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Commodore William Wilson of Great Ayton

Commodore William Wilson of Great Ayton
Created by admin on 2/23/2013 9:51:59 PM

William Wilson lived in Great Ayton and became a friend of Captain Cook.  Why?

An edited version of a presentation given to the CCS, Marton, October 2012


In the winter of 1771 the river Tees burst its banks at Yarm, and every bridge over the Tyne save the bridge at Corbridge was washed away.  The roads were covered in snow and heavily rutted.  Captain Cook returned to Great Ayton for the last time in his life.  On the 14th December 1771, he wrote to the Admiralty Office,2

Sir, Having some business to transact in Yorkshire as well as to see an aged father, please to move my Lords commissioners of the Admiralty to grant me three weeks leave of absence for the purpose.

I am etc.etc.

James Cook.


Cook and his pregnant wife Elizabeth stayed at Ayton Hall as the guests of William Wilson and his wife Rachel. 


During his childhood in Ayton, Cook would, at best, have been able to attend Ayton Hall only by the back door.  In 1771, Cook must have been invited to stay at “the big house”, so how did this invitation come about?


In November 1771, Lieutenant Richard Pickersgill returned to his ship Scorpion, to which Cook had been temporarily been assigned as well, but because Cook was busy clearing up the affairs of the First Voyage he never actually joined the ship.  Pickersgill transferred from Scorpion to Drake, one of Cook’s new ships (later renamed Resolution) on the 29th November.3  Once there, Pickersgill had the opportunity to relate to Cook the tale of Pickersgill’s visit to Yorkshire and update Cook as to the health of Cook’s father.  


Pickersgill had spent October with his friend Ralph Jackson at Normanby Hall, North Yorkshire.  Ralph was Rachel Wilson’s brother.4  Pickersgill’s uncle was the servant of Rachel’s older brother George Jackson, who was the deputy secretary of the Admiralty.  So it is highly likely that Cook secured his invitation via Pickersgill and the Jacksons.


Who was William Wilson and why did he and Cook become friends?


Wilson was born in 1715, the son of a London glassworks proprietor.  His father sadly lost the glassworks and, at the age of 14, Wilson entered the East India Company’s service as a midshipman.  Over the next few years Wilson voyaged to India and China, under successive captains. He rose up through the ranks until, in 1740, he was first mate in Kent.  His next step would surely be to become a captain of an East Indiaman ship; however he changed tack, something akin to Cook in 1755 choosing to join the Royal Navy.  Wilson became a privateer; he and his friends purchased Torrington, refurbished it and re-named it Great Britain.


On the 17th November 1741 Wilson engaged a Spanish frigate; on the 22nd December he engaged and took a Spanish sloop carrying despatches and £10,000 in spices.  Shortly after this encounter he engaged three French West Indiamen, taking two, but sustaining considerable damage to his own rigging.  At one point he needed to calm the nerves of his own company “at the point of his sword”.  He is the type of man you want on your side in a scrap. 


1749 saw William Wilson return to the service of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC), this time as Captain of the ship Suffolk,5 of which he was a 1/16th owner.  Once more he sailed from England to India and then on to China.  On the 9th March 1757 whilst Suffolk was in convoy with the ships Houghton and Godolphin and approaching the Cape of Good Hope, they were attacked by three French frigates—England and France had declared war whilst the ships were on the outbound voyage. 


Wilson took charge of the convoy and by holding the line they fended off the French.  As a reward each of the three ships’ companies was given a £2000 bonus.  Each captain was awarded 100 guineas for a piece of silver plate by a very grateful Court of Directors. 


In addition, Wilson was made Commodore of all vessels in the East India Company’s fleet and Commander of all marine services.  He took charge of them in the then largest and best armed ship in the fleet of the HEIC, the newly procured and re-fitted Pondicherry which he re-named Pitt.  I believe Wilson was also part owner of this ship; however I have yet to substantiate this belief.



Yet again Wilson sailed to India and then to China.  As he left the Bay of Bengal for Canton he encountered the French frigate St. Louis.  A short skirmish ensued, but due to heavy seas not all of the ships guns could be fired (without sinking the ship) so they veered off.  Once more Wilson showed a degree of courage and tenacity not usually displayed by captains of East Indiamen.  St. Louis would later confront Admiral Pococke’s flagship.


Wilson had left for Canton too late in the season for the usual routes; he had decided to make use of the contra monsoon winds to drive him on to Canton via a new route, an eastern passage.  He went via an unknown strait, which he named the “Pitt Straits”.  This eastern passage took six months off the sailing time to and from China; the Court of Directors rewarded Wilson with a gold medal and a desk job. 


R.P. Crowhurst6 would call this voyage a turning point in East India navigation; throughout the trading life of the HEIC over 4700 voyages were made, of which fewer than 1% were by new routes.


William Wilson had married Rachel Jackson in 1755; by 1762 they had three daughters, twins Hanah and Esther, and the younger Rachel.  In 1762 Wilson retired from the HEIC and moved his wife and family to Ayton Hall, Great Ayton, North Yorkshire.  Why I am not sure.  I can only speculate that the Wilsons decided to move to be near to Rachel’s family, who lived in North Yorkshire.  Indeed Rachel’s brother Ralph Jackson (the Cleveland diarist) brokered the deal.


In 1764 a son, George, was born.  Later he was sent to school in Holland.  Wilson had interacted with the Dutch in the East Indies.  He had heard and seen many of the new farming techniques they employed.  He began to introduce some of these practices into the Cleveland area. 


Some people claim that in 1790 Wilson invented a seed drill machine.  However, the patent is in the name of C. Parkin, who was a cabinet maker from Stockton.  


