockyards on 15 February, 1790, she was not launched until 10 November, 1802.17 Moreover, according to Thomas, in a letter Bligh wrote to the Admiralty after he had been appointed to Irresistible, Peckover “had kept himself in ordinary since 1790”,18 and this appears to be the case.
After his three circumnavigations with Cook, and the debilitating open-boat voyage following “the mutiny on the Bounty”, Peckover may well have not been considered fit enough for normal duties. Moreover, when Bligh took over command of Irresistible in April 1801, Peckover may have been more than happy to retire.
From other sources, we know that, as well as the £30 a year Peckover was receiving from the Customs Office, Peckover received an annual pension of £8 from Greenwich Hospital, in relation to his service in Bounty (though I have yet to establish when it started).19 We also know that he was in receipt of a naval pension of £39 2s 1d a year from 8 June, 1801, until the time of his death in 1819.20 Indeed, it appears that it was not until late 1824, by which time £44 of unpaid pension had accrued, that the authorities at Greenwich Hospital learned that he had died, and his name was struck through.21 At the time of his death, then, Peckover appears to have been in receipt of a total of £77 2s 1d a year.22
It seems likely that Banks wrote the memorandum about Peckover’s wish to become a tidewaiter in June 1801, at the earliest, and probably not much later than that. Further research may establish more precisely when Banks wrote the memorandum, what action if any he took in relation to it, when Peckover started working as a tidewaiter, and where, as well as how arduous his duties were. In the meantime, it is nice to think that Banks played a part in securing a position for Peckover some thirty years after they had circumnavigated the globe together in Endeavour.
From a letter Peckover wrote to Banks in late 1771 or early 1772 asking for a position on Cook’s Second Voyage, it appears that Banks had previously offered to recommend Peckover for a position of some sort. Peckover writes that it was his “Dislike of an inactive Life at Land [that] was the sole Reason for Declining your Obliging Recommendation at Richmond”, going on to note that “you was so good to me During your Last Voyage & so generous sinc[e] your Return”.23 We may never know what Banks’s “obliging recommendation” was. Given that he made it “at Richmond”, however, it seems reasonable to suppose that it related in some way to the royal garden there, which was merged with the garden at Kew in 1772.
Some years later in 1780, at the request of Daniel Solander, Peckover was employed at the British Museum to help with “properly” arranging and labelling the objects in the South Seas Room,24 some of which he had himself donated.25 It seems clear that both Banks and Solander thought well of their former ship-mate, and it thus seems likely that Banks did indeed play a part in securing the position of “preferable tidewaiter” for the three-time circumnavigator Gunner Peckover.
I am grateful to Pieter van der Merwe, Stephen Walters and James Walters for their helpful comments, and to John Robson for drawing my attention to P. F. McCallum’s book Le Livre rouge (see reference 20).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 14, volume 45, number 2 (2022).
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