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John Wilkinson - Shipowner of Whitby 1708-1771


John Wilkinson - Shipowner of Whitby 1708-1771


In 1995 I learnt that I had come into a small bequest from a distant American relative about whom I knew very little and had never met. Something one dreams about but seldom happens.  We discovered a family tree which showed we were all descended from a Wilkinson family of Yorkshire, and that we were cousins separated by four generations.  A note on the document which read “Captain James Cook sailed in one of John Wilkinson’s ships” aroused an interest which has now become a full scale research ‘endeavour’ into the Wilkinson family!


I discovered that the Wilkinsons came from a long line of merchants and shipowners from at least the 16c. originating in Kingston upon Hull.  In the 18th c. Philip Wilkinson, and his father before him, is recorded as being one of the largest merchants shipping through Hull.  John himself became a boat owner at the youthful age of 3 when his grandfather left him a share in a ship lying at Whitby!


John Wilkinson’s father, Lamont, died age 36, and his mother Hannah was left to look after John, his brother Henry (1715-88) and sister Esther (1712-79).  Both John and Henry are described as Master Mariners and shipowners, and it is only from the Muster Rolls, Wills and Chancery documents that I have been able to deduce something about their activities.  I was thrilled when I was able to confirm through the muster rolls that John did in fact own The Mary on which Captain Cook sailed. I have no idea how this information came to be recorded on the family tree, and I can only assume that the memory was carried down through generations.


A fortunate discovery of a Chancery Court case which detailed John’s entire property at the time of his death showed that he and his brother owned or had shares in about 10 ships and numerous properties in Whitby and elsewhere.  The document states that he was living in his “mansion house” in Flowergate at the time of his death.  However, in his will he refers to his house called Field House Farm with “bleaching yard”.  Are they one and the same residence?  I don’t know.  There is a house now called Field House which is, I believe, just off Upgang Lane in Whitby, and it is possible that this was one of the houses referred to, but this is pure speculation on my part.


It is often stated in James Cook literature that John Walker was a relative of John Wilkinson, but I have yet to come across any evidence to support this.  There was certainly no direct intermarriage between the two families.  It is, however, a fact that William Gaskin, the skipper of The Mary, was related to John Wilkinson.  John married Hannah Gaskin, daughter of William Gaskin; William (Jun.) would therefore have been John Wilkinson’s brother-in-law.


John and Hannah had one daughter, Hannah (1745-85), who married John Mathews.  There is a handsome monument in St.Mary’s, Whitby, to John Wilkinson, his daughter Hannah and seven of her children who died in childhood.  It can be seen in the booklet describing St.Mary’s, in the centrefold photograph in the top left-hand corner, the only one visible.  A sad monument, but fortunately she was survived by three other children, one of whom, Wilkinson Mathews, went on to become a successful lawyer and Q.C.


The booklet “Capt. James Cook in Whitby Ships” published by the Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society provides a very interesting source for study.  James Cook’s first six voyages were made in Freelove and Three Brothers belonging to John Walker. James’s age was 19 on his first voyage, rising to 21 in 1749. However, on the muster roll for The Mary, which commenced on the 8th February 1750, James’s age is quite distinctly given as 26!  The average age of the seamen on The Mary was certainly several years higher than that on the coastal colliers. Did James have to resort to creative ageing in order to qualify for his first overseas trip or was it a slip of the quill?


The master of The Mary, William Gaskin, was himself only 27, but he was provided with a boson, the only ship listed in the rolls to have one.  The regular crew consisted of 6 seamen and 4 servants, as well as 1 cook and 1 carpenter, plus boson, mate and master, a total of 15.  From this information no doubt someone can deduce the probable size of the ship.


The total period of the voyage on The Mary was 10 months, but 8 of the crew were discharged in London at the end of 8 months, on the 5th October, including James. They had just returned from St. Petersburg and no doubt planned to have a look around the capital before returning home for Christmas, but not aboard The Mary.  A different crew was taken on, to return to Whitby by the 5th December.  Presumably a number of trips to the Baltic were undertaken during the course of the 8 months, and I like to think that some them carried goods for Philip Wilkinson who certainly traded with the Baltic countries. James would most certainly have gained much experience in seamanship and navigation in the tricky waters of the Baltic.


It is remarkable how few injuries were recorded on the Rolls over the course of 8 years on 4 different ships.  In fact the only injury recorded is on The Mary’s voyage when the carpenter cut two fingers and was treated at St. Thomas Hospital when discharged in London.


For the next 5 years James returned to the Three Brothers and subsequently the Friendship, but none of the voyages appear to have taken James overseas again.  Much time must have been spent frustratingly in port or hugging the east coast dreaming of long trips to far flung places.  Perhaps his year on The Mary to the Baltic helped to feed such dreams.


I doubt that James Cook maintained any further contact with the Wilkinsons.  John died in 1772, the year before James Cook made a visit to Whitby.  His brother Henry died in 1788, in Ruswarp, and all his 3 sons and 7 daughters married and appear to have left Whitby for Liverpool and London.


