Captain Cook’s training as a seaman began in Whitby. He was born on 27 October 1728 at Marton-in-Cleveland. His father, originally from Scotland, was also called James and married Grace Pace from Cleveland. They had eight children, though several died young. When James was still a child, his father moved to Great Ayton, a few miles away near the Cleveland Hills, and became the foreman at Aireyholme Farm.
Here the young James received the rudiments of education at the village school and assisted his father on the farm. In 1745, he began work in a grocer’s shop at Staithes, a fishing village only a short distance from the busy port of Whitby.
After eighteen months, he determined to go to sea, and was introduced to the Walker family. John Walker and his brother Henry were Quaker shipowners engaged in the coal trade between the North-East and London. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, were upright, hospitable people known for their simplicity of manners and public spirit.
According to long-standing Whitby tradition, Walker lodged Cook when not at sea in the house in Grape Lane which is now the Museum. Some writers have questioned this, but for more information click here.
The young Cook could not have come to a better environment. The Walkers’ ships were workaday ‘cats’, trading to London and across the North Sea. Cook began the life of a sailor on the Freelove in February 1747, carrying a cargo of coal to London.
After three voyages in the Freelove, Cook took part in rigging and fitting out a new ship of Walker’s called the Three Brothers. Signing on after his apprenticeship had expired, he remained on that ship until 1752, apart from a voyage to the Baltic and St. Petersburg in the Mary. In 1752 he became mate and joined Walker’s latest ship, the Friendship, sailing in her for three years. By 1755 Cook was an experienced and trusted seaman, and Walker offered him the command of the ship.
But Cook had other plans.
For the next stage of Cook's career, see the Royal Navy and Canada page.