Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Garrett, George William Littlerfree

  • Andrew Lambert

George William Littler Garrett (1852–1902)

by unknown photographer

© reserved

Garrett, George William Littler (1852–1902), clergyman and submarine designer, was born on 4 July 1852 at 45 Waterloo Road, Lambeth, London, the third son of John Garrett (d. 1893), an Irish curate, and his wife, Georgina. The Garretts moved to Manchester in the early 1860s, and George attended Rossall School in Fleetwood until 1867, when the family was financially ruined and he was moved to Manchester grammar school. From 1869 he worked as a schoolteacher and studied chemistry at Owens College, Manchester. The combination of work and study reflected the financial pressures on his father. At Owens he developed an effective system for self-contained breathing, using caustic potash to remove carbon dioxide from the exhaled air. Work on this device probably damaged his lungs, and brought about his early death. In 1871 he went to work and study in Ireland, and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with an honours degree in experimental sciences in 1875. After a year travelling in the south seas Garrett married Jane Parker of Waterford—they had four children—took the Cambridge theology examination, and in 1877 became curate to his father.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–8 and the war scare that gripped the British empire inspired Garrett to develop a simple one-man submersible, built in Birkenhead and demonstrated by the autumn of 1878. This secured support for a company from a mystery backer, possibly the Swedish armaments magnate Thorsten Nordenfelt, for the construction of a larger, 33 ton, steam-driven version. This craft, the Resurgam, was completed at Birkenhead in November 1879. Extensive trials were conducted at Liverpool and at sea, demonstrating that it could be submerged, if only briefly, and propelled underwater. This was the first time any vessel had been mechanically propelled below the surface. In February 1880, while on a voyage to Portsmouth for Royal Navy inspection, the boat was lost off Rhyl in a storm.

In August 1882 Garrett travelled to Sweden to work for Nordernfelt's Submarine Torpedo Boat Company. Here the interests of inventor and owner clashed; Garrett sought an effective submersible, while Nordenfelt wanted a torpedo boat that could submerge. While Nordernfelt's name graced the product, the design was essentially Garrett's. The new boat carried a single locomotive torpedo. The boat was completed in August 1883, but underwater trials were hampered by the poisonous fumes from the steam plant. However, public trials were held in September 1885. Despite Garrett's best efforts the flawed design did little more than show that it could operate on the surface and run briefly underwater. It was sold by Nordenfelt's agent Basil Zaharoff to the Greek navy, and delivered in January 1886. While trials in Greece were a failure the Turks were persuaded otherwise, and bought two boats. These were badly built, inferior, if larger, versions of the prototype, and did not work when completed in 1887, though Garrett did manage to carry out the first submerged launch of a torpedo. In their efforts to make the boats work the Turks even commissioned Garrett as commander, though on an honorary basis. A fourth boat was built at Barrow in Furness to an improved design, but the hectic schedule of work in Britain and Turkey finally caught up with Garrett, never in good health, who suffered a breakdown. He recovered in time to demonstrate the latest craft at Portsmouth in May 1887, and at the jubilee naval review in July. Eventually the Russians agreed to try the vessel on a sale-or-return basis, but it was wrecked, en route on the Danish coast. Garrett, who was living in some style at Southampton, continued to work on enclosed steam systems, but when the Nordenfelt company was subsumed into the new Barrow Shipbuilding concern, which eventually became Vickers, Garrett lost his major backer. The Germans built two Garrett/Nordenfelt submarines, but paid no royalties. Not surprisingly, they also made them work rather better than the originals.

In 1890, after discussions with John Jacob (IV) Astor, Garrett moved to the United States to become a farmer in Florida. He was already seriously ill with the pulmonary disease that was to kill him. Farming proved disastrous, and after a spell as a railway fireman in New York, and an American soldier during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when he became an American citizen, he died of tuberculosis in New York Metropolitan Hospital on 26 February 1902, aged forty-nine. He was buried in Mount Olivet cemetery, Maspeth, New York on 1 March.

Garrett's career combined innovation, triumph, absurdity, and failure in a way that quickly obscured his real contribution. By creating a submersible, though it failed, he spurred the work of others, notably the American John Holland, which resulted in effective submersible warships entering service within a decade of Garrett's death. The Garrett family remained in the United States, and subsequently prospered. At the time of writing the Resurgam had been located by divers, with the possibility of being raised.


  • W. S. Murphy, The father of the submarine: the life of the Reverend George Garrett Pasha (1987)
  • R. Gardiner and A. Lambert, eds., Steam, steel and shellfire: the steam warship, 1815–1905 (1992)
  • W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the present, 7 vols. (1897–1903), vol. 7


  • photographs, repro. in Murphy, Father of the submarine [see illus.]