Home > Ralph Jackson’s diary - Part 4: Commodore William Wilson of Great Ayton

Ralph Jackson’s diary - Part 4: Commodore William Wilson of Great Ayton


Part 4: Commodore William Wilson of Great Ayton


  "Commodore William Wilson was also the early patron and steadfast friend of the illustrious Capt. James Cook, between whom and himself a correspondence at once professionally scientific and personally affectionate subsisted during their joint lives."  


The above is taken from the obituary for Commodore Wilson's daughter Rachel, who died in 1844, aged 87. If the details are correct then there was a much closer connection between Cook and Wilson than has previously been acknowledged. Before examining Ralph Jackson's diary to see if it can shed any light on this relationship, a few words about Commodore Wilson and his illustrious naval career.

Wilson had joined the East India Company in 1729 as a 14 year old midshipman and in the following years worked his way through the ranks eventually becoming Captain of his first trading vessel, the Suffolk in 1749. Over the next eight years he completed three voyages in the Suffolk to India and China. If it hadn't been for the war with France, Wilson may not have achieved the fame that subsequently came his way.

On 9 March 1757 the Suffolk was sailing homewards, off the Cape of Good Hope, along with two other Company vessels, the Houghton and the Godolphin, when all three ships were attacked by two French frigates. Capt. Wilson assumed command of the three Company ships and, although outgunned, he was able to repulse the French attack.

Although this was a relatively minor skirmish in naval terms, it was a major success for the East India Company, which could have lost three ships and their valuable cargoes. Captain Wilson had so impressed the Directors of the Company with his seamanship that he was promoted to Commodore with a new commission to China in the Pitt, "... with full power to take, sink, burn, or otherwise destroy all and every ship or ships of war belonging to the French, outward or homeward bound, or within the limits of the Company's Charter". The Pitt was the Company's largest vessel with 50 guns and 250 crew.

This voyage, from 1757 to 1760, brought Wilson even more fame as he discovered the famous Pitt Passage, which provided an alternative route to China. The Pitt returned home in only 3 months, the quickest ever made up to that time. Wilson's voyage in the Pitt was to be his last and after two years working for the Company in London he retired from the capital to live the rest of his life with his wife in the rural village of Great Ayton in North Yorkshire. His residence was Ayton Hall, previously the home of Thomas Scottowe one of Cook's early patrons.

Wilson's status was such that even though he had moved 250 miles away from London, his friends and acquaintances from the East India Company still called in to see him from time to time. Many of these visits are recorded in Ralph Jackson's diary, as Capt. Wilson had been his brother-in-law since 1755 when he had married Ralph's sister, Rachel.

Two such visits are of particular significance -


Thursday 12 September 1765 "...while we were breakfasting at Ayton Mr Dalrymple an aquaintance of Br. Wilson in the East India came."


This was Alexander Dalrymple who had just returned to England the previous month having spent 13 years in the far east in the service of the East India Company. Dalrymple was now on his way north to visit his parents in Edinburgh and took the opportunity to break his journey for a few days. The following day, Ralph records going out hunting with Wilson and Dalrymple.

The Wilson-Dalrymple connection can be traced back to 1752 and Capt. Wilson's second voyage in the Suffolk. The muster role for that vessel shows that Dalrymple was one of the passengers on board; he was en route to Madras and his employment as a writer for the Company. A friendship must have been established on the voyage for, when Dalrymple's letters of introduction to Madras society failed, it was Wilson who provided the young man with lodgings ashore.

Dalrymple's career progressed rapidly and, in the interests of identifying further trading opportunities for the Company, he became familiar with maps of the known East Indies before embarking on his own minor voyages of exploration. There is, therefore, the possibility that Dalrymple passed on information to Capt. Wilson in 1758 which enabled him to undertake the new route to China in the Pitt.

Ralph Jackson's entry for 20 October 1765 records Dalrymple again visiting Capt. Wilson for a few days on his journey from Scotland back to London.

Several years later Ralph's diary records an even more famous visitor to Capt. Wilson -


Thursday 26 December 1771 "Spent all day at Ayton, this afternoon came Capt. Jas. Cook (& his wife) whose father lives in that Town, this Gentleman lately commanded the Kings Bark Endeavour on her voyage round the World and made many discoveries in the South Seas and in high Southern Latitudes,... he and his wife lay'd at Br. Wilson's."


This, albeit brief, account is the only contemporary record of Cook's visit to Ayton. It confirms the friendship between the two captains and provides an answer to the much debated question of where Cook stayed during his visit to Ayton. Ralph's diary contains no other references to Cook, so we do not know if the two captains had met previously or whether this meeting was the start of their friendship.

Capt. Wilson adapted to life as a country gentleman and became a well respected member of the local gentry. He died in 1795, and was buried in Great Ayton Parish Church. Several years after his death a marble memorial plaque was erected on an inside wall of the church by his son, also named William Wilson.

Wilson's memorial plaque Drawing taken from Wilson's memorial plaque
Wilson's memorial plaque
Click the above image for a larger version
Drawing taken from Wilson's memorial plaque
Click the above image for a larger version

Wilson's memorial plaque is carved with a scene of a naval battle. For many years this scene could not be identified, but it is now known that the scene was copied from one of the engravings published in 1758 to commemorate the Captain's famous victory over the two French vessels.


Cliff Thornton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1496, volume 21, number 2 (1998).


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