This paper seeks to examine the nine-year period when James Cook was based at or near the coastal and ancient Yorkshire town of Whitby. The period began after he left the security of Aireyholme Farm near Great Ayton where he had lived as a boy with his family. He served a part of his apprenticeship with William Sanderson in the fishing port of Staithes, but found life behind a shop counter was not for him. So, he informed Sanderson that he wished to go to sea. As a young adolescent, Cook’s experiences among the Staithes fishing community influenced his decision to make a career change. Cook wanted much, much more. Like his father, he had ambition, and was determined to better himself. Sanderson helped him secure a three-year apprenticeship with his friend Captain John Walker and elder brother Henry Walker.
The Move to Whitby
Captain Walker was a 42-year old wealthy shipowner and master mariner in Whitby, as was his father, John senior and brother. Cook could not have been more fortunate, when in 1746, at 17 years of age he commenced an apprenticeship with the Walkers, a respected Quaker family. The eighteenth-century Quakers were a group of people who lived by a creed of integrity, thrift, fair dealing, and plainness of living, and held a belief in moderation in all things, including abstaining from violence, and treating their fellow men with respect and care. They were also temperate and sober, shunned all excess in eating and drinking, and let their moderation be known to all. Quakers in Whitby in 1746 were a powerful force among the ship-owning fraternity. They refused to pay tithes to the Church of England, and did not follow a classical formal education.
Quakers believed education should be practical and professional, and that money ought to be channelled back into the family business, helping to make Quakers some of the wealthiest within the maritime community. Everyone knew each other, and met regularly for religious and social gatherings. Cook had no religious inclination. However, as an apprentice he followed the Quaker ethos and traditions adopted in the Walker home.
Cook’s years with the Walker family, including his association with their children of a similar age to him, helped to shape his character along Quaker lines. The more we understand Cook’s personality and nuances, the more we discover strong Quaker qualities and attributes. The long silences, the periods of inner reflectiveness, the abstention from swearing, the dislike of ritual and priests in his ship, and the careful and sparing use of words are all aspects of the Quaker character. Many biographers, including J.C. Beaglehole, have commented on Cook’s enigmatic qualities. He had a personal reserve, did not reveal himself easily, who thought deeply, saw things clearly and acted very resolutely.
The nine years spent in the Whitby area from 1746 to 1755 became an important period in Cook’s early life. There were two distinct time frames, that of his three-year apprenticeship at Staithes, and his six years working for the Walkers. Whitby is ten miles southeast of Staithes. When Cook arrived in Whitby, it was a busy port where ship building, sail making, rope manufacturing and all of the associated trades flourished. River Esk made this town hugely important, and the shipyards were teeming with skilled craftsmen who built capacious collier barks, often called “cat built” barks or simply “cats”. Seafarers have sailed from Whitby for well over a thousand years. It has been a place of habitation since the stone age, and is graced by a famous Abbey; the first monastery being founded on the site about 657.
Whitby was the sixth-largest ship building port in England. The coal-carrying trade between Newcastle and London was highly prosperous, and ships often traded across to the Baltic. There were 200-300 ships in the Whitby fleet, owned by locals and sailing out of the port. On occasions, there were so many ships in port they were not all able to anchor in the harbour at the same time. These very strongly built flat-bottomed “cats” were well known to the Royal Navy, and they would assist Cook much later when he was in Canada. Whitby cats could be sailed close to the shoreline and on the River Thames, where manoeuvring with care was a necessity.
Whitby had a great reputation for training apprentices for the sea. Boys came from near and far to have an opportunity for an education, and for work. Cook at 17 years of age was by no means the youngest; in fact it was regarded that he began life at sea late in life, but he was not to be deterred. There were approximately 1250 apprentices listed in the ship muster rolls while Cook was “learning the ropes”, and one can only imagine what impression Whitby first made on the young and impressionable Cook. There were no public endowed or grammar schools in Whitby. Instead, there were commercially oriented schools, where the teaching of mathematics was encouraged due to its practical use at sea. Cook, fortunately, had already gained a basic knowledge during his formal schooling at Ayton.
Cook had developed a “gift” for mathematics. His devotion to detail, and his meticulous attention to accuracy and review were traits that he carried throughout his whole life.
