James Cook was a renowned 18th century explorer and navigator who is best known for three epic voyages of exploration and whose accomplishments included mapping the Pacific, New Zealand and east coast of Australia. We have a particular interest in him as he’s in my wife’s family tree – she’s descended from one of his siblings (as are my children, of course!). So a visit to the Cook Memorial Museum in the centre of Whitby was a must during our recent holiday there. Especially on a wet Monday afternoon.
Cook was the son of a farm worker, born on 27 October 1728 in Marton, a small village near Middlesbrough, which was then in Yorkshire. At the age of 17, Cook moved to Whitby to be apprenticed to Captain John Walker, a Quaker, who was a coal merchant and ship owner. During his apprenticeship he sailed on Captain Walker’s ships and when ashore lived with the other apprentice’s in the attic of the ship owner’s own house in Grape Lane on Whitby’s harbour on the east side of the river. After learning his trade as a seaman he joined the Royal Navy in 1755, working his way through the ranks.
The museum website tells us
Built in 1688, the house is a good example of a Whitby master-mariner’s dwelling, both a comfortable home and the centre of the family shipping business. It retains much of its original internal decoration and has been carefully restored.
The atmosphere recalls that of a prosperous Quaker shipowner’s home.
Passing From here Captain Walker and his apprentices would be able to view his ships.
Entry into the museum is via the extension on the back of the original house.
The ground floor rooms are furnished according to an inventory made in the early 1750s. The rooms on the upper floors have exhibitions about Cook’s life and career.
This model on display inside the museum shows how the back of the house would have looked
The original kitchen floor was discovered relatively recently
The dining room
A sitting room
The view over the harbour from one of the windows on the landing
I found the exhibition rooms on the first and second floors very interesting. There were volunteers in a couple of the rooms who were very well informed and keen to tell curious visitors about aspects of Cook’s life and times. The volunteer in the room about navigation explained how ships in Cook’s era would work out their position and speed. There was a model of the Resolution, which also showed the crew and typical supplies that the ship would carry. The following picture is from the museum’s website as it was difficult to photograph due to reflections from its glass case
We learned that one of the officers on the expedition was a certain William Bligh – yes the same person who went on to captain the Bounty. The room volunteer pointed out the likeness of the figure in the model to Charles Lawson who played the part of Bligh in the well known film about the Mutiny on the Bounty!
The ships used on Cook’s expeditions were all adapted Whitby-built collier barks. The museum website tells us
These were sturdy and reliable, built to service the coal trade. They were capacious and an extra deck could be inserted into them in order to carry a far larger crew, together with stores for up to two years.
Another advantage was that collier barks were flat bottomed. They could therefore land on any flattish beach, rather than needing to tie up at a quay in a proper harbour. This was particularly useful when no-one knew what landing conditions would be like. Small boats were also carried for inshore work.
In Cook’s time the apprentices would have been quartered in the attic. They slept and spent their spare time here. It’s now used for the museum’s annual special exhibitions.
Looking out of the attic window
It was an excellent museum. I’d expected to spend about an hour there on a wet afternoon but we ended up staying much longer as there was a lot to see in a relatively small building and we learned quite a lot about Cook, life in a Whitby ship owner’s house, the architecture of houses during this period and also about aspects of seamanship.
Coming back out into the yard we spent some time reading the two information boards. One about the house
and the other about the various types of sailing vessels built in Whitby. I found this one particularly interesting and learned that a ship was originally a specific type of three masted vessel. You live and learn!!