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extracted from an article published in the Cleveland Advertiser on the release of Captain Cook, Man of the Sea

An old postcard of Staithes. Sanderson's shop would have been on the right, on the front line, facing the sea.

The South Sea Bubble

The South Sea Bubble

Formed in 1711, the South Sea Company was a joint stock venture intended to reduce national debt, and granted a monopoly to trade with South American Spanish colonies. The company barely made a profit, but the possibility of vast potential returns enticed speculators to trade heavily in company shares, grossly inflating their value. The bubble burst in 1720 and the shares bottomed, resulting in fortunes being lost. Although many banks and some companies issued their own currency, the S.S. mark on a general issue shilling shows the silver used by the mint came from the South Sea company.

Grape Lane, Whitby, also known as 'Grope Lane' because there was little streetlighting at night. The house bearing the white plaque on the right was the Walkers' house where Cook lived.

It has  also been written he spent some of his leisure time in fishing cobles, and it was likely at Staithes he began to acquire skills that would later pay dividend. After eighteen months at the shop, the situation aggravated by a misunderstanding over a newly minted South Sea Company shilling which James took from the till in exchange for one from his pocket, he reached the conclusion his career lay at sea. Obviously satisfied with the explanation about the shilling, Sanderson took Cook to see one of his friends at Whitby.

    John Walker and his brother Henry were Quaker ship owners who lived in Whitby’s Grape Lane. It has also been speculated Cook stayed at a house in Haggersgate but this belonged to John Walker's younger cousin, also called John and also a master mariner. A stroll around the cemetery at St Mary’s church on  west cliff reveals many headstones bearing the Walker name. Their ships were cat-barks, and it was on Freelove that Cook was introduced to the sailor’s life, entering an agreement that bound him to John Walker as a ‘three years servant’. The Walkers, like many ship-owners, made a practice of laying up their vessels for the winter rather than risk them when the sea’s temper was at its worst. When Freelove wintered at her home port, Cook worked aboard during the day helping with routine maintenance and overhaul, but he lived ashore with the Walkers at their Grape   Lane   House.   On   the   opposite   side   of   the 


harbour below Esk Terrace was Fishburn’s shipyard, where unbeknown to young James Cook the ship would be built he would command on his first voyage of exploration after he had become a naval officer. At night in Grape Lane by candlelight he studied navigation and nautical law in the attic before retiring to sleep in a hammock. Aware his future career at sea depended on study if he was not to remain a common seaman, he also took in algebra. His perseverance with such obviously difficult subjects shows his strength of character even at an early age.

     After the 450 ton Freelove, he served on the new Three Brothers during a spell when she was commandeered to carry troops from Holland to Dublin in Ireland. Later he experienced the Baltic trade route on Mary, then on a ‘Stockton Ship’ before returning to work for the Walkers again, sailing on the Whitby collier Friendship for three years.

    The North Sea is a hard taskmaster. Bearing in mind his future as an explorer and chart maker, Cook’s  apprenticeship  was  probably   the   best   he  could  have ever had. The North Yorkshire coast is notorious as a graveyard for ships. It abounds with rock scars eager to sink their teeth into the keels of badly handled or unsuspecting vessels. Then are switching currents, winds that veer direction without warning and some of the most challenging harbour entrances in all England.


cook 11d

Whitby lower harbour after the drawbridge was rebuilt on stone piers in 1776, but before St Ann's Staithe was constructed which would result in partial demolition of the buildings on the right. Walker's house would be behind some of the buildings on the left.

 Some ports had no harbour, forcing the colliers to run in and beach at high tide. Left high and dry they would discharge at low tide and be reloaded in time for refloating on another tide. Even flat-bottomed as the cat-barks were, built for beaching, it was a manoeuvre none but the most confident masters cared to handle.

    It was also a fact of life that owners squeezed every penny from their business. Many of the colliers were poorly equipped, often with coal rotted sails, and before Samuel Plimsoll’s line laid down the law, it was common for merchant vessels to be loaded down to the gunwales. Probably undermanned, theirs was not an enviable position when the sea started to ‘come away’. The wreck records for the Yorkshire coast confirm this. No wonder young James Cook learned to handle a ship expertly.