During his time in Whitby, Cook lived with the Walker family, as was the custom. Captain Walker agreed to train apprentices in the trade and occupation of the mariner, and at the same time provide them with meat and drink, washing and lodging. He employed 36 young men pursuant to indenture contracts—unfortunately Cook’s indenture has not survived. The young men were described as either “servants” or “apprentices”. They were trained in navigation, mathematics, pilotage, nautical law, astronomy, rigging, maintenance and the provisioning of vessels. As an apprentice, Cook would have been sent into town at various ports to stock up with fresh food, and to buy the supplies for the ship.
The House at Grape Lane
There is continuing debate among many historians as to where Cook lodged during his apprenticeship and thereafter until 1755. Mr John Walker senior had lived with his wife Esther at Grape Lane, a house he purchased in 1729. After his death in 1743 the house was bequeathed to his two sons Henry and John. This three-storey building still stands today. It was built in 1685, and has that date and the initials of Mark and Susannah Dring marked on its front wall. The back of the house looks out to the river Esk. On its east side stood a store house, and a slipway that is now under the current courtyard. During Cook’s years at Whitby, it is accepted that Captain John Walker was living at his own home in Haggersgate (street) on the west side with his first wife Dorothy. He took on a fatherly role with the young Cook. When Captain Walker wanted to retain Cook during winter, he was free to lodge him anywhere he chose. This happened to be in the house in Grape Lane, which John and his brother Henry now owned, and which was occupied by their widowed mother. As it was a large house with a top floor attic, the widowed Mrs Walker housed apprentices whilst they were in port.
A few years ago, Howard Hollow, the sixth-generation grandson of Captain Walker, stated that the Grape Lane house had been nick-named Ruby Manor by Captain Walker’s daughter Dorothy, as she loved the ruby red bricks on the front of the ancient house.
The Grape Lane house where Cook and other apprentices lodged was furnished modestly, elegantly, but with simplicity, as can be seen in a surviving inventory from the early 1750s. There were no pictures on the walls, and the rooms had old fashioned furniture. The attic was small, like a Whitby “cat”. Here, the apprentices slept in hammocks between oak rafters made from ships’ timbers. The area resembled the mess deck on a coal ship. It is recorded that 16 young men crowded into this attic. The story goes that the housekeeper Mrs Mary Prowd, known as Molly, a friend, nurse and mistress, would save candle ends for Cook so that he could read and study at night while the other apprentices socialised, playing cards and spinning yarns. From the very start Cook was her favourite. Molly was a widow at 30, and lost her only child, a son, in 1738. Perhaps to her Cook was the “son” who had survived.
Twenty-five years after he arrived in Whitby, Cook returned there after his first Pacific voyage, and as a celebrated circumnavigator, to visit Captain Walker, his former Master. Molly was schooled to address him as Sir, but in the excitement, she forgot, and, instead, opened her motherly arms wide, and exclaimed, “Oh, James, honey, Aa’s glad to see thee”!
In J.C. Beaglehole’s biography of Cook, he claims that Captain Walker with his second wife Elizabeth and their seven children moved into the Grape Lane house only in 1752, after his mother Esther and his brother Henry had died. This was, of course, after Cook’s apprenticeship had finished. However, there is no confirmation or surviving information to suggest that Cook was not accommodated with his Master beyond his apprenticeship years, and up until 1755. We may never know.
What we do know, however, is that those six years in Whitby working for the Walker family had an everlasting impact on the young and industrious Cook. He was encouraged to better himself, through on-board ship training as well as his own self education and study. His persistence and single-minded pursuit to master the complexities of navigation, algebra, spherical trigonometry and astronomy without a lot of direction must be admired. His capacity and his ability to apply himself to study was remarkable and especially noteworthy for he could shut out the distractions and temptations which would have been hovering all about him in such a busy family home.
Apprentices working on Whitby “cats” were expected to work hard, and that is what Cook did. He was a quick learner who rapidly established himself as one of the most promising apprentices in Captain Walker’s care. Cook’s intelligence and unbounded curiosity made him a perfect scholar, and he had confidence in his own abilities. His thirst for knowledge, his willingness to take risks, and the lure of adventure is what helped drive him to achieve his goals. One should not forget his Scottish father’s influence, as a hard-working farm labourer. Cook senior demonstrated to his young son that if you worked hard, you could improve yourself in order to get what you want. Cook knew what he wanted, and he had the ambition to make the most of his opportunities. The Whitby environment shaped the young apprentices for it was a competitive industry as a seafarer, and Cook wanted to succeed.
