Captain Cook’s childhood home

By Josephine Sargent 27 August 2013
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Before Captain James Cook set out to find Australia, he lived and worked on a farm outside a small village.

BEFORE HE WAS THE captain of a ship tasked with a secret mission to find the elusive southern continent, James Cook was a farm labourer’s son, living in the quiet and heather-carpeted moors of North Yorkshire, UK.

He was just eight in 1736 when his Scottish father was hired by Thomas Skottowe to be a bailiff in Great Ayton, a small village in the north east of England, and his family moved to a cottage on Aireyholme Farm. It would be his home until he was 16. Skottowe quickly noticed the young Cook had potential and encouraged him to go to school, even paying for his tuition.

Cook excelled, particularly in maths, says Charles Forgan, a volunteer director of the James Cook Memorial Museum in nearby Whitby, where Cook lived later in life.

“Cook was quite bright so they put him in the local school and he worked for his father on the farm,” Charles says. “Soon, he made use of his numbers and worked in Staithes as a shop keeper’s assistant.”

Living in Staithes near the coast for the first time, Cook started mucking about in boats. It was there he was introduced to John Walker a merchant sailor, who eventually made Cook his apprentice – so beginning his career on the seas and, eventually, into the history books. The schooling Cook received in Great Ayton was his ticket out of a life of farming.

The village where Captain Cook grew up

Today, Great Ayton is home to about 5000 people and it hasn’t forgotten its most famous resident. Stone buildings huddle around the River Leven, which runs through the centre of town, and a heritage trail following in Cook’s young footsteps takes in a statue in his boyhood likness by sculptor Nicholas Dimbleby, All Saints church where he worshipped each week (and where headstones mark the graves of his mother and some of his siblings), the site of his father’s cottage (which was disassembled and has stood in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens since 1934), and, of course the site of the school Cook attended in between his farm chores.

The original buildings of the Postgate School, which was a charity school built by Michael Postgate, another benevolent landowner, no longer stand here – in 1785, when Cook had already discovered Australia, the school was rebuilt on the same site and material from the original was used in the process. In 1997, the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum moved in to preserve the connection and went so far as recreating an 18th-century classroom.

Looking over Great Ayton is a 320m hill named Roseberry Topping, which also provides the backdrop to Aireyholme Farm. It is said that Cook spent a lot of time exploring the hills around the home, and it was where he got his first taste of adventure.

But possibly the grandest memorial in the town is the 15m sandstone obelisk which stands high on Easby Moor, and was erected in 1827. A short hike up from the carpark rewards with 360 degree views over the moors – the same ones Cook would have looked upon as a teenager. Visit here for more information on the region.