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Captain James Cook: North Yorkshire Days

Image: James Cook - childhood


The voyages of the explorer Captain James Cook make for some of history’s most fascinating stories and they appeal to geography buffs as well. They opened up knowledge of the Pacific for outsiders in the middle of the eighteenth century. The foundations of the modern states of Australia and New Zealand were laid. Astronomical information of great importance was gained, principally by the first voyage to Tahiti in 1768. Extensive understanding of the Pacific Ocean was gathered by the surveying work carried out over much of its vast span. The existence of Antarctica was established firmly. Hundreds of new plants and animals were discovered. Contact was made with the peoples of numerous islands and the continent of Australia. Much was learned, and introduced to European and other distant continents about the cultures of those people through the reports written and goods brought back, as well as the journey made to London by one of the native people that Cook’s expedition encountered. At the same time the future lives of huge stretches of the globe were altered irrevocably, and in many ways not for the better, by the contacts that were made.

I became drawn in to the story of Cook and his voyages almost fifty years ago when I taught in a secondary school. As part of geography lessons I built the Airfix kit of Cook’s first great ship, the Endeavour, and used material supplied by the Australian High Commission in London to teach about that country. Though I discarded the model and the other material many years ago the interest remained. The result was that the building in Australia of a replica of the Endeavour, and the development of museums and attractions to do with James Cook in Britain, were bound to draw me into new visits and new reading. When Pat and I took or caravan to North Yorkshire recently the opportunity arose once more to see some of the childhood and early adult places associated with the explorer.

John Cook, James’s elder brother, was born in a tiny cottage in Marton close to the River Tees. In later years Middlesbrough would grow as an industrial port and Marton would be virtually swallowed up as one of its outer suburbs. John Cook was born to Grace and James Cook, his father being an agricultural labourer moved south from Scotland. The family transferred to a slightly larger cottage in the hamlet. It was there that James Junior, the future explorer of the Pacific, was born. The family stayed there for eight years until James Cook Senior obtained a job as a farm bailiff in Great Ayton, a few miles away. The Marton cottage was demolished in the 1790s and by the mid 1850s the land was owned by local ironmaster Henry Bolckow. He built a hall and surrounding estate there. In 1960 the remains of the hall were destroyed by fire. Middlesbrough Council opened the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum on the site in 1978. An ornate granite urn erected by Henry Bolckow marks the site where the Cook family cottage once stood.

In the photographs above are shown the Museum and part of its life-size display depicting Cook as a child helping his mother making oatcakes. The model of the cottage is part of a glass-case exhibit about the tiny house and its farm surroundings – not an easy thing to photograph well.

The Birthplace Museum has many displays designed around objects associated with Captain Cook, his life and times. There are exhibits on Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and other places explored by Cook. These help to shift the perspective a little from a purely British celebration of Cook’s work towards one based on the peoples who he met and described to his government masters. It’s a welcome move. There is much to examine and plenty of interactive devices for visitors to explore. Other events and activities can be scheduled within the building. A shop and a cafe support the experience. The Cook connection is one of the most important pre-industrial parts of the area’s history, bringing to it the attention of a worldwide audience. It is a pity that the layout of the building – itself a very banal structure – dominates the displays: they are cramped and awkward with visitors trying to read ‘books-on-the-wall’ while standing in the way of others trying to navigate the exhibits. The whole thing is often very bitty, lacking both unity and a flowing development. The impression is that a checklist of objects has been combined with another checklist, of interpretive techniques, inside interior spaces Designed to be Different. Too many cooks have spoiled what should be a most nourishing broth.

Image: James Cook - school days


Cook Senior began to work as a farm bailiff for Thomas Scottowe, the Lord of the Manor of Great Ayton. It was a well-respected job. Scottowe, a kind employer, recognised that young James was a bright boy and he paid for him to attend the little school in the village. In the photos above the school is seen at the near end of the terrace in the top left-hand picture. Below is the church attended by the Cook family and in which they would in due course be laid to rest. The schoolroom building has now been turned into another museum run by a small charity, occupying just the top, near-end, floor. It is small but – well, perfectly formed – in three or four small rooms. The first has the entrance desk with sales facilities. On our visit a very pleasant lady was looking after the museum. It was by no means busy although other people were arriving and leaving. She filled in information about the running of the museum besides pointing out what was on show. Following the display round a corner introduced a life-size figure of young James Cook as he would have appeared working on the farm with his elder brother and father, for Thomas Scottowe. The member of staff told us that it had actually been modelled on the features of a local boy who would have resembled Cook. This boy had recently been awarded a first class science degree. It struck us both that there was a tiny insight into the life of the village community in this kind of detail, helping to make the museum feel more lively and immediate.

Next came a panel-based chronology of James Cook’s life and times: clear, concise and attractively done. Though the spaces here were small they were adequate for the numbers of people visiting. A busy day might be a different problem.

The representation of the schoolroom was the focal point of the storytelling. Like the cottage display at Marton the exhibit is very effective and thankfully well removed from the shop-mannequin figures that can still be found in more amateur shows. A nice quality audio sequence plays giving an idea of the kind of conversations between the pupils and their teacher. In the small shop area of the museum a short book tells of the kind of schooling James will have had in the few years of attending these classes. He would receive much more training in specialised areas such as navigation, astronomy and surveying later on, on top of many years learning about sailing ships, handling officers and crews and fighting enemies with cannon and small arms.

A glimpse up into the attic revealed the teacher in his living quarters reached by a ladder and just above the schoolroom.

The last display was about how a ship’s position on the globe was fixed by the use of a sextant and other equipment.