Cook’s Whitby Ships
Cook’s first experience of life at sea came when Captain Walker invited him to join his collier Freelove trading between Newcastle and London. Cook, at that time was just 18 years old. He remained with this collier for two years, learning the skills taught and passed on to him by the more experienced crew. His first voyage was 26 February 1747 to 22 April 1747. It was followed by two more voyages: 29 September 1747 to 14 December 1747, and 26 February 1748 to 7 June 1748. Freelove had been built in 1746 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, and acquired by the Walkers soon thereafter. This vessel had three masts, like HMS Endeavour. She was a square-rigged vessel of 340 tons. Freelove carried a crew of 19, of whom 10 were apprentices like Cook. He soon learnt the art of practical seamanship. He was immediately noticed, as he was unusually tall for a seaman, being over six feet. He was also a bit older than the other apprentices. The Master of Freelove was John Jefferson, with Robert Watson as his mate.
Captain Walker had a larger ship under construction, Three Brothers, of about 600 tons. Perhaps she was so named after Robert, John and Henry, Walker’s three sons. With three other apprentices from Freelove Cook spent two months rigging and fitting out the ship. He was asked to transfer to the bigger vessel on 14 June, 1748, and was on board her maiden voyage under Captain Walker’s command. Cook served as an apprentice on this ship until 8 December, 1749. She sailed back and forth to Norway as a trading link. Eventually, the ship was brought into dock for repairs at South Shields, and her crew were laid off.
At this point, Cook took the opportunity of joining a ship owned by William Gaskin, a relative of Captain Walker. This was when his three-year apprenticeship with the Walkers ended. Cook stayed for a further six years working for Captain Walker in various vessels, gaining experience that would prepare him for his later challenges in Canada and around the world. Cook’s next ship was called Mary of Whitby. He now held the rank of able seaman. He gained valuable experience from 8 February 1750 to 5 December 1750, and was discharged in London in December 1750.
Cook was informed early in the new year that Three Brothers was ready to sail again, with the same companions he had known as apprentices. So, he re-joined the ship as an able seaman from 19 February 1751 to 30 July 1751. Robert Watson was now the Master. This was a most successful period in Cook’s service.
By March 1752, the next year, at the age of 23, Cook was promoted to the ship’s mate. This time he had joined a new ship, Friendship, under Captain Richard Ellerton. This was a return to the regular coastal coal run, and his more senior position gave Cook beneficial experience. The perilous east coast with its North Sea squalls and storms while sailing south to the Thames over and over again was what going to sea was all about. The challenges, the unpredictable currents, the treacherous coastline with its hidden shoals—these made courageous men out of young apprentices, and these sailors from Whitby were born to a tradition of “going to sea”.
At the age of 24 in December 1752, Cook passed his formal examinations to be a mate, and by the middle of 1755 he had already completed 16 voyages. Cook, we must remember, was a farm labourer’s son from Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire. He had accomplished so much since leaving the grocery shop and his apprenticeship in Staithes in 1746. He served in Friendship until 14 June, 1755. Cook had become an exceptional sailor under the guidance and mastery of Captain Walker and other close mentors. As so often occurred, luck shone on him, and he dodged tragedy. His former ship Three Brothers was lost at sea in 1752, and all lives were lost, so he was very fortunate to have joined Friendship.
Cook Leaves for the Navy
At the age of 27, nine years since arriving in Whitby, Captain Walker offered Cook the command of Friendship. To be offered the Master role was incredible. Cook must have been tempted. However, to the amazement of all, including Captain Walker, Cook turned down this offer. As a merchant ship’s Master, Cook would have secured his future, and a career that many apprentices could only dream of.
In becoming a master mariner, boys grow into men very quickly. The will to succeed, and the determination to strive, to go up the ranks, to better oneself is the true test of character. Cook exemplified admirable qualities even then, and this was just the beginning of a life at sea venturing across the globe, not once but on three world voyages.
