Captain Cook in Cleveland. Thornton, Cliff. 2006

Captain Cook in Cleveland. Thornton, Cliff. 2006

Thornton, Cliff. 
Captain Cook in Cleveland.
Tempus Publishing Ltd.
ISBN 0-7524-3995-2.

Most biographies skim over Cook's early life: his birth in Marton, schoolchild in Great Ayton, shop assistant in Staithes and learning the ropes on colliers from Whitby. The information about this period may have been sparse in the past, but there is surprisingly more known about his time in Cleveland / North Yorkshire than many people realise.

Cliff Thornton created a worthy booklet of 55 pages and published it in 1978 with the subtitle "A study of his early years". Twenty-eight years on the information he pulled together seems just as ignored by today's biographers, and this expanded edition of 96 pages is a welcome addition to our knowledge of Cook's later life. Interestingly it has lost its subtitle along the way, and isn't called a second edition, though that is what it is.

The book starts with an explanation of the geographical area known as Cleveland, and what little is known about Captain Cook's parents (James and Grace) and paternal grandparents (John and Jean). The chapter on Marton describes how the family lived in two different cottages in the village, and not just the one marked by the granite vase near the present Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. It introduces us to the first of eight drawings by the artist George Cuit1 who was commissioned "to draw various sites in Cleveland associated with Captain Cook's early life". All eight drawings are reproduced in this book, possibly for the first time. The history of the area and the fans of Cook who lived there are explored, including the archaeological investigations in 19972 and 2003.

How and why the 42-year old James Cook moved to Great Ayton with his wife and four children is explored in the next chapter. The births and deaths of more children are noted and the reasons for young James being sent to school are explored. However there is disappointingly little about Michael Postgate and nothing about how the well-known shape of Roseberry Topping would not have been familiar to the Cooks, having been the result of subsidence in 1912 attributed to local mining.

James Cook moved to Staithes when he was sixteen, to work in a shop. Two intriguing questions arise: "surely there were opportunities for him that were closer to home; if not in Ayton then in the towns of Stokesley or Guisborough? How could his father have secured him in a position at Staithes when his only business contacts were of an agricultural nature?" After posing these questions the book covers the varying answers that have been given over the years and the evidence of contemporary documents. An approach used to great effect throughout the book. The "shopkeeper"` Sanderson turns out to be much more important3, and the tale of the South Sea Shilling effectively demolished.

Cook's life aboard the ships of John Walker after his move to Whitby is taken in part from the muster rolls and also from contemporary descriptions of collier life. Recent research about the sale and discharge of coal in London is included to give an appreciation of what a hard life it must have been. You also get to realise that Cook sailed to many more places than just London, and the vessels transported more than just coal.

Cook's story in this book does not end with his departure to the Navy, as his visits to Cleveland are recorded as well as the sketchy and misleading information about the cottage built by his father in Great Ayton that was subsequently sold and moved to Melbourne. The George Cuit drawings are particularly helpful in determining where in Redcar Captain Cook's father moved.
One of the extra chapters in this edition deals with the visits of Alexander Dalrymple, Joseph Banks and Omai to Cleveland. Another chapter describes the monuments in Cleveland, and how they came to be erected, and a third gives the history of several collections of Cook memorabilia formed by people living in Cleveland, such as Bolckow and Corner, though they have subsequently left the area.

The bibliography has been expanded, though curiously an error in the first edition has been retained: the list is alphabetical but Brown still comes after Crowhurst, and now also comes after Firth. Among the additions are seven references to articles that appeared in Cook's Log. There are additional family trees given for the Fleck and Skottowe families.

The inclusion of a very welcome index marks the expansion of the original booklet into a pocket-sized book. The information contained in it is of great value to anyone endeavouring to understand how the early life and adventures of James Cook shaped his later discoveries. A resolution to obtain a copy should be made by all who read this review.

Ian Boreham


  1. Cook's Log, page 1448, vol. 20, no. 4 (1997).
  2. Cook's Log, page 1480, vol. 21, no. 1 (1998).
  3. Cook's Log, page 1227, vol. 19, no. 1 (1996).


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 29, number 4 (2006).

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