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Sir Francis Columbine Daniel: Freemason and inventor of the life preserver

All at sea

It is no coincidence that the same man who invented the life preserver and received a mistaken knighthood also had a wholly unique relationship with Freemasonry. John Hamill considers the life of Francis Columbine Daniel

On 21 July 1806, crowds thronged to the River Thames in London to view an exhibition of Francis Columbine Daniel’s patented life preserver. Made from leather and silk, it was the forerunner of today’s inflatable life vest. A report of the demonstration cites people floating down the river playing musical instruments and smoking pipes – even loading and firing sporting guns. 

Daniel was born in King’s Lynn in 1765, his father hailing from Edinburgh and his mother from Norwich. After education at a grammar school, Daniel was apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary at Wapping in East London in 1779. Nine years later he set up his own practice and became a Freemason. It was possibly a foretaste of his later, somewhat eccentric life that he was initiated twice: first in a lodge under the Antients Grand Lodge and then in one under the rival Premier Grand Lodge (the Moderns), both in Wapping.

The area was a hive of naval activity and it was Daniel’s observation of many drownings that led to his resolve to find a means of preserving life in and on the water. His 1806 exhibition brought him to the attention of the Lords of the Admiralty and a further display in the presence of their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of York, Cambridge and Cumberland gained him celebrity status. His invention won him gold medals from the Royal Humane Society and the Royal Society for Arts, and brought him to the attention of the Court, which was to lead to a certain notoriety.

Daniel’s celebrity led to his being invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace in 1820. Joining what he believed was the receiving line to be introduced to the king, he was surprised when asked to kneel and a sword was tapped on both his shoulders. Having been dubbed a knight he could not be ‘undubbed’ and so left the event as Sir Francis Columbine Daniel.

‘A prominent member under both Grand Lodges, Daniel had made enemies because of his sometimes high-handed, if well-intentioned, actions.’

Life in lodges

Led by William Burwood, members of Daniel’s Antients’ lodge, the United Mariners, had formed a charity in 1798 ‘to cloathe and educate the sons of indigent or deceased Freemasons’. Daniel had been a great supporter, but had made enemies because of his sometimes high-handed, if well-intentioned, actions. The members forced the Antients Grand Lodge to open its eyes to Daniel’s prominent membership under both Grand Lodges. Daniel refused to choose between his affiliations and, in 1801, was expelled from the Antients.

In 1808, Daniel retired from his medical practice to concentrate on Freemasonry and charity. He persuaded his Moderns lodge, Royal Naval, to form a boys’ charity to assist the sons of impoverished or deceased members. The Premier Grand Lodge had founded a girls’ school in 1788 and the move was successful. In 1813, the two Grand Lodges united and their boys’ charities were then amalgamated in 1817, becoming the Royal Masonic Institution for Boys, now part of the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys. 

Daniel seems to have run Royal Naval Lodge as his personal fiefdom, alternating between being its Master and Treasurer, and introducing seafarers into the lodge. It was undoubtedly a success, but Daniel was not good at making returns of new members to Grand Lodge or paying their registration fees. In 1810 he was suspended from the Premier Grand Lodge until the debt was cleared. That happened in 1817, and he was welcomed back into the Premier Grand Lodge.

Rather like a shooting star, Daniel had a brief blaze of glory and then disappeared. There is no record of him in Freemasonry after 1821 and he must have died shortly after as in 1825 his daughter, who had fallen on hard times, applied to lodges in Somerset for assistance on the strength of her late father’s membership. Turbulent as his life may have been, he left an indelible track through both his life preserver and his work for the sons of Freemasons in distress.