One last surprise from Captain Cook’s cottage at Great Ayton

John Robinson, with Angela Taylor, Chairman of Great Ayton Parish Council, at the site of Captain Cook's parents' home.
John Robinson, with Angela Taylor, Chairman of Great Ayton Parish Council, at the site of Captain Cook's parents' home.
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It was a deal that must have had the locals in the North York Moors rubbing their hands: a tumbledown cottage that no-one wanted, sold to a rich Australian for double the asking price.

The sale poster at the Buck Inn had described the property in Great Ayton as the boyhood home of the village’s most famous son – but a glance at the date carved into the lintel above the front door told a different story.

The truth was that Captain James Cook may never even have set foot in the house, let alone lived there. It had been built by his parents as a retirement home, long after he had gone to sea in search of the new world.

But 85 years after it was taken apart brick by brick and shipped from the North York Moors to Melbourne, the old house retains its capacity to surprise.

Contractors, working to produce an outline of the building on the land it had occupied, have stumbled upon its original foundations. Next week, archeologists will conduct a three-day dig to see what other secrets it may give up.

“It’s unfortunate that the cottage was dismantled and taken away in the 1930s,” said John Robinson at the parish council in Great Ayton, which is restoring the memorial garden and accompanying obelisk on the plot. “The next best thing was a grand plan of where it stood.”

John Buglass, the Northallerton archaeologist who will lead a team of volunteers in Monday’s dig, said it would be “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to discover whether remnants from the Cook family’s time there were still beneath the soil.

But the circumstances in which, with no local buyer on the horizon, the chemist and philanthropist Russell Grimwade paid £800 to transport the house to Australia remain somewhat ambiguous.

“It was a trophy purchase. The asking price was £400 and the bill of sale claimed it was Cook’s boyhood home,” Mr Robinson said. “But you can take it from me that there is no documented evidence that he was ever there.”

The cottage was built by James Cook senior and his wife, Grace, in 1755 – the date carved above the door. It was sold in 1772 and passed through several owners before its ultimate conveyance, which saw it donated by Grimwade to the Fitzroy Gardens and the people of Melbourne.

It is now the oldest house in Australia and is retained as a tourist attraction, surrounded by a mock English garden.

Cook, who was born and raised in Great Ayton, and whose life there is commemorated in a schoolroom museum, is known to have visited the village only once after his parents built their cottage.

“When he returned from his first voyage of discovery, he received a letter telling him his father was ill, and he took leave from the Navy” Mr Robinson said.

“He came here at Christmas 1771, but he stayed with the Lord of the Manor as his guest. He was quite a celebrity at the time.”

The discovery of the foundations had been a “complete surprise”, he said, and Mr Buglass added that it was unusual to conduct an archeological dig on a site whose recent history was already relatively complete.

He said: “Knowing what was there is a start but you never know what else is going to turn up. We’ve got no idea what was dumped there when they did the demolition.

“There could be all sorts of stuff related to the cottage.”