    But there were greater challenges ahead than the North Sea.



cook 39A

The rear of the Walkers' Grape Lane house from the harbour wall. The attic where young James Cook and the other apprentices slept can be clearly seen. From here, the view would include all the vessels in the upper harbour & across to Fishburn's yard where the cat-barks Cook would later chose for his voyages of exploration would be constructed.

    The large bush on the left conceals the passage-way from Grape Lane into the yard and the entrance to the Memorial Museum is to the right, in the brick section of the building, just out of shot.

Picture credits:


 page 9 - the author

page 10 - author's collection

page 11 -  the author

page 12 - Lewis Bartholomew (public domain)

page 13 - top & bottom public domain

page 14 - public domain

page 15 - public domain

page 16 - public domain

page 17 - Virginia Capes (public domain)

page 18 - the author

page 19 - public domain

page 20 - public domain

page 21 - the author

page 22 - the author

page 23 - public domain

page 24 - public domain




page 21 - Young’s History of Whitby published 1817; page 25 - W. H. Burnett’s Old Cleveland (writers & worthies) published 1886; pages 31, 36, 43, 45, 46, 48, 55, 59 - George William Anderson’s A New, Authentic and Complete Collection of Voyages Around the World etc. etc. published circa 1780.


All other photographs, maps and illustrations are the work of, or from the collection of the author. Thanks are due to the staff of Middlesbrough and Redcar Reference libraries, also Kevin McLintock for photographic work and constructive advice on same, but most of all to James Cook himself for his copious writings dealing with his voyages.

Chris Scott Wilson                   Writer                                             

©2010 C.J.S.Wilson

First published by Seaside Books in 1988, this small book was intended as a memento for visitors to the landmark sites in Cook's career. Now, the original text has been expanded for this serialisation. Hopefully, this will provide more detail for those interested in James Cook's background and progress throughout his life and his subsequent achievements.

     The cover & motif lettering were both designed and executed by Eddie Guy of Signart, Saltburn-by-the-Sea.

chris scott wilson captain cook man of the sea Signart

"Men Like Cook are rare as polished 1,000 carat diamonds." Author Chris Scott Wilson, raised in Cook's birthplace of Marton and a pupil of the Captain Cook Memorial School in the village, confesses he came late in life to an interest in the great man.

    "Cook sailed round the world? In my naivety I thought anyone could do that. But later I read a lot about the pace and quality of life and the lack of precise latitude and longitude in the 18th century. I began to realise how dangerous it was to sail a tiny ship, barely more than 100 ft long, many thousands of miles in uncharted seas."

    "Tomorrow was far more likely to bring sudden, painful death, or even worse, slow excruciating death from shipwreck or starvation than the prospect of a great discovery. Only then did I come to appreciate what Cook had achieved. Moreover, his abilities seemed endless - seamanship, leadership, courage, intelligence, diplomacy, invention and dogged persistence. He was ready to learn from his mistakes and knew when to cut his losses.






His three great voyages in effect laid the foundations of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Whether disproving geographers' theories of landmasses long thought to exist or discovering previously unknown islands and continents, he always brought back results. He drew charts so accurate that few faults can be found in them even today, using 21st century satellite technology.

    He was in the front rank of those 18th century men who sought to push outwards the barriers of knowledge so that man could better understand his environment.

    Besides covering Cook's childhood at Marton and Great Ayton and his early training for the sea at Staithes and Whitby, the new book gives due weight to his early achievements in North America. As a sailing master, Cook charted the St Lawrence, laying the foundations for Wolfe's success at Quebec. His later work on the St Lawrence seaway was accepted a s the Admiralty standard for 100 years. Followed by promotion to Marine Surveyor, he went on to spend five years mapping  the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, during which he also discovered coal deposits. Even this unglamorous work had its hazards and Cook barely escaped with his life on at least two occasions.




