James Cook was born on 27th October 1728 in East Marton, now part of the area occupied by Stewart Park, Middlesbrough. His father, James, was originally from Scotland, and had married Grace Pace from Thornaby on Tees. He was an agricultural labourer and moved about the area to find work on local estate farms.
Within a week of his birth James was baptised in the parish church of St. Cuthbert, Marton, on 3rd November 1728.
Early 19th century artists’ reconstructions of the birthplace cottage show it as a stone-built single-storey thatched building, typical of the small labourers’ cottages of the 18th century.
According to his early biographers James Cook was born in a mud house. It has been described as:
“…a low cottage, of two rooms, one within the other the walls of mud and covered with thatch.”
(Hutton, W. 1810. A Trip to Coatham in Yorkshire)
The cottage stood in East Marton, close to the site of the later Marton Lodge and Hall. By the second half of the 1780s it had fallen into disrepair and was dismantled.
By 1736, when James was eight years old, his father had got the job of hind or foreman at Aireyholme Farm near Great Ayton, about six miles away. The farm stood on the lower slopes of Roseberry Topping and was owned by Mr. Thomas Scottowe, Lord of the Manor of Great Ayton.
The family left Marton and probably moved into an estate cottage attached to the farm. During the next eight years James attended the local school and when he left went to work on the farm at Great Ayton.
James Cook left Great Ayton for Staithes in early 1745 and in 1755 his father retired from the farm and moved with his family into a house which he had built in the village of Great Ayton. Captain Cook never lived in this cottage but would have stayed here when visiting his parents.
In early 1745 Cook went to work for William Sanderson, merchant, haberdasher and grocer of Staithes. There Cook would have experienced life in a small but busy fishing village. He soon decided to move to Whitby to embark on a seafaring life and left Staithes mid-1746.
Sanderson’s small shop was located on the seafront but was either dismantled or washed away in a storm in the early 19th century. Most of the building materials were re-used to construct new premises that can still be seen on Church Street.
In 1746 James became apprentice to John Walker, a Whitby ship owner whose collier cats or barks transported coal between Newcastle and London, a round trip of about four weeks. Cook sailed on various vessels, including “Freelove”; “Three Brothers”, which saw Cook released from his apprenticeship (1749); “The Mary of Whitby”; and “Friendship”, of which he became Mate (1752).
During winter months outside of the sailing season ships were overwintered at Whitby. Repairs were carried out to vessels and Cook, like the other apprentices, lodged at Mr. Walker’s house in Grape Lane. During these periods Cook appears to have studied hard and by 1755 he had the chance to become Master of the “Friendship”, deciding instead to join the Royal Navy.
The stage was set for James Cook to become most famous maritime explorer of the 18th century.
James Cook was the most famous maritime explorer of the 18th century, and arguably one of the greatest explorers of all time.
His exploits in Canada and North West America, the islands of the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia and his incursions into waters of the Arctic and Antarctic are well recorded, particularly through the journals, logs and pictures which were made during the voyages and today preserved in museums, libraries and archives throughout the world.
Although James Cook was born in what is now Middlesbrough and spent his childhood in Great Ayton, the majority of his life was spent travelling the world, making new discoveries and mapping countries far from his birthplace.
Nevertheless, he retains a special position in the history of Cleveland and Teesside area.
Suggested Places to Visit:
Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, Middlesbrough
Schoolroom Museum, Great Ayton
Staithes, North Yorkshire
Whitby, North Yorkshire