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Minutes of the 364th meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on Tuesday 15th May 2018:

Speaker John Rowlands: ‘Cook Cottage Project 2014-16’

John Rowlands was a chemical engineer, who moved to Teesside in the mid 1970s. He has lived in Great Ayton since 1977. He retired in 2013 and joined in Great Ayton History Society. He gave a very interesting talk on a hardy perennial topic – where was Captain Cook’s cottage?

A project was undertaken jointly with the Captain Cook Society with funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund to try to discover whether there had been a building on a site near Aireyholme Farm and if so, whether it could linked to Cook’s family. Work on site was carried out between 2014 and 2016. Writing up of the results is ongoing.

James Cook was born in Marton on 27th October 1728. He moved to Great Ayton in 1736 when his father became a bailiff at Aireyhome Farm, working for the Lord of the Manor, Thomas Skottowe. In the 1930s, a photograph of a tenant farmer William Martin, taken before the Roseberry Topping landslip of 1912, was discovered. On the back of the photograph was written, ‘William Martin standing on the site of Captain Cook’s Childhood home’. Since the 18th century, much has changed at the site. In particular Leeds City Council quarried in the area for stone to use for road construction altering ground levels significantly.

The community based research of Phase 1 was carried out in five stages: offsite research, onsite exploration, leaflet production, installation of an information panel and repair and restoration of public footpaths.

Offsite research studied the Cook Birthplace Museum, the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton, George Cuit’s drawings of the areas where Cook grew up and the Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby. These confirmed that James moved to Staithes in 1744. In 1755, his father built a house in great Ayton where he and his wife retired. It was this house which was bought by the Russell Committee, dismantled and rebuilt in Australia.

The National Trust gave permission to ‘dig and look’ but no more. In March 2015, Jon Kenny carried out a geophysical survey. Further work was led by Kev Cale, a professional Community Archaeologist. Two trial trenches were dug in locations indicated by the geophysical survey. These were dug using small trowels. After 1.5 metres, shale, which has been there for 70 million years was encountered. Nothing was found in trench 1 except for a few broken tiles and bricks. In trench 2, some stones which could have been part of a wall, were discovered but no mortar.

The information leaflet gives details of landmarks and potential sites where Cook might have lived. John showed a photograph of the Interpretive Panel produced at the end of phase 1.

After phase 1 had been completed, Great Ayton History Society was keen to explore a third trench. The Cook Society were no longer interested. The History Society therefore self funded a continuation. The Ordnance survey could not identify anything which the Society might have missed. Kev Cale suggested a location for a third trench where whinstone was found close to the surface and cobbles laid in a pattern were discovered. This floor had a hole for a timber post and a hearth. It appeared that this was constructed for animals, but later may have become the ground floor of a dwelling. Also found were metal, pottery fragments, a bone comb, cinders, glass, roof tiles and bricks, as well as mortar and shaped flints. At this stage, time and money ran out. The excavations were covered with a permeable membrane and soil.

Channel 4 made a programme presented by Penelope Keith on 05/10/16, Hidden Villages Series 3 Episode 3. This is still available.

In reply to questions, John said that the house may have been demolished and used in the construction of his parents’ retirement home. There is, unfortunately no evidence yet found, that James Cook ever lived at the cottage.