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Captain Cook's Last Banquet in 1776



Day Book of Lucas Birch. London Metropolitan Archives. LMA/4594/02/01/001.


For every sailor accompanying Cook on his voyages, apart from the excitement of new discoveries, a daily concern was food, and whether he would get the official daily rations to which he was entitled wherever he was in the world.  He might also have wondered if he would benefit from the leftovers from the occasional banquet enjoyed by Cook and other officers.


In 1677, Samuel Pepys drew up a victualling contract that set out the rations for every sailor in the Royal Navy.  In 1733, the Admiralty published a formal set of Regulations and Instructions that established the rations, which remained unchanged for over 100 years.  Every sailor in the Royal Navy in the 1770s was entitled to a weekly ration of 4lb of beef and 2lb of pork, 12 ounces of cheese plus peas, oatmeal and butter, which provided at least 5,000 calories a day.  Cook and the other officers would add locally-purchased food to the basic ration to provide variety.1


A little while ago, an enquiry was placed on the CCS website asking about Cook's favourite food.2  Sadly, Cook never wrote about such things, but he did write about a sumptuous banquet that he enjoyed in June 1776.3  At the time, Resolution was moored in Long Reach, a stretch of water between Tilbury and Dartford on the Thames, some 21 miles downstream from the Tower of London.  Cook was waiting for the arrival of Lord Sandwich, Sir Hugh Palliser and others from the Admiralty, who were to inspect the ship before she sailed on the Third Voyage.  On Saturday, 8th June, Cook wrote in his journal, “They and several other noblemen and gentlemen honoured me with their Company at dinner and were saluted with 17 guns and three cheers at their coming on board and also going ashore”. 


The occasion needed to be observed with a banquet.  It was provided by Lucas Birch, a confectioner, cook and caterer at 15 Cornhill, in the City of London.  With his shop and kitchens close to the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange, Birch was in a very central location for supplying the banquets that were an essential part of life for the livery companies, hospitals, and the Sheriffs of the City of London.  Birch regularly provided banquets for the Weavers' Company, the Skinners' Company and the Merchant Taylors' Company.  His busiest time was on Lord Mayor's Day in November, when he provided at least five banquets.  Subsequently, Samuel Birch, of the Cooks' Company, became Lord Mayor in 1814.


Cook probably left to Birch to decide the food for the banquet, and we are fortunate that Birch’s Day Book has survived with full details of the suppliers, the provisions, their costs, and the organisation.4  As explained by Janet Macdonald, “As far as the Admiralty and the Victualling Board were concerned... there was no difference in the way officers and men ate.  The official ration was the same”.5 


I have summarised what was provided for Cook’s banquet in the following table.  For providing this service Birch was paid £12-2s-0d, on which he made a profit of £1-18s-0d.


Provisions for Captain Cook's Banquet




Mr Smith

1 Turbot

3 Trout

2 Lobsters








Mr Bryce

6 chickens @ 12s

6 pigeons @ 4s


Mr Frantum

8 pottles of strawberries6



1 Westmoreland Ham



Creating a pigeon pie



1 dozen “ragout melee”7



1 dozen stewed mushrooms



1 dozen stewed peas



1 dozen garden beans



1 dozen spinach toasts



1 dozen cauliflowers



2 dozen petit pasties



1 Neck of venison



1 tart



1 dozen sweetmeats



1 dozen biscuits



24 French Rolls



Current jelly, Epping butter, sugar lemons



Juice prepared at home



Fine sugar for fruit



1 pot of gravy


In the above table I have used modern spellings, e.g. cauliflowers is spelt in the original as collyflowers. 


Questions That Arise

Important aspects in the planning of the banquet would have included the state of the tide, and the time taken for a four-oar rowing boat to travel the 21 miles downstream from the Pool of London to Long Reach.  We estimate, that on a suitable ebb tide, such a journey would take four hours.8  They then needed to estimate how long it would take for the banquet to be ready to serve, before deciding went to load the boats. 


Janet Macdonald has suggested that most of the hot food would have been precooked and reheated on board, with the food kept in hay boxes, as they are good at keeping food warm. 


When Birch provided another banquet at a livery company's hall in the City of London, one aspect was the provision of spits on which to cook the meat.  Did Resolution have facilities for spit-cooking the chickens and pigeons? 


