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The origin of the James Cook Historical Museum, Cooktown


In December 2021, the Cook Historical Museum was renamed Cooktown Museum.

The James Cook Historical Museum and the Joseph Banks Garden at Cooktown were officially opened by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II on 22 April 1970. The museum building has a very interesting history.

When gold was discovered at Palmer River in 1873 miners and speculators were attracted from all over the world. The tent-town Cooks Town became a permanent settlement and officially known as Cooktown on 1st June 1874. By the mid eighties there were some 30,000 people resident in the area covered by the gold fields and Cooktown was the second largest port in Queensland.

St Marys Convent was erected to serve the needs of the large Irish community and officially opened by Bishop Hutchinson in May 1889. The building stood on a magnificent granite base and the double storey brick walls were 22 inches thick.

The golden years had passed by the turn of the century, and Cooktown gradually sank into obscurity, helped by the damage caused by the two major cyclones.

In 1969 the historic St Mary Convent was threatened with demolition. The people of Cooktown appealed to the National Trust of Queensland to act immediately in gaining Queensland Government support for a suitable Bicentenary project. The most Reverend John Torpie made an eager response to the suggested saving of the dilapidated building for this purpose.

The National Trust collected $28,500 worth of materials and ready cash and the Queensland Government then responded with a fitting contribution.

The old building was restored and the small James Cook Historical Museum in the old Cooktown railway station house was relocated and re-established as a fitting memorial to the first transient white settlement in Australia lasting 48 days.

A flagstaff carrying the "Queen Anne" jack of Cook's time commands the entrance to the double-story Captain Cook Historical Museum in Helen Street, Cooktown.

The ground floor of the Museum houses an Aboriginal Gallery, a simulated Chinese Joss House, the James Cook Gallery and the former chapel of the Convent of St. Mary. The gilded key with which Her Majesty opened the front door at the bicentenary is on display above the Founder-Donors' Board.

The layout of-the James Cook Gallery is shown here.

Cook's life story is depicted in a series of panels around the walls. There is an interesting diorama of the Endeavour being careened ashore and a scale model of the Endeavour Bark. But pride of place in the gallery goes to one of Cook's cannons.

In 1969 an American expedition from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science was successful in locating the six guns jettisoned on the night of 10 June 1770. Captain Vince Vlassof with his 'Tropic Seas' was of vital local assistance in recovering the six cannons which were transported to Defence Standards Laboratories in Melbourne for reconditioning.

Number 2 cannon was placed on display at Cooktown in time for the official opening of the Museum on 22 April 1970. The 6 feet 10 inches Queensland cannon had a 3 pound 6 ounces corroded cannon ball lodged in the breech 4 feet 7 inches from the muzzle when found.

Displayed with the cannon is a four pounder cannon ball. In January 1971 the Resident Custodian of the Museum found the cast iron ball lodged in the bank on the site of Cook's supply dump. As the size fits Cook's Cannon it is reasonable to assume the ball was left behind when the Endeavour departed.

A general display on the first floor includes costumes used in the bicentenary celebration.

The above information is based on research made by the National Trust of Queensland.

Doug Gibson

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 423, volume 9, number 1 (1986).

In December 2021, the Cook Historical Museum was renamed Cooktown Museum.

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Hi Ken, yes Captain Cook received advice from the Royal Society, and instructions from the Admiralty on how he was to interact with indigenours peoples he encountered. He was to treat them with civility and try and make friends with them He also was warned about the possible treacherous nature of some populations, so he had to try and balance his actions in accordance with his instructions. Cook, and many of his officers, maintained a detailed daily journal in whch he recorded the main events of the day.
By Cliff Thornton on 5/24/2022 4:14:49 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Hi: Did Cook have orders to be considerate of occupants of newly discovered territory? Did his logs show how he engaged with the occupants? Ken Berg (b. Vancouver, BC 1933)
By Ken Berg on 5/22/2022 11:12:08 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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I am proud of my father for writing this article! My sister Fiona Hayes told me about the Captain Cook Society and the web page, so I was very interested to have a look and read the article which dad wrote.
My husband and I lived and worked in Cairns for 7 years from 2006, and visited Cooktown several times. We also visited the James Cook Historical Museum on a couple of occasions, having ‘lived’ with Cook all my childhood! We have also visited Whitby in the UK and many of the Cook places of interest around Australia.
By Suzanne Fysh on 4/21/2020 6:24:16 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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I have a copy of "THE LONDON GAZZETE" dated 1768 befor Cook even sailed to Australia
By peter Hapgood on 10/11/2014 4:20:00 AM Like:0 DisLike:0

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