On the reverse of a picture of one, Wilson has written “Mr Parkins made 40 machines since Aug. 1790 & 36 of them already sold.  19 April 1791”.  I am convinced Wilson was at the very least contemplating buying one of these machines.  It is not the only connection with seed for Wilson.  In the only letter between Cook and Wilson I have read, 22nd June 1776, Cook states “I am sorry I cannot furnish you with some New Zealand flax seed having not one grain left”. 


Cook was not the only important visitor to Ayton Hall.  In 1770 Wilson was invested as Justice of the Peace, to which there is a certain degree of standing in the 18th century society.  His son George had a friend in the area called William Foulis.  He would visit Ayton Hall with his mother Lady Foulis.  William Foulis would go on to become Baronet Ingelby and an Member of Parliament prior to marrying a Lincolnshire lass and moving to that county.


Lady Foulis apparently enrolled Rachel Wilson, her daughters and other female members of the Jackson family into the “Lady’s Tees Water Club of Coatham”, persuading them to swim in the sea at Redcar.  In 1769 the then owner of the Red Lion Inn at Redcar built two new dining rooms and a room for sea bathing, being only 100 yards from the front of the inn to the sea.  These recordings are the earliest writings I have found of people swimming in the sea for pleasure at Redcar.  Later, the Wilson’s sickly daughter Esther and younger sister Rachel would take a “private house” at Redcar for Esther’s health.


However if you had been walking along the Stray at Redcar last night as I was with my spaniel dog, you would be more inclined to agree with Charles Dickens’s description of Redcar as “the most desolate place in the country”. 


Lady Foulis and her son William were not the only titled visitors to Ayton Hall.  The Wilsons had “a good neighbour” called Mrs Carey, whose daughter was Lady Amherst, married to Lord Amherst.  Lords Amherst and Cornwallis (yes, that Cornwallis) visited Ayton Hall and went hunting with Wilson.  It turned out to be fortunate for George Wilson, who joined the HEIC as a writer and progressed to become paymaster in the army during the Mysore War under Cornwallis. 


The Wilsons had another son, William, born in 1774.  He was schooled in Manchester and, at 16 years old, was apprenticed to Messrs Sutherland and Blok in St. Petersburg, Russia.  During a six year apprenticeship young William amassed debts of £600 (approx. £56,000 today) by living in a tavern, playing cricket and learning the harpsichord.  According to an article I found on Wikipedia, cricket in St Petersburg can be traced as far back 1850.  Well, the Wilson family letters show cricket was played there as far back as 1790.  Young William was imprisoned for debt until his father raised the money to pay for his release and return. 


I have curtailed this account of the life and times of William Wilson to fit the time allotted to my talk.  However there are a couple of things I feel are very important to bring to your attention.


In 1752, Wilson - as captain of Suffolk - reluctantly accepted a 4th Supercargo - a 16 year old Scot who was on the way to India to be a writer, one Alexander Dalrymple.7  They would become lifelong friends8 and Dalrymple visited Ayton whenever he journeyed north to return to his home in Scotland.  Dalrymple gave a copy of his unpublished book Voyages to the South Pacific9, to Joseph Banks on Cook’s First Voyage.10


I also found the following in George Robertson’s Short account of a passage to China,11

The Banda Sea, and the Arrow islands situated there in are entirely laid down from the correct Dutch MS Chart, procured by Capt. Wilson of the  Pitt, on his voyage to China by the Eastern passage in 1759, which I have a copy.

After the chart was engraved, I found that Lieutenant Cook on his first voyage around the world, 1770 had seen these islands.


Although not conclusive proof, it is certainly indicative that Cook knew of Wilson’s work and a spirit of friendship was born from a shared interest in exploration of that area of the Pacific. 


Ian Lawrence


  1. Cook’s Log, page 40, vol. 28, no. 4 (2005). 
  2. Cook’s Log, page 1350, vol. 19, no. 4 (1996). 
  3. Cook’s Log, page 1708, vol. 23, no. 1 (2000). 
  4. Cook’s Log, page 1358, vol. 20, no. 1 (1997). 
  5. Cook’s Log, page 1496, vol. 21, no. 2 (1998). 
  6. Crowhurst, RP.  “The Voyage of the Pitt - A Turning Point in Eastern Navigation” in Mariner’s Mirror.  1969.  Vol. 55, no. 1.  Pages 43-56. 
  7. Cook’s Log, page 1786, vol. 23, no. 4 (2000). 
  8. Cook’s Log, page 43, vol. 27, no. 3 (2004). 
  9. Dalrymple, Alexander.  An Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean. 1769. 
  10. Cook’s Log, page 12, vol. 34, no. 4 (2011). 
  11. Robertson, George.  A short account of a passage from China, late in the season, down the China seas, through the southern Natuna Islands, along the west coast of Borneo, through the Straits of Billitton (or Clements Straits) to the Straits of Sunda.  Printed by S. Couchman for Gilbert & Wright.  1802. 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 36, number 1 (2013).

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Mark, I regret to say that I know of no link with Thomas Wilson of Hull. William Wilson had two sons, but neither was a Thomas. One died unmarried in India, and the other went bankrupt in Russia and his father had to bail him out. If you are able to discover a link, please post the news on here. Many thanks.
By Cliff Thornton on 7/2/2017 4:52:14 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Surely there must be a connection between the Great Ayton Wilson's and Thomas Wilson (1792) who founded the Wilson Shipping Line in 1841 at Hull - that became the world's largest private shipping line with Charles Henry Wilson (1833-1907) becoming 1st Lord Nunburnholme of Warter Priory in the Wolds? The years seem to fit!
By Mark Saville on 7/1/2017 3:11:27 PM Like:0 DisLike:1

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