Instead of remaining in Whitby as a merchant ship’s master, on 25 June 1755 at Wapping on the Thames in London, Cook enlisted in the Royal Navy as an able seaman, and joined HMS Eagle. Many biographers have speculated about his reasons. At this time, Britain was re-arming for a war against France, and the navy was so short of men that many able-bodied young men were literally dragged into service for King and Country. Cook may have been motivated by loyalty to his country, but most would suggest, and I agree, that Cook instead wanted the opportunity to sail much farther afield, and this was his greatest motivation.
He stated to Captain Walker, “I had a mind to try my fortune that way”. Joining the Royal Navy would provide him with the opportunity for advancement, and the adventure that he was seeking. Although Walker was surprised by Cook’s decision, he continued to assist Cook, and remained a life-long friend.
Cook’s Continuing Relationship with Walker
Six surviving letters written by Cook to Captain Walker are testament to the friendship and respect that they held for one another. Cook’s letter dated 17 August, 1771, written from his home at Mile End, London, discussed small portions of the first Pacific voyage. He took time, of course, to mention his ship. “I sailed from England as well provided for such a Voyage as possible, and a better ship for such a service I never would wish for”. He also wrote, “and Steer’d to the Southward in Search of the so much before talked of Southern Continent, which we did not find”. Cook signed off by writing, “Sir, Your Most Obliged Humble Servant, James Cook”. In his mind, James still saw himself as the humble servant of his Master. This letter is on permanent loan to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, the very building in Grape Lane that was the house, occupied by John Walker senior and Captain Walker.
The letters give an indication of Cook’s ambitions, and some of them include rare mentions in his writings of “providence”. Throughout his three Pacific voyages he also used the word providence in his journal entries to convey a specific meaning and intent. The dictionary translation of this noun is “the protective care of God or of a spiritual power”. It is my view that Cook’s “providence” was his belief, trust and faith in some higher power taking protective care of him, his crew and the ship. We can all recall the danger that beset him and his crew of HMS Endeavour when the ship struck the coral reef on 11 June, 1770, near Hope Islands after having passed just north of Pickersgill Reef. There was also the time when leaving the Endeavour River, the ship was perilously close to being swept onto rocks by waves, when suddenly and miraculously a gust of wind, in the right direction saved them from certain disaster. Cook writes of providence intervening.
It is recorded that in December 1771 Cook visited Ayton to see his father and Commodore William Wilson, a great friend of the celebrated circumnavigator, and then travelled to Whitby to see Captain Walker and his family. On this visit to Yorkshire, he had intended returning to London by sea from Hull, but his pregnant wife Elizabeth was a poor traveller. Instead, he was forced to go overland which was longer. This showed his devotion to his wife, changing plans to accommodate her needs.
Cook the Yorkshireman
Yorkshire was Cook’s home for 26 of his 50 years. This was half of his life. It was here that he spent those important formative years which turned him from an inland youth from farming stock to a man of the sea. One cannot underplay that Yorkshire makes for tough, hardy people with adventurous spirits. Farming the moors is hard work, and harsh conditions abound. The winters are long in duration, and the growing season is short. The fishermen were resilient and stoic because their environment was testing; challenging weather from the North Sea is delivered with little warning, so they learn to read the signs, from the skies and the winds.
Cook was the second of eight children born to Grace and James senior, his very humble parents. Only his two sisters Christiana (1731-1795) and Margaret (1742-1804) survived him. To demonstrate the poor survival rate in the eighteenth century one will note that five of his siblings died at a young age. First, there was Mary in 1737, when he was nine, then his second sister Mary died in 1741, Jane in 1742, followed by William in 1748, and John, his oldest brother, in 1749. To summarise, Cook lost these five siblings in the space of 12 years. Not uncommon I know for this era of history; however, perhaps it gives thought as to why he never had idle time. He was always wanting to make the most of his opportunities, for life was fragile. He wanted to leave his mark, and he wanted to achieve great things while he could.
Here is a quote from his journal, dated 30 January, 1774. “I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go”. This quote shows evidence of his steely mindset, and his yearning to push himself, his crew and his ship to their absolute limits. It demonstrates a stubbornness and a level of sheer perseverance and dogged determination that came through early in his life. A story was once told of how a young Cook, who had always been the undisputed leader in gatherings with the local lads, once led these boys up the eastern slope of Roseberry Topping. It was the highest peak in the North Riding of Yorkshire. After they were near the summit, Cook pointed out and proceeded to name all the towns and villages that could be seen from there. He refused to go down the accepted, usual way with the other boys, but boasted he would be first down. He came the hard way down after collecting some bird’s eggs, and had to be rescued after falling part way down. Cook retained his boldness and courage, but learnt to temper it with more prudence. This account was provided by John Watkins in 1837, recalling young James’s adventurous heart.
