JOHN PEACOCK has long been known as a piper and a musician and is often stated to have been one of Newcastle’s Town Waits, or civic musicians. This assertion appears to rest on a footnote in Eneas Mackenzie’s 1827 history of Newcastle which states, “John Peacock was one of the last members of this corporation band. He was an excellent performer on the Northumberland small-pipes, which instrument he greatly improved by adding a stop and five keys, and also a fourth drone, which enables the player to alter the key. The late Thomas Wright, of Newcastle, a famous clarionet player, published, under Peacock’s directions, a collection of tunes adapted for the pipes.” This was published within ten years of Peacock’s death and so may be correct, but Mackenzie does confuse Thomas Wright with his son William.
Peacock is probably best known as the accepted source of most of the music in the tune book “A Favourite Collection of Tunes with Variations adapted for the Northumberland small pipes, violin or flute”, published by William Wright at his music shop in High Bridge, Newcastle in around 1800-1805.
An article by I. Bain, first published in the 1982 Magazine of the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society then revised and republished in M. Seattle’s book “Bewick’s Pipe Tunes”, uses evidence in Bewick’s account books to describe Thomas Bewick’s relationship with John Peacock. In an article published in the 1991 Magazine of the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society, L. Jessop summarised the few known biographical details known about John Peacock, and suggested that the well-known Newcastle piper was the John Peacock who married Frances Kidd in Morpeth in 1779. A positive identification could not be confirmed at that time but recent research has confirmed that this was indeed the case, and has revealed further details, so it is now possible to compile a more detailed biography with some confidence.
John Peacock was baptised in Morpeth on 23rd October 1757, the son of William Peacock and Isobel Peacock. By 1775 he was sufficiently highly regarded as a piper to be encouraged by Thomas Bewick to teach others. Bewick, writes in his Memoir that he would, “contrive ….. to engage John Peacock, our inimitable performer to play on the Northumberland or small pipes, and with his old tunes, his lilts, his pauses & his variations I was always excessively pleased“. This might suggest that Peacock already had some link with Newcastle. In 1779 he married Frances Kidd in Morpeth.
By 1782 John Peacock was living in All Saints parish in Newcastle. He and Frances had a son, John, who was baptised at All Saints on 7th April 1782. The baptism register records:
Their son died in infancy and was buried at that same church on 31st August 1785, the burial being duly recorded in the parish burial register:
More happily, John and Frances had a daughter who was christened Frances in St Nicholas parish church in 1786; it is this record that confirms John’s 1779 marriage to Frances Kidd:
In 1798 and until at least 1800 entries in Thomas Bewick’s account books show that he paid Peacock to teach his 10-year-old son Robert to play pipes, and for occasional lessons after that until 1811, by which time Robert was in his early twenties. In the late 1790s and the early years of the 19thC Peacock is listed in newspaper advertisements as one of the vendors of tickets for concerts and balls, and it seems likely that he was playing in the band in which other local musicians such as Thomas and William Wright, Abraham MacIntosh are advertised as playing.
In 1805 Bewick lent Peacock 5s (five shillings, or about 25 new pence) and paid him a further 1/6d (one shilling and sixpence, or 7½ new pence). Peacock gave Robert more lessons in 1808, and a further two “on the New Pipes” in 1809. In this context “the New Pipes” suggests a keyed chanter.
John Peacock was consistently described as a musician, and in an 1811 directory he is specifically listed as a musician living in Manor Chare. This was the year in which Thomas Bewick paid him for Robert’s last recorded lesson (on the “New Pipes”). Robert himself gave Peacock 1/- (one shilling) in 1816, and in 1817, Thomas’ account book records that he gave Peacock “in distress” 1/-.
John Peacock died in 1817, aged 61 years, and was buried on 12th November at All Saints, the event being duly recorded in the parish burial records:
Peacock’s influence on Northumberland small piping is considerable and enduring. The tune book published by William Wright is commonly and widely known as “Peacock’s Tune Book” and has represented a primary source of early (i.e. pre- and early-19thC) small-piping music. More detailed analysis of the tunes, their relationship to an earlier tradition of border piping, and their adaptation for small pipes, is on-going.
The recent discovery in the Fenwick Collection of manuscript copies of tunes specifically attributed to Peacock, but differing from those published by Wright, implies a separate (and sometimes more detailed) source of Peacock’s music. This will form a new area of research.
Peacock’s musicality was, reputedly, exceptional. Thomas Bewick’s view is given above. The piper William Green, himself a highly skilled and innovative player and the ducal piper for more than 40 years, described Peacock as “the best player he had ever heard in his life”. In 1862 Robert White, a member of the Ancient Melodies Committee of the Society of Antiquaries, described Peacock as, “perhaps the best small piper who ever lived, but not a scientific performer”, although this assessment is unlikely be based on personal knowledge. Peacock composed several tunes, and the range of one of them suggested that he also played violin / fiddle; a professional musician at this time would certainly have played more than one instrument, and often several, and this would accord with Peacock playing in bands at local concerts and balls.
It is also clear that John Peacock was himself innovative. His “New Improved Chanter”, illustrated and described in the tune book and accompanied by a scale and a fingering chart, may have been developed for him by the pipe-maker (and general wood-turner) John Dunn of Newcastle. This four-keyed design was subsequently further developed, especially by Robert Reid of North Shields, who had produced a seven-keyed chanter by 1811.
In an article in the Shields Daily Gazette of 25th May 1895, John Stokoe, the music historian and co-author of “Northumbrian Minstrelsy” (1882), wrote that, “John Peacock, the best piper of his day, if, indeed, he has ever since been equalled, was the first to extend the compass of the small pipes, which originally were limited to eight notes, G to G, and without keys. Peacock got Robert Reed (sic) of North Shields to lengthen the chanter, and add keys as occasion required.” The article also states that Peacock’s 7-keyed pipes were at this time in Stokoe’s possession.