Were William Christopher and James Cook friends?

Plaque 1: Captain James Cook
Plaque 1: Captain James Cook
Plaque 2: Captain William Christopher
Plaque 2: Captain William Christopher
Within the Parish Church of Stockton on Tees are a number of interesting plaques associated with local parishioners. In particular, to the right as you enter the nave and face the Lady Chapel, are two brass plaques containing the names of Captain James Cook and Captain William Christopher.

Plaque 1

In memory of Captain James Cook, navigator and discoverer. A friend of Captain William Christopher, he frequently stayed at Stockton in the old vicarage and attended this church. Born at Marton (1728) he was stabbed to death at Hawaii in the Sandwich Isles in the course of his Third Voyage round the world in (1779).
Plaque 2
In memory of Captain William Christopher, 1729 - 1797. Commodore of the Hudson's Bay Company's fleet who accompanied Captain James Cook round the world on his Third Voyage 1776-79. He presented to this church the communion table & communion rails made from the oak of the "Endeavour".
This was surely such a wonderful piece of local history, that I wondered how on earth in all the years I had followed James Cook, this William Christopher had not become more prominent.

In order to authenticate the second plaque's claim that Capt Christopher "accompanied James Cook round the world", I checked Beaglehole. There was no mention of any such person on Endeavour, Resolution or Adventure.

So who was this local mariner Capt William Christopher who made such a claim?

It is believed that William Christopher was born 1734 into a "Gentleman's" family that can be traced back to holding lands in Durham since 1545. The first record I have found of him is within the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) Archives1, Nov 3rd 1756 when a Committee recorded, "Wages to be paid for services on board 'Hudson Bay' ". The names included "Wm Christopher. £5.6.2d." The ship Hudson Bay was under the command of Capt Wm Norton who was instructed, "To proceed to Richmond Fort etc etc".2

I have been unable to trace this early crew position any further back. So, seeking the possible "friendship" with James Cook, I examined the Whitby Museum muster rolls of colliers that James Cook served in, to see if William Christopher had sailed with him. After all, Cook was born in 1728 and Christopher in 1734 and both were fairly local lads. Alas, there was no trace.3

Proceeding through the HBC Archives, I noted with interest that on May 11th 1758, Christopher was sailing again in Hudson Bay,4 this time under the command of Capt Jonathon Fowler Jr, a local Stocktonian captain. From the various Log Books in the HBC Archives, between 1751and 1797, ships movements were obviously controlled by the sea-ice conditions and tended to sail across to the Hudson Bay area, Churchill, York, Moose and Albany, in late May. They often returned to London with cargo via Orkney in October or November.

William Christopher continued sailing with HBC and was recommended for second mate's position by Capt Fowler Jr, May 1758.5 In 1760 he was promoted to Sloop Master, to serve the Company for three years in the Hudson Bay area "at £40 p Annum and £10 a year for his Servant, and to be Allowed Second Mates pay in the Voyages out and Home".6

By sifting through the HBC Archive notes between 1760 to 1763, I judge that William Christopher must have been fully occupied, both as a Sloop Master searching the Hudson Bay seeking furs, as well as a Council member of Fort Prince of Wales on the Churchill river, and also "making Cartridges for Our Cannon".7 The severe winters saw him laying up his sloop at the fort and over-wintering there himself.

This was obviously the time when various mariners were attempting to follow the exploits of previous explorers in seeking a passage from the Atlantic into the Pacific. Indeed, it was one of the objectives for which the HBC was incorporated in 1670. Cited in the Royal Charter of Incorporation was the phrase "the discovery of a new passage into the South Sea". It is not surprising that during this three year period as Master of the sloop "Churchill", William Christopher was instructed to not only build up a trade with the Inuits, but to continue seeking this elusive North West Passage.

When William Christopher arrived back at his Hudson Bay base after sailing as high as Latitude 64 degrees North, an interesting event in 1761 was recorded by Ferdinand Jacobs, the Chief at Fort Prince of Wales in his report to the HBC Committee in London. "We have joy in Acquanting Your Hon'rs that Mr Christopher in the Churchill Sloop this Year has found the Straights or River Call'd by the Indians Kis-catch-ewan up which he Sail'd 100Miles; is a fine River & View farther up, but the Wind would not Permit him to Proceed any further... We now Promise your Hon'rs we will Prosicute the said Discovery to the Utmost' and will Let nothing be wanting to Compleat it."8

Thus William Christopher may inadvertently be responsible for placing the name Saskatchewan on the early record books/maps of Canada. The Cree Inuit called the Saskatchewan River "Kisiskatchewani Sipi", meaning swiftly flowing river.

