Portrait of Captain Cook

Captain Cook family and early life

The Captain Cook family history and his early life is a fascinating tale. Read through our James Cook articles to find out more about the Cook family, his early life, and of course, his voyages and discoveries.

Cook’s childhood

Cook was born in East Marton on 27th October 1728, to James Cook (1694-1779) and Grace Pace (1702-65). His father, originally from Scotland, worked as a farm labourer and the family moved around the area, following the work on estate farms.

In 1736, when Cook was 8 years old, his father secured a job as a foreman at Aireyholme Farm near Great Ayton. Owned by the Lord of the Manor of Great Ayton, Mr Thomas Scottowe, the farm was based on the slopes of Roseberry Topping. The family to the estate and Cook started attending the local school.

Cook learned writing and arithmetic and received religious instruction over his time there. The charity school was set up by local landowner Michael Postgate in 1704 to educate the local children. It was rebuilt in 1785 and now houses the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum.

After his schooling, Cook went to work on a local farm. In 1745, Cook left Great Ayton to find work in Staithes, a nearby fishing village. He was employed briefly by William Sanderson, a merchant, haberdasher and grocer, but his time spent in the fishing village prompted him to set his sights on a seafaring life.

Staithes bay from Captain Cook early life

Early career at sea

In 1746, Cook moved to Whitby and became an apprentice to ship owner John Walker. Walker’s ships transported coal between Newcastle and London in a round trip that took around 4 weeks to complete.

His apprenticeship came to an end in 1749, but Cook continued his work there and rose to the rank of Mate on Friendship in 1752. Cook’s hard work and study presented him with the opportunity to become Master aboard that ship in 1755, but he declined and instead joined the Royal Navy.

Captain Cook’s first service to the Royal Navy was aboard the Eagle working in the English Chanel and the Atlantic. By 1757, Cook had passed his master’s examination and his talents were noticed by the captain of HMS Pembroke.

Cook sailed with a fleet of ships to Canada during the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763), arriving in Halifax in 1758. He spent time studying with Samuel Holland who taught him to survey and make charts.

Cook was involved with the blockade of Louisburg in 1578, and spent time making charts of Halifax town and the harbour. His surveying and mapmaking talents were noticed by Admiral Saunders, who transferred Cook to the 70-gun ship Northumberland and arranged for the charts to be published once the Admiral arrived back in Britain.

After fights between the British and French over cod fishing bases on the Newfoundland coast in 1762, the Governor of Newfoundland realised the importance of having accurate maps of the area. He commissioned Cook and other surveyors to create them. Cook was employed for 5 summers there, spending his winters in Britain, before returning to London in 1767.

It was in August 1768 that Cook’s first great voyage began in HMS Endeavour. We’ve explored his famous voyages in another article, which you can find here.

Roseberry Topping panorama Chris Wood National Trust Image Credit: Roseberry Topping panorama by Chris Wood for the National Trust

Cook’s family

Cook’s mother and father were married in 1725, three years before Cook was born. Grace Pace, Cook’s mother, was born in Thornaby and his father, James Cook, came down to England from Scotland following the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. James and Grace had 8 children, four of which died in childhood. Grace died in 1771 is buried with 5 of their children in Great Ayton, while James Cook senior is buried in Marske by the Sea.

During a stay in Britain while mapping the Newfoundland coast, Cook married Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835). The two likely met at The Bell public house in Wrapping in 1762. When Cook was not at sea, they lived together in London’s East End. In their 17 years of marriage, the Cooks only lived together for around 4 years, thanks to Cook’s time at sea.

They had six children together: James (1763–94), Nathaniel (1764–80), Elizabeth (1767-71), Joseph (1768–68), George (1772–72) and Hugh (1776–93). Sadly, all the Cook’s children died before they could have their own. There are no known direct descendants of Captain Cook.

Disaster stuck the Cook family and their children. Two died in infancy and their only daughter passed at the age of 4. Captain Cook died in 1779, with his son Nathanial being lost at sea only 8 months later. Hugh caught scarlet fever while studying at Cambridge and died in December 1793. Their first born and last remaining son passing just weeks later in January 1794. He drowned while in service for the Royal Navy.

Elizabeth outlived all her children and her husband and died in 1835 aged 93. She’s buried beside her sons James and Hugh in St Andrew the Great Church in Cambridge. Captain James Cook, of course, doesn’t have burial spot on English soil. Cook was killed in Kealakekua Bay and his body treated to Hawaiian funerary rituals. Although, some of his preserved remains were returned to his crew for a formal burial at sea.

We hope that’s given you a bit more of an understanding about Captain Cook’s early life and family. Check out our Captain Cook pages to learn more about his voyages and accomplishments.

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