The museum has been successful in obtaining more money to expand and improve its displays. Below the actual museum, on the ground floor, there has until recently been an antique shop. This has closed and the space will become part of the museum, possibly as a meeting and working place for Great Ayton’s strong archaeological society.

Also shown above is a model of the Cook family home in the village, built by James Senior in 1755. In 1934 it was taken to pieces and transported to Flinders Park in Melbourne, Australia, where it helps to commemorate one of the country’s European pioneers. In return the Australians sent a facsimile of the stone monument that marks the spot where Cook’s expedition first sighted the land that became known as Australia. It carries two bronze plaques: one records the sighting itself and the other the moving of the stone quarried in Australia for the obelisk in North Yorkshire.

It’s doubtful whether an historical property like the Cook house would be allowed to be taken away today but in the last century (and earlier) it was done quite frequently.

Through Great Ayton runs the River Leven, a tributary of the River Tees. It makes a pleasant sight for anyone passing through the old part of the village and a shallow, clean playing spot for children: see the last photo.

Image: James Cook - Staithes


Young James Cook was fortunate in having helpful people around him. It was a characteristic that continued throughout his life. Perhaps it was a natural response to his amenable nature and good sense. As he approached the age of seventeen his father was keen to see him learn a trade. On hearing of an opening for an apprenticeship in a shop in the fishing village of Staithes just along the coast he was able to secure it for his younger son. So one day in the summer of 1745 James walked the twenty miles from Great Ayton to Staithes and put the farming home behind him, virtually for good.

Staithes was an important fishing village. It still has its fishermen, but relies much more on young tourists dangling little net bags of bait into the harbour waters, and then lifting out the crabs that have been hoodwinked into thinking a good meal has been laid on for them. It stands securely sheltered within a deep cleft in the coastal cliffs that edge the North Yorkshire Moors. Anyone not knowing it was there could drive past the turning on the main road a short way inland and miss one of the jewels of this popular tourist county. A steep road leads down into the village. Cars have to park before it makes its descent. It’s an easy walk down and a slow climb back up. Down below, the small streets pack in all kinds of houses, chapels and shops. A main thoroughfare, with cheery bunting zigzagging along it is well shielded from winter storms at sea. It leads to an open area with a beach and protecting harbour. In Cook’s time the fishermen hauled their boats up here. The shop, owned by a William Sanderson, was well placed in this part of Staithes to serve the busy community.

A cottage, part of a terrace, is today labelled as Cook’s Cottage (in the centre of the right-hand photo above). But it is not the building where Sanderson’s shop stood. That one was destroyed by fire many years ago. The cottage here was part of a rebuilding process that used some of the materials rescued from the burnt-out shop. Even so, it marks well the location of the place in which Cook worked amongst the seafaring people of Yorkshire. Looking out to sea he must have wondered about what lay beyond, especially when the boatmen talked of the wonders and the perils of the world out there. Within a year and a half James knew that selling groceries and cloth for Mr Sanderson was not what he wanted to do. William Sanderson, like James Cook Senior and Thomas Scottowe before him was willing to help the young man to better himself and move in the direction that he was choosing. So it was that Sanderson contacted his friend John Walker, a ship-owner in Whitby, to arrange that James could take on a new apprenticeship – that of a seaman on ships hauling coal from the north east to London.

Image: James Cook and Whitby


John Walker had a successful shipping business on Grape Lane in Whitby. Walker’s cottage opened onto the harbour with a stone slipway where boats could be drawn up. As the business expanded the cottage became a store and a larger house was built. These structures still exist. The front of the house is on Grape Lane [at left in the street scene], narrow and edged with terraced houses and shops giving it a town aspect without much hint of the harbour behind. Some years ago an adjoining building was demolished to make room for a car park, leaving Walker’s house standing at the end of a row.

The entrance today is through an archway opening onto a yard, and here the river connection is once again apparent. Visitors today go in via the older part of the property, pay an admission fee within a small shop, and then make their way gradually into the main house. Photography is not allowed. There is no guide book. Each room has good interpretation of the displays but the lack of a guide to be taken home and studied in detail and at leisure ever afterwards is a sad omission. There is a DVD priced at just under 10 and this is well made, and contains details of previous special exhibitions that were shown in an upper gallery. DVDs have many advantages, but the need of a player and the nature of the linear narrative that they impose make them poor substitutes for quick and easy review of the museum.

John Walker was a Quaker. The influence of this approach to life and the world will have made its mark on Cook as a young apprentice. Adding it to his own family values and country village life must have shaped the ways in which he viewed his crews and fellow explorers during his career. It must have determined his approach to the native peoples encountered around the world: respectful and understanding of cultures unlike his own, even if this was within the confines of a military and colonialising political system. Hard work and study marked James Cook’s progress throughout life and it was evident here. He lived in the attic space of John Walker’s house together with the other apprentices. When not at sea helping to deliver north-eastern coal to the capital, London, Cook spent his evenings in studying books on navigation and general science subjects, helped by having been given some working space and candles to light his table.

The Captain Cook Memorial Museum makes it possible to see how the man made the move from life on the land to life on the oceans of the world. It depicts the house and household, but also describes much more of his later life, the explorations he made and the people for whom and with whom he made them, right up to his violent death as the result of an unfortunate incident many years later on one of the Hawaiian islands. From this house James Cook began his journeys, seeing for himself and on behalf of a fascinated public just what the world had in store.

[In the photo lower left, above, a scaled-down replica of Cook's ship 'Endeavour' plunges into the waves as it takes tourist trippers out of Whitby harbour]

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