In the summer of 1762 he and Moses Norton sailed back to the possible entrance of that hallowed dream of the HBC, the North West Passage. His report to the HBC in London makes interesting reading. (William Christopher to HBC London - Fort Prince of Wales, 28th August, 1762).9

I rec'd your favour of 25th May, in Answer to which am sorry to Aquaint you, that the Great River which I Mentioned in my last, have been thoroughly Search'd this voyage by Mr Norton and self, in Churchill Sloop and Strivewell Cutter, and in my opinion Produces nothing that can Either be for your Honrs Interest, or the benefit of the Nation, the Shores and Land as far as we cou'd see, have nothing upon it better than Shrubs of Birch and Willows, Which not being sufficient shelter for the Natives, nor at the time for Animals, Deer Except'd.

I refer your Hon'rs to my Journal and Draught for Particulars, (note - this is missing from HBC Archives) and am heartly sorry our Discovery has not Answer'd your Expectations, but at the same time can truly say, we've not been wanting in doing our Utmost. As we've Completed the discovery of this River, or Inlet, I think next year of Searching an opening in 62 37' and rather to the westward of Whale Cove, Making What other Discoverys may be in my power. We arriv'd here 25th Aug and am Preparing to sail with Mr Jacobs to York Fort.

P.S as my affairs Greatly require me home, I beg your Hon'rs Permission for the same by the return of the Ships next year.

Whilst we know Sir Thomas Button had found the Chesterfield Inlet in command of the small vessel Discovery in 1612-13, it was William Christopher who pursued the task of navigating inside the Inlet and exploring the Baker Lake to search for a possible passage west. He may well have been the first European to sail for about 170 miles into this vast 729 sq mile lake with a depth of over 750 feet. Quite some task.

In the meanwhile, James Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755, saw prolonged service in Canadian waters, wintering at times in Halifax. James Cook was becoming more able in preparing charts and sailing directions and this led me to think that during their sailing and charting of this "unexplored" area of eastern Canada, the two men may have possibly met.

Within the Archives of the UK Hydrographic Office, Taunton are charts and maps of Canada up to 1850. Only one chart is attributed to William Christopher, that of Chesterfield Inlet.10

Having demonstrated his seamanship and loyalty to the HBC, William Christopher was recommended for promotion to second mate of the company's ship King George, 21st March 1764. He sailed under the command of his fellow Stocktonion, Captain Jonathon Fowler, Jr. and continued sailing in this position on King George, up to 1770.

On 28th April 1765 William Christopher married Anne Tatham of Little Stainton, near Stockton, at St Giles Cripplegate in London11. They set up home at Narrow Street, Limehouse, London.12 By 1st March 1770 he was appointed "to the Command of One of the Company's ships upon the Same Establishment as was Settled on the 22nd Febry last".13 The "Same Establishment" was made up of £144 per annum plus £100 for going to and returning from Hudson Bay in the same year, plus a gratuity of £5.5shillings "in lieu of any presents to be hereafter received at the Company's factories", + a gratuity for looking after the Company's affairs in London between voyages of £5.5shilling. Total Captains salary £254.10.0."14

William Christopher was in command of Sea Horse from 1770 to 1781, Prince Rupert in 1782 and King George III from 1783 until 1788 when he retired from the HBC.

Whilst we know William Christopher still had a residence in Stockton, he must have spent various winter and spring periods in London. Indeed, the £5.5 shillings quoted above, related to "looking after the Company's affairs in London". James Cook also spent winter periods there: Dec 1764 - April 1765, Dec 1765 - April 1766, Nov 1766 - April 1767 and Nov 1767 - July 1768. I cannot find a record of them meeting or being involved in any mutual maritime matter. At first glance that was not really surprising as William Christopher was an officer with the merchant company HBC, whilst James Cook was a Royal Naval Officer well known for his chart preparations, eclipse record and was generally under the eye of the Admiralty as well as the Royal Society. Indeed, the Royal Society had appointed William Wales to carry out the Transit observations at Hudson Bay and was transported with his portable observatory, May 1768 on the HBC ship Prince Rupert.15 Residing at Fort Churchill, for such an unusual event, William Christopher as second mate of King George must have been fully aware of this important event. However, neither William Wales nor William Christopher mentions each other by name.

