In her article about James Cook’s Whitby years,1 Debbie Gibson accepted that Captain John Walker lodged Cook in the house in Grape Lane, Whitby, acknowledging that there is “continuing debate among many historians as to where Cook lodged”. May I add my own small contribution to the debate, one that does not prove that Cook lodged in Grape Lane, but renders wholly unsafe JC Beaglehole’s assertion that that was impossible?2
We now realise that well-to-do shipowners made quite sure they were under no obligation to house, or look after, their apprentices during the winter. They wrote such obligations out of their apprentices’ indentures. No board and lodging “when ships are laid up”. Given the number of apprentices that Walker employed, it is highly likely that Cook’s indenture contained this exclusion, and, as Debbie says, when Walker wanted to retain Cook over the winter, he was entirely free to lodge him wherever convenient.
I took on the “publicity” for the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby, some 20 years ago. If I thought it would not be a very taxing role, the notion was rudely dispelled one morning by a letter in the local paper with the headline “Captain Cook: Can Grape Lane make the claim?” It was followed by the regional paper’s “Gathering storm over Captain Cook’s lodging”. We were accused of “peddling a myth”.
Our founder, Lady Normanby, had been aware of Beaglehole’s views, but followed the Whitby tradition that Cook lodged in Grape Lane, recorded in print by the Whitby historian George Young in 1817 and 1836.3 She had a copy of the Will of John Walker (senior) giving the house in Grape Lane to John and Henry Walker as tenants-in-common. Nonetheless, she was delighted when the original Will was, at her instigation, unearthed at the Borthwick Institute in York. The brothers could use the house as they pleased including the accommodation of apprentices.
George Young placed Cook in Grape Lane. He was researching in the first years of the 19th century, and relied on John Walker’s sons for detail. Whitby was quite content throughout the 19th century that Walker lodged Cook in the house in Grape Lane. So much so that they called it Captain Cook’s House. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, long after direct memories had died away, that GW Waddington, the antiquarian and manager of the nearby Aislaby stone quarry, spotted that during Cook’s apprenticeship Walker paid the rates on a house in Haggersgate, Whitby, while Walker’s mother paid the rates in Grape Lane. Assuming a mediaeval style of apprenticeship, he concluded that Cook had to have been lodged in Haggersgate. This information was picked up in Arthur Kitson’s biography4 without question, and passed on into Beaglehole’s book without question.
We deployed these arguments. In due course the local paper declared “Research has cleared up doubt over links”. Which it had not, entirely! Our problem was that what Beaglehole had written could not be unwritten. We were still from time to time accused of peddling a myth as successive writers, often journalists trying their hand at history, accepted Beaglehole as gospel.
We have an apprentice’s indenture of 1735 hanging on the wall of the Whitby Room at the Museum. One day, quite by chance, I read it through. It is written on a lawyer’s pre-printed form with space for the actual terms of the contract to be added in handwriting. The pre-printed part sets out in formulaic terms the obligations of master and apprentice—in essence a mediaeval arrangement in which the apprentice lives Dick-Whittington-style above his master’s shop. However down below, in barely legible handwriting, meat and drink are “excepted in Winter Seasons while ship is laid up”.
We have a second indenture of 1758. It is quite explicit. Drink, washing and lodging are to be provided “except when his Master’s Ships shall layby in the winter season at which time it is hereby agreed the said apprentice shall board himself”. Thus, no maintenance during the winter.
When I consulted Rosalin Barker, author of Whitby’s Golden Fleet,5 she chuckled. “Charles” she said, “you men never see things from a woman’s point of view! If you were the wife of a well-to-do shipowner, how would you feel about accommodating up to 20 bored teenage males in your own home, assuming it was big enough, all winter? You are to provide food, bedding, clothing, laundry, and discipline, not to speak of enforcing morality. Why not go and look at seaman’s indentures at County Records?”
So, I spent a productive day at North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton.6 The picture became clear. While the Overseers of the Poor law were desperate to offload their orphans to anyone who would take them, indentures entered into between well-to-do shipowners and farming families with sons to spare were of the same form as the two indentures in the Museum. Most of the boys did not stay in Whitby during the winter, but returned home.
The implications are that Cook was exceptional in being retained during winter, that few apprentices out of the 1200 in Whitby ships stayed in Whitby, that Walker was under no obligation to board Cook in his own home, and that the house in Grape Lane was available, convenient and economic for Cook and one or two others to lodge under the care of the widowed Mrs Walker and her servants. Beaglehole’s assertion to the contrary is demonstrably unsafe. An understanding of the nature of a seaman’s apprenticeship in Whitby is not an absolute proof, but provides a part of the context which until now no historian or journalist has known or investigated.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 8, volume 45, number 2 (2022).
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