Captain Cook, Man of the Sea

article from The Cleveland Adveriser

chris scott wilson captain cook man of the sea 02 Signart

Captain Cook, Man of The Sea

book edition ©1985/1988 C. J. S. Wilson

website expanded edition ©2013 C. J. S. Wilson

chris scott wilson captain cook man of the sea 03 cook country map

map by the author

Captain Cook Country

The land of James Cook's youth is England's North Riding of Yorkshire, often referred to as 'Broad Acres' or 'God's Country'. Stretching from the flat marshland of the Tees estuary, the shoreline rises at Saltburn-by-the-Sea to towering cliffs which stand guard along the coast, broken only by the fishing villages of Skinningrove, Staithes and Runswick Bay before reaching Whitby  where the River Esk carves its way to the North Sea. With the exception of Robin Hood's Bay, the cliffline remains almost unbroken south toScarborough.


The Man

Who Became a Legend

captain james cook 01 whitby

James Cook's

statue on


West Cliff

photo by the author

Like many men of the sea, James Cook was born of the land. His father was a farm labourer, but from their cottage tall masts could be seen as merchantmen navigated the treacherous estuary of the River Tees on Yorkshire’s East coast. It may have been the sight of those first billowing sails as ships tacked upriver on their way to discharge cargo at Stockton that awoke excitement in James Cook’s heart and an awareness of a wide world beyond the village of his birth. Only later with the shifting deck of a cat-bark beneath his feet and taut canvas above, did Cook realise his vocation, a calling that would carry him over the broad oceans of the world, almost farther than any man had ventured. Three times around the whole circumference of the earth, and both north and south into the ice of each polar cap.

    Looking from a 21st century perspective, these voyages do not appear startling, but it must be remembered in the last three centuries the world has been shrunk dramatically by ever-increasing speeds of travel, making it possible to reach Australia in under one day. Another factor we take for granted is instant world-wide communication by telephone and internet. Perhaps it is easier to appreciate Cook’s achievements by comparing them with those of our astronauts, both of them mastering that distance between launch and destination and its safety, but we are talking of a time when we had barely gone beyond believing the world was flat – only disproved about 250 years before Cook, the same time-span between today and Cook’s discoveries. Just like the astronauts, Cook was facing the unknown, but he had to work out the route himself. And once he was there, before he could return he had to work out the route back.

    James Cook was born into a century of great seamen when the king’s ships were commanded by the likes of Rodney or Cochrane, etc whose daring exploits engineered the belief that English captains would always triumph even when faced with the greatest adversity - outnumbered, outsailed and outgunned. Those captains deserved the title hero, serving their country courageously and for the most part selflessly, culminating in that greatest of victories  at  Trafalgar  in  1805,    earning    immortal  fame   for   Admiral   Horatio Nelson, among whose captains at that great battle was another son of Whitby, Robert Moorsom,  commanding Revenge, a ship of the line. But while His Britannic Majesty’s Navy was busy stamping its authority over the oceans of the world, the fleets becoming the envied  ‘wooden walls of England’, although James Cook had served his country in war, instead he was to earn his reputation by the pen rather than the sword, expanding the knowledge of mankind.

    James Cook was a man of inner strength, independent, determined to attain his goals. The passing of time has made a sure grip on his personality elusive, but its very nature was such that it bound his crews to him like loyal friends. Little of his character is revealed by portraits, only an impression of a solid, staid man. But who could not be so after carrying responsibility for the well being of every member of his ships’ companies thousands of miles from home in uncharted oceans? Another reason perhaps, is that he disciplined himself early in life, applying his mind to learn and understand everything that could be of use to him. He had nobody of senior rank on his voyages of exploration of whom to seek counsel or suggestion ; in fact no contact  with  any  admiralty authority  and  no  means of contacting them from the other side of the world  other  than  leaving  despatches  with captains whose ships may be bound for England, but who might take months to reach a British port. Yet Cook would have no hope of expecting a reply.

