In his contribution to a recent issue of Cook’s Log, Barry Marriott provided an update on his research into the life of William Peckover, who sailed with Cook on all three of his famous voyages, and later with Bligh in Bounty.1
In particular, Marriott noted that Peckover was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Colchester in Essex on 16 May, 1819.2 Marriott does not explain why he is sure that this Peckover is the same man who sailed with Cook and Bligh. The church’s burial records, however, give the age of Peckover at his death as 70, which is the right age for someone known to have been baptised on 18 June, 1748.3
Moreover, in an obscure parliamentary document published on 5 May, 1820, there is an entry under the heading of “Colchester” for a “William Peckover, preferable tidewaiter, London… deceased”.4 It thus seems virtually certain that the William Peckover who sailed with Cook and Bligh was the William Peckover who later served as a “preferable tidewaiter”, before dying in Colchester in May 1819.
According to the Gravestone Photographic Resource Project,5 there are 107 graves containing the names of 259 individuals in the burial ground at Holy Trinity Church in Colchester. Unfortunately, there is no record of anyone by the name of Peckover being buried there. It would appear either that no gravestone was provided, or that it has been lost. Unless, that is, Peckover was buried in the church itself. Given Peckover’s social status, it seems extremely unlikely, but possible, that he was buried in the church, and/or that some sort of memorial to this three-time circumnavigator was erected, and later lost or covered over. (As I understand it, the church was made redundant in 1956, and is now used as an art centre and café.)
Marriott also notes that a Sarah Peckover was buried at the same church on 11 March, 1819, two months before William, with her age recorded as 62 years. Marriott suggests that “it would seem reasonable to assume that the Sarah buried at Holy Trinity was Gunner William Peckover’s wife”.6 It certainly appears to be the case. In the Register of Marriages for Saint Mary’s, Newington, it is recorded that “William Peckover of this Parish Bachelor” married “Sarah Axford of this Parish Widow” on 12 August, 1805.7 (The church’s address is now 57a Kennington Park Road, halfway between the Elephant & Castle and The Oval cricket ground.) At the time of the marriage, William would have been 57 years old and Sarah would have been 48 or 49 (calculated from her being aged 62 at the time of her death).
Sarah’s signature in the marriage register seems to me to be very similar to that of a Sarah Bodenham, who had married Samuel Axford at the church of St George the Martyr in Southwark, London, on 30 January, 1774.8 If so, she may be identified as the Sarah Bodenham (daughter of John and Sarah), who was baptised at St George the Martyr in January 1750.9 That would put her age at the time of her death in Colchester in 1819 as 69, however, and not the 62 that was recorded. There remains a strong possibility they are the same person, but further research is needed.
Despite the 1805 marriage record for William saying he was a bachelor, he may actually have been a widower. On 9 April, 1781, “William Peckover... of the Parish of Saint George Southwark in the County of Surry a Batchelor aged thirty-two years” signed an allegation (and a related bond) to the effect that he “intendeth to marry” a woman by the name of Mary Bryant “of the Parish of Saint Martin in the Fields in the County of Middlesex a Spinster aged twenty four years”.10
The signature of the William Peckover on the 1805 marriage register entry for Sarah Axford is clumsier than the signature of the William Peckover who intended marrying Mary Bryant in 1781. Nevertheless, the signatures seem to me to be sufficiently similar to warrant the conclusion that they are by the one and the same man, and that the clumsier hand is merely a consequence of William’s age.11 Unfortunately, I have yet to locate a record of the actual marriage of William Peckover and Mary Bryant, rather than of the intention to marry, though I have no reason to think that the marriage did not go ahead.
According to some of the “hints” on the Ancestry family history website (ancestry.co.uk) to information provided by other researchers, the Mary Bryant who married William Peckover in 1781 was the daughter of Colonel William Bryant (1730–1799) and Sarah (née Hardage; 1710–?), both of Carolina, and baptised at Dulwich College in London in 1757. I am not yet convinced that these hints apply to William Peckover’s Mary Bryant. Fortunately, we can be certain that the woman who married William Peckover in 1781 was not the notorious highwaywoman and convicted felon of the same name. This Mary Bryant was born Mary Broad in Cornwall, on 1 May, 1765, and did not become Mary Bryant until she married her fellow convict William Bryant on 6 February, 1788, soon after the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay.12
We can, however, be pretty confident that William Peckover’s Mary Bryant is the Mary Peckover of Mile End Old Town, who was buried at St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney on 14 May, 1788, only seven years after the marriage.13 Perhaps William thought of himself as a bachelor rather than as a widower when he married Sarah Axford in 1805, 17 years after the death of his first wife, to whom he had been married for only seven years before her death.14
There is no record of any children being born to either marriage. Given Sarah’s age, it is hardly surprising that she and William had no children. As for Mary and William, it is possible that they had no offspring because William’s fertility had been compromised by the venereal disease from which he is known to have suffered during Cook’s Third Voyage.15 That there were no offspring may help to explain why there is apparently no gravestone or memorial at Holy Trinity Church in Colchester. It may also be the reason why it was not until late 1824, more than five years after his demise, that the authorities at Greenwich Hospital learned of his death, and stopped paying his annual pension of £8, relating to his service in Bounty.16
Looking back at the contributions about William Peckover that have appeared in Cook’s Log over the years, it is noticeable how knowledge about his life has grown bit by bit, as archival records have become available online. As with the lives of many of those who sailed with Cook, however, there is also the tantalising possibility that there may be living descendants (in Peckover’s case, only collateral ones, of course) who may know more, or who may hold relevant, unpublished documents. In a contribution to Cook’s Log in 2004, John Trevett noted that “according to Dennis Bell, family tradition has it that Peckover never married”.17 Although “family tradition” appears to be certainly singly, if not doubly, wrong on this point, it would be good to know more about what Dennis Bell and any other inheritors of Peckover family traditions might be able to add to what we know about the life of William Peckover.
I am grateful to Pieter van der Merwe, Stephen Walters and James Walters for their helpful comments.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 8, volume 45, number 4 (2022).
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