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William Wade Ellis (1751-1785)


A few years ago Cliff Thornton transcribed the will of Samuel Gibson, the marine who accompanied James Cook on all three Pacific voyages.1  One of the witnesses to the will was William Ellis, who had sailed on the Third Voyage as Surgeon’s Mate in HMS Discovery.  An interesting point about Gibson’s will is that Ellis signed his name as William Wade Ellis.


Ellis was a competent artist, who drew many birds and fishes during the voyage,2 often signing as W.W. Ellis.  His second name was not generally known, but at some time in the past someone decided it was Webb, and until recently he was invariably listed as William Webb Ellis.  This may have come about through confusion with the boy from Rugby School with that name.3  Cliff Thornton’s discovery has allowed us to differentiate between the two men.  I have found some genealogical details about our Ellis.


William Wade Ellis was baptised on 11 June, 1751, at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Ellis.  His father was born in 1705 in Sheffield, and died in 1764 in Ely, where he was a canon at Ely Cathedral.  Thomas married Elizabeth Robins in 1729 and, together, they had seven children.  Only William and one brother, Thomas Robins Ellis, survived to adulthood.  This brother became the vicar at Melbourn, Cambridgeshire. 


Collections of Ellis’ drawings are held in various locations, but principally at the Natural History Museum, London, and the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.4  Unfortunately, they have remained amongst the least known of material from Cook’s voyages.  Authors such as Smith and Joppien have been dismissive of Ellis’ artistic talents, suggesting that he was merely competent, and that only after he transferred to Resolution was he able to learn from John Webber, the expedition’s principal artist.5  Smith and Joppien, though, focused their work on reviewing landscapes and portraits, and chose not to address the botanical and zoological art produced on Cook’s voyages.  So theirs is perhaps an unfair judgement.  While Ellis’s landscapes are rather ordinary,6 his zoological drawings are quite good, and much better than those of Webber.  Averil Lysaght’s earlier opinion of Ellis’ drawings of birds is much more complimentary.  

Ellis’s plates are water-colour drawings of considerable charm and delicacy.  In many cases he included accurate life-size pen and ink sketches of the head which has helped in identifying the species.7


Inscriptions on some of the Ellis drawings refer to a “Capt. D.”  This, it is believed, was George Dixon, who was the armourer in Discovery, and a shipmate of Ellis during the Third Voyage.  It is possible that he was able to assist Ellis in identifying the natural history specimens that Ellis was illustrating.


David Samwell, surgeon in Discovery, described Ellis as “a genteel young fellow and of good education”.8  Ellis was supposedly educated at Cambridge University and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, but no evidence for these claims has been located.  The quality of his bird paintings, however, shows evidence of some scientific education or training.  The way he drew studies of parts of the birds would interest naturalists back in Britain.  The written descriptions in Ellis’ notebooks further confirm he had a scientific education, and a working knowledge of Latin.


Shortly before his death on August 22, 1779, Captain Charles Clerke, commended Ellis to Joseph Banks in a note:

I must beg leave to recommend to your notice Mr Will. Ellis one of the Surgeon's mates who will furnish you with some drawings & accounts of the various birds which will come to your possession, he has been very useful to me in your service in that particular.9


After the voyage, Ellis saw Banks, and presented his drawings to him, in hopes of some material gain, which did not occur.  Ellis soon found himself in financial difficulties, and succumbed to an offer of 50 guineas to write an account of the third voyage.  Ellis' work, published in 1782, sold well, even going into a second edition and being translated.10


However, Ellis gained nothing further financially from the book’s sales, on account of the terms of the publishing agreement.  His reputation was ruined, because he had upset the authorities by publishing his narrative without permission, ahead of the official account.  As a result, his prospects for employment were few.


Friendships developed in Discovery, and several members of the ship’s company, including Dixon, Forester and Zimmermann, were involved in further voyages to the Pacific.  Dixon rose through the ranks, and made captain.  He was given command of the Queen Charlotte, in 1785, on a voyage to the northwest coast of America to obtain sea otter furs.11  Through his contacts, Dixon was also probably instrumental in helping Ellis obtain a position on an Austrian expedition, which, given Ellis’ earlier faux pas, was an opportunity he could not refuse.


Unfortunately, before the Austrian expedition could depart, Ellis died shortly after joining the ship in June, 1785, when he fell from a mast at Ostend, in Belgium.  


For a long time, all that we knew about Ellis came from a report in The Times:

Cambridge July 1 – We are sorry to inform our readers of the death of Mr Ellis, formerly of this place, occasioned by a fall from the main mast of a ship at Ostend. He was on his way to Germany, where the Emperor had engaged him on advantageous terms to go on a voyage of discovery. Mr Ellis accompanied Capt. Cooke in his last voyage, and soon after his return published an account of it, in two octavo volumes. His premature death is lamented by all who knew him.12 


Cook’s William Ellis has remained a shadowy figure for over two hundred twenty-five years, but now, with the correct identification of his second name, we know another detail about the surgeon’s mate, and artist, from the Third Voyage.


John Robson



  1. Cook’s Log, page 33, vol. 29, no. 1 (2006). 
  2. Some of Ellis’s bird paintings have appeared on stamps of Penrhyn.  See Cook’s Log, page 237, vol. 7, no. 1 (1984).  His painting of the Longnose butterflyfish (Forcipiger longirostris) appears in Cook’s Log, page 49, vol. 33, no. 3 (2010). 
  3. William Webb Ellis was once described as having invented the game of rugby.  The claim has been discredited, but the myth lives on.
  4. See Cook’s Log, page 211, vol. 6, no. 3 (1983). 
  5. Joppien, Rüdiger, and Smith, Bernard.  The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, Volume Three: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780.  Yale University Press.  1988.  See Cook’s Log, page 586, vol. 11, no. 2 (1988). 
  6. A View of the Town of St Peter & St Paul in the Bay of Awatchka by Ellis appears in Cook’s Log, page 35, vol. 27, no. 4 (2004). 
  7. Lysaght, Averil M.  “Some eighteenth century bird paintings in the library of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820)” in Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History).  Historical Series.  1959.  Vol. 1.  No. 6.  Page 322. 
  8. Beaglehole, J.C. The Journals of Captain James Cook.  Vol. III: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780.  Hakluyt Society.  1967.  Part One.  Page lxxxvi. 
  9. ibid.  Part Two. Page 1543.
  10. See Cook’s Log, page 22, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007). 
  11. Ellis, William.  An Authentic narrative of a voyage performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke in His Majesty's ships Resolution and Discovery during the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780; in search of a North-West passage between the continents of Asia and America.  G. Robinson.  1782.  See Cook’s Log, page 37, vol. 29, no. 2 (2006). 
  12. Death notice of William Ellis in The Times.  4 July, 1785. 



Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 37, number 2 (2014).

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