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John Simcoe - Cook's Fourth Naval Captain


John Simcoe was James Cook’s captain on HMS Pembroke from 1757. Cook sailed with him until Simcoe’s death off Anticosti Island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Canada on 15 May 1759, when Simcoe died of pneumonia.

John Simcoe was born on 28 November 1710 in Staindrop in County Durham, northeast England. His parents were William and Mary (neé Hutchinson) Simcoe who had married earlier that year on 3 January 1710 in Staindrop.

Simcoe joined the Royal Navy and became a close friend of Samuel Graves, who was rising through the ranks at the same time. Graves, who was born in 1713, became a lieutenant in 1740 and a captain in 1744. Simcoe himself became a lieutenant on 7 August 1739 and received his first command on 19 December 1743, that of a bomb vessel, the Thunder. On 28 December 1743, Simcoe was made a captain and appointed to HMS Kent but only remained with the ship until 18 February 1744.

Simcoe transferred to be captain of HMS Seahorse, part of the Royal Navy squadron based at Jamaica. In 1745, he was still in Jamaica, this time in command of HMS Falmouth, having been moved to that ship on 29 January 1745. Simcoe left the Falmouth on 24 October 1746 but it was several months before he joined a new ship, the Prince Edward on 14 March 1747.

While still captain of the Prince Edward, John Simcoe married Catherine Stamford in Bath Abbey on 8 August 1747. The war finished and Simcoe left the Prince Edward on 12 September 1748 allowing the Simcoes to make their home at Cotterstock in Northamptonshire, where they had four sons. The two eldest, Paulet William (possibly named after Charles Paulet, sometimes Powlett, another captain in West Indies waters) and John William, both died in infancy while the youngest, Percy, drowned in the River Exe in 1764. Only the third boy, John Graves, survived to adulthood.

A sign of the friendship between Simcoe and Graves happened in 1750. Samuel Graves married Elizabeth Sedgwick, the daughter of John Sedgwick from Staindrop on 19 June 1750 at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, London. It is probable that Simcoe introduced the couple.

When war resumed Simcoe was appointed as captain of the St. George on 3 July 1756. He remained with the ship until he was given command of HMS Pembroke, a new ship, on 5 April 1757. Later that year, he took the ship out to patrol in the Bay of Biscay. In 1758, the Pembroke crossed the Atlantic to take part in the siege of the French fort of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. The Pembroke suffered on the crossing and had to remain in Halifax for repairs when the rest of the fleet continued on to Louisbourg. Eventually, the Pembroke reached Louisbourg just as the fort surrendered.

James Cook encountered Samuel Holland, an army engineer, surveying on the beach at Kennington Cove. Simcoe gave Cook the opportunity to learn how to survey from Holland. In 1759, Simcoe and the Pembroke sailed from Halifax as part of the British fleet heading for Quebec. However, Simcoe died from pneumonia on 15 May 1759.

Simcoe’s widow, Catherine, moved from Northamptonshire, taking her two surviving sons to live in Exeter in Devon where she had friends. The younger boy, Percy, died in 1764 and Catherine Simcoe died in 1767 leaving John Graves Simcoe as the only surviving member of the family.

John Graves Simcoe was born on 25 February 1752, at Cotterstock, his middle name honouring his godfather Samuel Graves. The young Simcoe attended the Free Grammar School in Exeter, and, in 1766, he entered Eton College. After Catherine’s death in 1766, Graves looked after his godson. Simcoe moved on to Merton College, Oxford in 1769, but had returned home to Exeter by 1770. He entered the army in April 1770 and was stationed at Plymouth. In 1775, he was promoted to captain and sailed to North America in 1776, landing on Staten Island, New York in July 1776. In June 1778, he was granted the provisional rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and on the 19th of December 1781, his rank was made permanent.

Simcoe returned to England and, on 30 December 1782, married Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim at Buckerell in Devon. Elizabeth was the niece of Samuel Graves. Graves’s first wife had died and, in 1769, Graves had married Margaret Spinkes from Aldwinkle in Northamptonshire (just a few kilometres from Cotterstock). Margaret’s sister, Elizabeth, had died giving birth to young Elizabeth Posthuma in 1762 and as the father, Thomas Gwillim, had also died, Samuel Graves raised his niece.

Elizabeth was very wealthy in her own right and the Simcoes purchased an estate at Wolford near Honiton in Devon and close to the Graves. They built Wolford Lodge, which remained in family hands until 1923, and enlarged and improved the estate over the next few years.

In 1790, Simcoe was promoted to Colonel and was also elected to Parliament as MP for St. Mawes in Cornwall. The next year, he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the new province of Upper Canada and he sailed for Quebec in September 1791. Simcoe remained in Canada for five years and left the colony in July 1796. He accepted a new position in San Domingo as Civil Governor and, in 1797, Simcoe took up his new post. However, he only lasted eight months and returned to England. On 26 February 1798, he was appointed Lieutenant of the County of Devon, and in the following October was gazetted Lieutenant-General. By 1806, Simcoe was in poor health and he died on 26 October in Exeter. He was buried at the Wolford Chapel on the family estate near Honiton. Simcoe and his wife had eleven children. Elizabeth died in 1850.

The survey group from on board HMS Pembroke was remembered when a lake in northern Ontario was named Lake Simcoe after John Simcoe. A river flowing into it is called the Holland River after Samuel Holland, while the place where it enters Lake Simcoe is Cook Bay after the explorer.

John Robson

See also Cook’s Log:
page 505, vol. 10, no. 1 (1987)
page 703, vol. 13, no. 1 (1990)
page 26, vol. 27, no. 2 (2004)


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 8, volume 29, number 4 (2006).

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