    As a captain he strove to improve the health of his men and the conditions under which they lived and worked. As an explorer he continually reached to grasp further knowledge that man could more easily understand his environment and his relationship to it. His diligence led him to chart unknown seaways and islands meticulously, his accuracy only surpassed by advances in technology, and his discoveries in effect proved the first tent-ative steps whose tracks were to be the foundation of the British Empire and subsequently the Commonwealth.

    The statue on Whitby’s West Cliff comes nearer than any portrait in evoking James Cook’s character and yearning. A sturdy six foot man, he is sculpted with feet firmly planted in his capability. One hand holds dividers, the other a chart as he stares out to sea, searching. For men like Cook are driven to discover what lies beyond the next hill, unable to suppress their desire to unravel the secret of the next horizon.

    We owe a great deal to Captain James Cook’s efforts.

Below : The award winning Captain Cook Birthplace Museum which opened in 1978 in Stewart Park, Marton-in-Cleveland, pictured in the 1980s. It has since undergone a facelift. Before the construction of the museum, a small collection of artifacts was displayed in the park lodge sited at the entrance on the Marton Bungalow crossroads.

captain cook museum marton chris scott wilson

photo the author

Right: The site in Stewart Park of the cottage where James Cook was born marked by a pink granite urn, now remounted on a circular base.

Below: The memorial  setting in the 1980s. Marton Hall stood in the centre of the park in the mid-1800s, home of industrialist Henry William Ferdinand Bolckow, joint founder of Teesside's first iron plant with John Vaughan - see the article about Bolckow & Vaughan in the Archive on this website. Bolckow had a great interest in James Cook, and after his death one of the explorer's  original handwritten manuscripts was discovered in Bolckow's library at Marton Hall.

captain james cook memorial 01
cook 52 john yeadon

photos  (top) the author
(bottom) - John Yeadon (public domain)

Child is Father to the Man


James Cook was born on 27th October 1728 at Marton-in-Cleveland, the village now almost swallowed as a suburb of Middlesbrough in the heart of Cleveland. His father was also called James Cook and came originally from Kelso in Scotland. He married Grace Pace at Stainton-in-Cleveland and worked as a farm labourer on a Mr. Mewburn’s farm, the Cook family living in a small cottage at Marton. In the village church, St. Cuthbert’s, on 3rd November 1728 their second son was christened James.

    James Cook senior was later employed as farm manager or bailiff at Airyholme Farm, Great Ayton, a few miles further inland from Marton. The owner of Airyholme, Thomas Scottowe, showed concern for young James and consequently became his patron, sponsoring him at the village school. At that time education was non-compulsory; only for those who could afford it. The schoolmaster, Mr. Pullen, had ample opportunity to study the boy placed under his charge in the tiny room where lessons were given. He soon observed young Cook to be strong on mathematics.

cook 09A
cook 08A

above: The type of cottage in which James Cook was born at Marton-in-Cleveland

below:  The inscription above the school doorway 

bottom :The school Cook attended in Great Ayton

cook 07A


    After seeing to his education, Thomas Scottowe then found James a job. At first he worked on the farm with his father, then at the age of 16 went to work for William Sanderson who was related to Scottowe. Sanderson owned a grocery and drapery store at the seaside village of Staithes (pronounced ‘Steers’ by the locals), only a short distance from Whitby. His premises are now lost to the sea but stood on the front, backing onto the beach, near where the Cod & Lobster Inn is now. A walk through the narrow streets and a glance down tight alleys today shows the village layout probably little changed from Cook’s day. Only the never ceasing hammering of the waves has altered the line of the cliffs, the North Sea’s greedy fingers stealing any land to show weakness.

    Some of the windows in Sanderson’s shop would have provided a constant view of coasters skimming by on the horizon, sails billowing as they ferried coals south. Others would anchor in the bay to disgorge cargo into cobles for the run ashore. Always there would be a jumble of boats at the quay or in Roxby Beck, men mending fishing nets or sorting catches, boys helping fathers prepare to ‘go off’ and scratch a living in that most precarious of occupations. Hardships apart, for a boy tied to the boredom of a serving counter and bound by a flour-powdered apron, the romance  of  the  sea  must  have  been irresistible.  

Staithes 02
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