By March 1780, William Christopher had moved a short distance from his London house at Narrow St, Limehouse to a more substantial residence at 14 Stepney Causeway. This house he insured for £800, together with Household Goods for £680, his books for £20, wearing apparel for £200 together with China & Glass for £100.16

To appreciate the scale of this residence and the status of the owner, I compared the insurance with that of James Cook who lived nearby. Cook re-insured his house and contents, just prior to sailing on his first voyage to the Pacific on 23rd June 1768. "Brick house in Assembly Row £270, Household Goods £200, Apparel £50, Plate £25 and a timber shed for £10."17

Stepney Causeway was indeed a very fashionable address with nearby neighbours certainly influential in maritime circles.18 It was also very close to James Cook's residence and only a short walk down Mutton Lane across Redman's Row and onto Stepney Green to reach Rope Walk adjoining Stepney Causeway.19 James bade farewell to Elizabeth in June 1776, sadly never to return. Was there a possible London friendship between Mrs Christopher and Mrs Cook during 1743 - 1784? The Christophers owned the Stepney Causeway house at least until 1784, but there was no mention of any London property in his will.20

During his seagoing career with HBC, I found a very interesting event in which William Christopher outwitted the celebrated French admiral La Perouse when they encountered each other in Hudson Bay. William Christopher records having pressed 20 men at Gravesend on May 28th 1782 and "Ask Admiral for convoy". It was not until 13th June that the HBC ships Sea Horse, King George and Prince Rupert together with other ships, sailed from the Nore, escorted by the Labrador brig "Government convoy Daphne". They parted company on 12th July and the three HBC ships made course for Hudson Bay.21

On 6th August the ships separated within Hudson Bay and William Christopher in command of Prince Rupert sailed on towards Churchill River. He recorded in his log on 11th, "at Noon C. Churchill bears by Acct S 32 degrees Wt. Distance 14 Leagues". And on 12th, "At quarter past 3 AM saw 3 sail of Ships Bearing E b N abt 3 Leagues & at same time saw Land but could not distinguish it plainly made the Ship Clear for Engaging Supposing them (as we very well might) to be Enemies one of them seem'd to have lost her foretopmast but are not certain on account of a very thick dancing Haze that was upon them at 9 AM lost sight of them."

Following the French defeat at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, when Admiral Rodney scuppered the hopes of the French capturing Jamaica from the British, the remnant French fleet disbanded. On 23rd April, La Perouse met Admiral Vaudreuil who had taken command after Admiral de Grasse had been captured. Vaudreuil gave La Perouse the 74-gun Ship of the Line Sceptre in exchange for his old ship Astree, and the 26-gun frigate Engageant. These three ships were then sent north, under La Perouse's command on a secret mission. So secret, the crew were not even issued with cold weather clothing in fear of the British having wind of it!

They were charged to sail northwards, enter Hudson Bay and destroy the British trading fortifications and capture any HBC ships with their valuable cargoes. By 8th August, La Perouse's small squadron managed to seize and destroy Fort Churchill, taking prisoner the resident HBC governor, Samuel Hearn. La Perouse then took his ships towards Fort York at the mouth of the Nelson River, and William Christopher in Prince Rupert sighted them on 12th.

William Christopher's log for 13th to 29th is rather complicated, and I have taken the liberty to summarise it for clarity. Christopher knew the coast, shoals and currents extremely well. The weather was hazy. The French, dispatched a frigate to chase him, thinking his cargo valuable as a prize, but could only navigate by following in Prince Rupert wake, for fear of grounding so near the shore. Christopher then had a brilliant idea. He sent his men aloft to furl the sails and pretended to come to anchor. The French frigate captain being uncertain of the area, also anchored, knowing he had the British ship within his grasp. However, Christopher aware that night would soon quickly fall, held his position until he was convinced the French captain had dropped all sails and anchored, then speedily hoisted his own sails and quickly departed. The French were then faced with the laborious task of bringing their anchors home and setting sail. Christopher, with his detailed local knowledge, sought a safe and secluded anchorage, making for Knapps Bay where he carefully hid from the French until 27th.

In the meantime, La Perouse had taken and destroyed Fort York, but not before William Christopher's friend and fellow Stocktonian, Captain Jonathon Fowler Jr in command of King George III, having sighted the French flotilla, had quickly finished loading the valuable annual cargo of furs and sailed inshore through shoals he knew well, outwitting La Perouse and safely departed for England.