Birch hired porters for 1s-0d to carry the provisions from his shop on Cornhill down to the Pool of London, where he hired a ”boat with four oars”, for £1-11s-6d, to ferry the provisions and his staff downstream.  He also hired a labourer for 2s-6d, who would have handled the hay boxes, sacks of vegetables, and the pots and pans, and hired a Mrs Dignans for £1-11s-6d—was she the cook?  Resolution's own cook, Robert Morris, was probably unsuitable for such a massive task.  Janet Macdonald notes that the only qualification for a ship's cook was “that he must have a warrant and be a pensioner of the Chest of Greenwich, which meant he would often be short of a limb...  With rare exceptions, any actual cooking skills would be minimal and learned along the way.  There was certainly no training in the culinary arts”.9 


Morris, and any assistants he might have had, would have ensured that the boilers were all fired up and lots of water boiling away before the provisions arrived, as the facilities in Resolution would have been used for re-heating the meats and vegetables, after a possibly wet and salty journey down the Thames.


There is no mention in Birch's Day Book of him supplying wine and spirits, which were, possibly, already on-board.


One of the Skaill House plates. Photo by Wendy Wales


One wonders if the banquet was served on a dining service of plates, etc.  The ship would have had one.  At the end of the Third Voyage, the dinner service from Resolution ended up at Skaill House, near Stromness, Orkney.10  The Skaill House web site has a view of the dining room, where the Cook service is on display.11


The final question concerns how much, if any, of the banquet found its way to the sailors' mess? 


Macdonald has described how the steward or head cook on a naval ship would regard the leftovers as his particularl perk: to be eaten with friends or perhaps sold to any hungry seaman.  One perquisite was “slush”, the meat fat that rose to the top of the coppers during cooking, and which had to be periodically skimmed off.  When it had cooled and set, “slush” was little different from suet or dripping.12 


Derek Morris and Eric Peters



1.    Macdonald, Janet.  Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era.  Frontline Books.  2014.  Pages 10, 15-44, 154-166. 
Morris, Derek and Ken Cozens.  London's Sailortown 1600-1800.  East London History Society.  2014.  Page 74. 
Rodger, N. A. M.  The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy.  Collins.  1986.  Page 83.

2.    Cook's Log, page 39, vol. 38, no. 1 (2015). 

3.    Cook's Log, page 1846, vol. 24, no. 2 (2001). 

4.    Day Book of Lucas Birch.  London Metropolitan Archives.  LMA/4594/02/01/001.

5.    Macdonald.  op cit.  Page 121.

6.    A pottle is a half-gallon measure, so it is a lot of strawberries. 

7.    Spelt Raggooe mallee in the original.  Charlie Turpie, Head of Public Services, London Metropolitan Archives, tells me that in 18th and 19th century cookbooks this dish is usually connected with calf's head.  

8.    Eric Peters is the son of a Queen's Waterman, and a member of a Thames-side family that for many generations have been watermen and lightermen, so is suitably knowledgeable.

9.    Macdonald.  op cit.  Pages 104, 105.

10.  Cook's Log, page 1993, vol. 25, no. 4 (2002). 

11. www.skaillhouse.co.uk doesn’t have a photo of the dinner service, but I did find one of it on www.tripadvisor.co.uk

12. Macdonald.  op cit.  Page 104. 

On a cloudy, humid Tuesday in September, I walked from my office in London to Northampton Road, EC1, to the building housing the London Metropolitan Archives.  There Derek Morris showed me round the exhibition “London's Baking! Bakers, Cakes, Bread and Puddings from 1666”.  The exhibition tells the story of London’s bakers and their cakes, bread and puddings from the Great Fire of London in 1666, to the twentieth century.  One item in particular was worth the visit, and I copied down the information.


The eighteenth century and the rise of the celebrity cook

 In this period, cooks and bakers that worked behind the scenes were starting to become celebrities in their own right.  Baking, cakes and confectionery were an important part of a social dining culture that existed in the City in the eighteenth century.
One such individual is John Farley, head chef of the London Tavern on Bishopsgate Street...
The shop sold directly to the public, as the receipt in this case shows (SC/GL/TCC/BIR-BRE) but the firm also provided catering services.  Samuel joined his father Lucas’s business in 1786, and together they ran a shop at 15 Cornhill.  Mayor of London 1814-15. Another famous pastry-cook of this period was Samuel Birch, known as Mr Pattypan, who was Lord
in June 1776 (LMA/4594/02/01/001).ResolutionThe firm even supplied Captain Cook with a fine sounding dinner of turbot and lobster on board the   Rose custards, Florentines, raised veal pies, fruit tarts and great quantities of French bread and Epping butter re listed along with payments to staff, giving a sense of the physical labour required to create such spectacles.  A surviving daybook details dinners at livery company halls, lunches at the Sessions House, and grand arrangements for the Lord Mayor’s Day banquets.

The exhibition runs until 1 February, 2017.  Entrance is free.  For more information, visit http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/events/pages/event-detail.aspx?eventid=2749


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 39, number 4 (2016).



Ian Boreham

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