Mr Reg Firth, the original owner of the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre, once wrote of his hero Cook, “Cook wanted more. He was most ambitious. I worshipped Cook’s modesty, sense of duty and his loyalty to King and country. Cook’s humility and plainness were admirable qualities. Cook wasn’t a vain man, unlike Joseph Banks who promoted his own self-importance”.
My own view is that it was Cook’s discipline and strength of character, and his training by Captain Walker, that equipped him to be an inspirational leader of men. He was a pragmatist, a man of vision and acknowledged among his peers as fearless.
Cook’s great accomplishments during his three world voyages, and his contributions to science and exploration, would not have eventuated without his nine years of education and training under the expert tuition of Captain Walker and all those Whitby masters, mates and sailors who contributed to his depth of knowledge and understanding of seamanship. It was a collective effort, and Whitby holds an important place in maritime history. You cannot visit this ancient town today without feeling the vibe of the place, or the historical significance of those Cook years.
Cook’s genius and eminence can be put into a similar context to those achieved by Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Cook was an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary achievements which were unparalleled. He was a notch above the rest.
The experiences and influences of the great man cannot be overstated. Whilst not religious, temperance was one of Cook’s chief virtues. He held dear many of the Quaker traditions. He seemed to have an intuitive awareness of what lay just beyond the horizon. This knowingness is what I call the “X factor”. Cook’s greatness has a permanence, proven by the fact that it is 242 years since his death, and we still have conferences like this important one today.
A letter written by Hugh Palliser, Commander of the Admiralty, after Cook’s death in 1779 stated, Cook was “the ablest and most renowned navigator... He possessed in an eminent degree all the qualifications requisite for his profession and great undertakings”.
Some of the Traits of the Inhabitants of Whitby
To conclude, I will explore some of the traits of inhabitants of Whitby, who helped shape Cook’s life. I will begin with a comment made by Whitby historian Reverend George Young, who was the minister of Cliff Lane Chapel from 1806 until his death in 1848. He spoke to many people who knew Cook, and was able to gain first-hand information and commentary about his early years. The Reverend remarked on the cleanliness of Whitby and, as far as Cook was concerned, “dirty” alongside “drunkenness” was a word of criticism. Whitby folk cleaned and scrubbed floors every week, and their sailing ships were similarly cleaned from top to bottom inside and out to prevent disease. In keeping a ship clean, Cook also learnt the importance of fresh food which, I believe, led to his obsession with the diet of his crew.
Good ship management was like caring for your family’s health. If one reviews the records of Whitby ships in this era, there was a prominence for purchases of carrots, cabbages and fresh fish. Scurvy was the curse of long voyages, and Cook used sauerkraut, malt-wort, robs of lemon to achieve the noteworthy record of never losing a man to scurvy.
Whitby traits could be classified as stoic and staunch. But generations of seafarers were born of this busy old seaport, steeped in history and tradition. Cook could not fail to be impressed by the locals, for they were his teachers, mentors and family when he was away from his own kin. Whitby people tended to have great knowledge of the outside world via the sea, and their men folk’s travels over it. Even when Cook was not actually living in the town of Whitby, he was surrounded by Whitby men on board ship. Their ways and turns of speech were unconsciously absorbed, and would have remained with him for all his days.
I am most grateful to three members of the Captain Cook Society in England: Cliff Thornton, Ian Boreham and Ian Stubbs. And to Mr Ron Bird, a member of the New Zealand Yorkshire Society, whose comments and discussions have guided me whilst researching for this paper.
Finally, to my dear friend Mr Ronald Palmer, a straight talking, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, like Cook himself. He has given me the support and motivation to bring Cook to life for those who have toured the replica ship HM Bark Endeavour these past 22 years, starting in Whitby in 1997 to, more recently, in New Zealand in 2019. I feel I know more of Cook’s life than I do of many of my own distant relatives. I have loved every minute of sharing the great man’s life. It is such an amazing story to share.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 45, number 1 (2022).