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Grape Lane

Point 2 - Captain Cook

Don't be deceived by Whitby’s Grape Lane. The name has nothing to do with vines. It's more to do with the 'groping' that used to go on here as a result of the lack of street lighting in the 18th Century.

Before street lighting was introduced, people used to "grope" their way down this dark street, which is part of Whitby’s Old Town.

Captain Cook Statue
Captain Cook surveys the town.

This narrow and unassuming lane was a significant part of the early life of one of Britain's greatest mariners - Captain James Cook.

Over the passage of time, academic thought has shown Cook to be more a scientist than a discoverer.

But it's his exploits in shattering the myth of the "Great Southern Continent" that are most familiar.

The Whitby Gazette noted in 1997, "Cook, the Whitby apprentice sailor, was a link between the march of 18th Century scientific progress and the emergence of Britain as a world empire".

Early days, late nights

As you walk down Grape Lane, notice the now defunct alleyways, or ‘ghauts’ as they were known, providing access to the River Esk. These ghauts are testimony to the importance of the town’s maritime activities.

Captian Cook Museum in Whitby
The museum is a lasting monument to Cook

It was in Whitby, whilst lodging on Grape Lane, that the young Captain Cook learnt his trade.

At the far end of Grape Lane is the Captain Cook Museum. This imposing house, built in 1685 according to its inscription, once belonged to a John Walker, a Quaker shipping merchant.

The house backs onto the river, with views directly onto what would have been the frenetic activity of Whitby’s shipbuilding business.

James Cook was 18 when he came to Whitby to start his three year apprenticeship to John Walker.

Tall ship
Life at sea was demanding

He had previously spent two years working in a haberdashers shop in Staithes, just a few miles north of Whitby but his yearning for a life at sea was too strong.

There is little evidence of Cook’s time spent as an apprentice in Whitby; however it was whilst working on John Walker’s coal-carrying "cats" that he learnt his seafaring, navigational and ship-building skills that which were to pay dividends on his later travels.

During the winter months, when Walker’s ships were not journeying from Newcastle to the Thames, carrying coal, James Cook lodged in the family’s attic. Legend has it that the family’s servant, Mary Proud, soon took a shine to James, supplying him with candles so he could study well into the night.

To sea with tradition

Cook had an eagerness for knowledge and after several voyages "before the mast", his studious habits were recognised.

During the war with the French in 1755, he enlisted as an Able Seaman on the Navy's Eagle.

After no more than a month, he was promoted because of outstanding ability, to Master's Mate. Four years later he was promoted to Master.

Thus, he was to embark on his famed voyages of discovery with his Whitby flat bottomed "Endeavour".

It is said that on returning to Whitby, after having achieved great fame as an explorer, cartographer and navigator, Mary Proud, an admirer from his Grape Lane lodgings, had been instructed to treat James with deference and respect.

However, on seeing him, she completely forgot her father's advice, saying: “Oh James, honey. I’m glad to see thee!”.

Captain James Cook's life was never without such surprising incidents at both home and abroad.

This much travelled mariner and four of his marines met an untimely end at the hands of natives of Owhyee, whilst on one of the Sandwich Islands, on 14th February, 1779.

Onward now and get on your own voyage of discovery to Whitby's market square - but make sure you keep your eyes open at all times - it's the location of the stocks!

last updated: 29/09/06
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