On 29th, William Christopher carefully sailed near to Fort Prince of Wales and made the agreed signal. There was no response or any sign of habitation. The fort was demolished and so he rightfully decided to sail for England, where he anchored at Radcliff Cross on the 27th November.21

William Christopher died on 2nd November 1797 in Newcastle-on-Tyne where he had gone for medical advice. His will20 is ten pages of legal jargon, written in an "Olde English" hand that proved beyond my capabilities to read properly. Fortunately, Cliff Thornton came to my rescue. Unfortunately, the will didn't help me other than by identifying a late second marriage to a spinster Isabella Lindsey that I cannot trace. It later caused his children much unhappiness as they inherited a legal minefield in trying to honour their father's wishes. The will showed that he died a man of considerable wealth with the Grangefield Estate, and a prestigious Georgian town house where he kept his carriage and horses guns, pistols and swords. It was this house in the High Street of Stockton where the woodwork that is presumably associated with one of James Cook's ships, was incorporated.22

Returning to the plaques described at the beginning of this article. I cannot find any record of James Cook staying, or even visiting, Stockton. The Christophers led a fashionable life both in London and in Stockton. Their servants included a footman for Mrs Christopher. At least two of their surviving sons were educated at Eton. As a retired senior captain of the HBC fleet, William styled himself as Commodore and commissioned two large vessels to be built in Thomas Haws shipyard in Stockton.23

Michael Heavisides in his 1917 book22 promoted the companionship of James Cook with William Christopher on Cook's Third Voyage, relating that on this voyage, "he picked up the drift oak from which he himself made and fashioned the Communion Rails and the Rails supporting the Holy Table in the Parish Church of Stockton. The fine staircase balustrade, in the house at Stockton, occupied by the Christopher family in winter, and now the Vicarage house, is said to be of the same drift oak."

The second plaque I described, relates to William Christopher's gift of oak wood from Endeavour from which the communion table and communion rails were fashioned. Revd Heselton seemed to compound the link between these two mariners in a notelet on the history of Stockton Parish Church by stating "William Christopher was Captain of the Resolution and secured this oak from the Endeavour whilst repairs were in progress before Captain Cook's third voyage round the world. Captain Cook and Captain Christopher were firm friends and worshipped together in Stockton Parish Church."24 Quite a confusing statement.

Whilst we are aware Captain Christopher did not sail with Captain Cook and hence, the purchase of the oak wood quoted above, is open to speculation. The Endeavour refit yard may have changed some woodwork before the Third Voyage and also possibly on the return of the Third Voyage, when Endeavour was refitted as a store ship and sold in 1778 as a coal transport. It may well have been that William Christopher obtained some oak wood pieces from the refit yard, but I have not found a record of such a transaction.

Regarding the firm friendship; I cannot find any possible link between these mariners. Indeed, the church leaflet refers to James Cook and William Christopher worshipping together within the church as a local legend Written in the Vestry Book is an entry dated November 1809 referring to various matters. In a space in a very different hand the following has been added, "At this meeting a letter of thanks was to be sent to Commodore Christopher conveying the gratitude of the inhabitants for the magnificent gift of Communion Table and Rails. This gratitude is heightened by the knowledge that the table is made from wood, which has seen the exploits of our late lamented splendid and brave Captain James Cook in the Endeavour and equally daring exploits of Commodore Christopher. It is our fervent prayer that the godly Commodore be spared from danger and death and live for many years to worship here".24

The leaflet continues, "Unfortunately that entry only deepens the mystery for Captain Christopher died at Newcastle on 2nd November 1797, and was buried at Norton. Examination of this entry under ultra-violet light shows fluorescence, the only entry in the Vestry Book to do so, and so it must be adjudged highly suspect." Nevertheless the Communion Table and Rails are extremely well carved of outstanding wood and worthy of their prominent position within the Parish Church.

Reverend John Brewster (1754-1842) wrote a most informative publication on Stockton's history, possibly the town's foremost reference book about the 18th and early 19th centuries.25 Brewster was the vicar of the Parish Church from 1799 to 1808 and was clearly a man who spent considerable time and effort in both researching and collecting vast local information, culminating in this publication of 1796, with a revision in 1829.

