Whitby in the Time of Cook: The making of a great seaman.  Sophie Forgan.  2018

Whitby in the Time of Cook: The making of a great seaman. Sophie Forgan. 2018

Forgan, Sophie and others. 
Whitby in the Time of Cook: The making of a great seaman.  Catalogue to the exhibition at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby 2018
Captain Cook Memorial Museum. 
31 pages. 

This book was produced to accompany the exhibition held at the Whitby museum in 2018. It has 39 illustrations, some small, but many very large. In line with books published for previous exhibitions held at this museum, it serves as a great reminder for people who visit, and stands alone for people unable to attend.


James Cook arrived in Whitby in 1747, and was apprenticed to John Walker. Cook left in 1755, and joined the Royal Navy. This book shows what Whitby would have been like when he was there.


I found it took a long time to get past page 1, as it features a map of what Whitby looked like in the mid-eighteenth century. Apart from studying the annotations, I also marvelled at how many of the streets shown are recognisable today.


The chapter “Whitby: boom town of the 18th century” describes the state of the town, and how it was changing with houses being built, rebuilding of the bridge, the state of the roads to the town, and the importance of the sea in connecting Whitby with the rest of the country, and the world. Among the illustrations are two fine depictions of the town.


About 20 ships a year were being built in Whitby in those days, making the place one of the largest shipbuilding ports in the country. The chapter on shipping also says repairing ships was an important activity, with Thomas Fishburn, who built Endeavour, opening a dry dock there in 1758. Although the port’s main shipping activities involved fishing and carrying coal from Newcastle to London, Whitby ships were also involved in transporting troops, including soldiers to Canada when Cook was there. And, when Commodore George Anson sailed in 1740 to the Pacific, his squadron included Anna, a supply ship that had been built in Whitby.


The chapters on apprenticeship and mathematical training explain how boys became apprenticed, what their duties entailed, and those of their masters, and why the boys were called “servants” on the musters. There is a beautiful illustration of an indenture setting out the terms of one boy’s apprenticeship. Whitby had several schools that taught essential skills, such as mathematics, which was needed in navigation, and astronomy, used to calculate latitude. A lovely illustration shows one of the problems they had to solve. It is reproduced so well that it can be read. In summary: Suppose a Merchant Ship falls into the hands of a pirate who robbed him and took all that he had, and two days later meets a Royal Navy ship, what course should be taken to find the pirate. Other illustrations depict problem solving for parallel sailing, oblique sailing and plain sailing. One of the teachers, Lionel Charlton, went on to write a history of Whitby, published in 1779.


“Abel Chapman and his world” explores one of the Whitby men who rose from humble beginnings to found a shipping dynasty. He married Elizabeth, sister of John Walker. The catalogue includes pages from his account book, and a chart from a Russian book of Baltic charts published in 1755.


As Cook spent so long with the Quaker family of John Walker, I was pleased to read about the presence and influence of members of the Religious Society of Friends, who held their first meeting in Whitby in 1654. It is interesting to note that whilst Abel Chapman was from a Quaker family, some of his brothers did not follow that religion.



Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 62, volume 41, number 4 (2018).

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