Coincidentally, both John and Henry came into money and property left by cousins separated from them by 4 generations, both unmarried cousins with the name of Jane Wilkinson and both being last descendants of the two branches of the Hull merchants (one being the last surviving daughter of Philip).  Our own 2 x great-grandfather George Wilkinson appears to have been the last male in the line and he died in 1880.  He was also the ancestor common to us and our American and Canadian cousins.


A Houghton-Brown


Originally published in Cook’s Log, page 1498, volume 21, number 2 (1998).



As a footnote to my recent article [above], having recently connected to the Internet and after several weeks of surfing, I finally arrived at a useful site for genealogical research in the UK at address http://midas.ac.uk/genuki/big/eng/  For want of something better to do I looked down the list of researchers of specific names to see if there was anything of interest.  Yes, there was someone re-searching “Butler” in Warminster in the 1750’s, and Henry Wilkinson had married an Elizabeth Butler of Warminster.


I hurriedly e-mailed the contact - and lo and behold in 24 hours back came a reply (from Canada) - “Yes, you have the right family and we are descended from Elizabeth’s sister who married a friend of Henry’s also a Master Mariner!”  Not only that but my contact had that very day come across a photograph of a Captain Henry Wilkinson in Sir Walter Runciman’s book Collier Brigs and Their Sailors.  It is almost certainly the above Henry’s grandson and Runciman had sailed under him in the 1860’s!  Another 24 hours and a copy of the photo arrived by e-mail.


Obtaining a copy of this book through the local library, I was interested to read about the centenarian brig Brotherly Love, apparently famous both for it’s longevity and because it was always affectionately spoken of as “one of Captain Cook’s ships” by those who sailed in her.  Unfortunately this idea must have been a myth because it was built in 1765, some years after Cook had joined the navy.  The probable explanation is that she was mistaken for Freelove, but as Runciman says “he could hardly think that the fine old Quakers of Whitby in the 17thC. would have a vessel called Freelove!  No doubt it had a different connotation in those days - or did it?.


And why was she named Brotherly Love?  Two facts emerge from contemporary documents.  Henry Wilkinson was the owner of Brotherly Love in 1771, that is six years after it was launched; and he was in debt to his brother John for “a considerable amount” at the time of John’s death the same year.  Conclusion: the loan enabled Henry either to buy or build the vessel - hence the name “Brotherly Love”.  Surely a most appropriate name in the circumstances!


The end for Brotherly Love came in 1878 off the Yorkshire coast.  As for the Mary, there was a brig of this name which foundered at the entrance to Whitby in a great storm in 1851.  If this is the self-same ship that James Cook sailed in, then she also was a valiant centenarian!  A drawing of the wreck appeared in The Illustrated News dated 11th October 1851.


A Houghton-Brown


Originally published in Cook’s Log, page 1526, volume 21, number 3 (1998).


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Is it known if the Mary was the same ship Mary owned in 1784 by Robert Rickaby for this ship a Barque appears in the Whitby Muster Roles 1BEjzk
By William John Nugent on 3/12/2020 3:33:44 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Philip, all of the evidence suggests that the only connection between Francis and John Wilkinson was their surname. Whilst John Wilkinson's family had its roots in Yorkshire, Francis's family came from Kent. What limited personal information is known about Francis Wilkisnon can be found in his entry on this webpage https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/first-voyage
By Cliff Thornton on 9/23/2018 7:48:16 PM Like:1 DisLike:0
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can you tell me was there any connection to Francis Wilkinson who sailed with Cook when he landed in Australia in 1770?Do you know any historical information about who Francis Wilkinson may have been?
By Philip Wilkinson on 9/23/2018 3:13:40 PM Like:1 DisLike:0
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Shane, John Walker was the shipowner of Whitby, who employed the young James Cook om his collier vessels carrying coal from the River Tyne to London. The Walker family home in Whitby is now a museum to Captain Cook, go to
By Cliff Thornton on 6/27/2017 8:03:50 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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hello I am interested in this name of john walker. would you know were he was from and any info I have a letter with his mane
By shane williams on 6/22/2017 9:33:28 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Trevor, Thank you for your information.
I will contact you directly to discuss your Wilkinson ancestry.
By Cliff Thornton on 4/3/2017 9:30:15 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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I would love to exchange information with you. I am a descendant of Robert Wilkinson who was among the first settlers of Beaufort, SC I think it possible that Robert was a descendant of Capt. Henry Wilkinson----would love to learn more. Interestingly, one of Robert's daughters was named Hannah and she married a Cook---2nd marriage.
By Trev rSherrod on 3/30/2017 12:30:44 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Thank you for the link, Chris.
I suspect that Abel Chapman was from the family of Whitby shipowners.
By Cliff Thornton on 3/13/2017 5:18:16 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Hello. This may be of interest to the family of John Wilkinson. A 1767 land indenture between John Wilkinson and Abel Chapman of Whitby. I came across it while searching for Whitby items.
By Chris Rushworth on 3/9/2017 10:36:29 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Don, CCS member John Robson has undertaken extensive research into the family of John Elliott, who sailed on Cook's second voyage. Elliott was related to the Wilkinson family, and you will find some generations of the Wilkinson family in Elliott's family tree, which can be found on this website at
By Cliff Thornton on 9/11/2016 8:05:06 PM Like:0 DisLike:0

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