In the 178-page first edition, William Christopher appears only on a list of subscribers.26 In the more substantial 484-page second edition, Brewster devotes a very interesting chapter to "Capt. William Christopher and Capt. Jonathon Fowler". It refers to their search for the North West Passage, and has a curious reference to James Cook. "The editors of Captain Cook's last voyage observe, 'in the year 1761, Capt, Christopher sailed from Fort Churchill in the sloop Churchill; and his voyage was not quite fruitless; for he sailed up Chesterfield Inlet, through which a passage had, by Mr Ellis's account of it, been so generally expected.' "27

I wonder why Brewster, a clerical academic and authoritative historian, included James Cook? His relevance is hard to understand. Also the reference Brewster points us to at the chapter closure quotes the "preface to a publication 'Last Voyage of Capt. James Cook' ". However, there is no preface to the Cox & King 1784 publication (presumably the one referred to) only an 86-page Introduction.28

Two thoughts spring to mind here. First, Brewster, obviously a James Cook aficionado29, was probably of the opinion that James Cook and William Christopher were from the same area, were of similar age, and would have been keenly aware of the bounty associated with the discovery of the North West Passage, the previous efforts of Henry Ellis's exploits in the Hudson Bay area in 1746-7 and his subsequent publication, Ellis's Voyage to Hudson Bay.30

Secondly, William Christopher, a subscriber to the first edition, may have wished to promote his Stockton notability by association with the famed James Cook.

Within the privately published Christopher Family book, is a reference to the executors of Captain James Cook sending them "some days before its publication, a handsomely-bound edition, in three volumes, of the Third Voyage, now an heirloom in the Christopher family". It was still in the family possession in 1933.31

Why, one wonders, if there was no connection between these two men, did the executors of James Cook, send these volumes? Without direct reference to a source, one can only speculate why the books were sent, but so pleasing to see they were cherished by the family.

Once James Cook became famous anyone and everyone claimed kinship or some other relationship with him and, of course, most claims are totally spurious. In this case, after all my searching to confirm some connection between the two mariners, I have found no evidence to support the claims made on the two brass plaques within the church.

Geoff King

Postscript

Obviously, a topic such as this possible friendship of two mariners of somewhat similar age, hailing from the North East and sailing at one time, in relatively adjacent Canadian waters, both with homes in Stepney, must give a certain level of credence to the claimed friendship. I am continuing to research Christopher's life and would welcome any additional material.

During my research on the possible friendship, I have been fortunate to be in contact with various descendants of William Christopher outside of the UK. In every case, whilst all families were aware of the legend, none were able to confirm its authenticity.

I am indebted to Cliff Thornton, President of the CCS, not only for the arduous transcription of William Christopher's lengthy will, but for his encouragement in producing this article.

The key to the research rests firmly with the excellent material held by the Culture, Heritage and Tourism Department in the Hudson Bay Company Archives, within the Archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Their co-operation and response has been excellent. Similarly, the friendly and helpful staff of the Stockton on Tees Reference Library have been of great assistance.

Also, a fellow member of Cleveland Family History Society, Mr Michael Corner, was most helpful in obtaining the original Stockton published material and many relevant Christopher family history dates.

As I closed my initial findings Derek Morris, a colleague within the CCS involved in early London research, kindly alerted me to a late entry of William Christopher's life in London, which has now sparked off yet another interesting part of this mariner's saga.

References

  1. Hudson Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba (HBC). London, Committee Meeting, 3rd November 1756. A.1/40, pp 184.
  2. Log of Hudson's Bay, 1756. HBC. C.1/351.
  3. Muster Roll of Whitby Ships in which James Cook sailed, 1747-1765. Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society.
  4. HBC. London. 11th May 1758, Sailing instructions to Capt. Jonathon Fowler, Jr. A.6/9. pp 79d.
  5. HBC. London, Committee Meeting, 4th April 1759. A.1/41, pp 88.
  6. HBC. London, Committee Meeting, 14th May 1760. A.1/41, pp 199.
  7. HBC. Fort Prince of Wales Journal, 5th March 1761. B.42/a/55.
  8. HBC. Fort Prince of Wales. Ferdinand Jacobs to HBC, London, 24th August 1761. A.11/7, f.165.
  9. HBC. Fort Prince of Wales. William Christopher to HBC, London, 28th August 1762. A. 11/7, f.172-3.
  10. UK Hydrographic Office. Charts and Maps/Canada. L870/A13.
  11. International Genealogical Index (IGI). Ref M025771 / 0380210
  12. Teesside Archives. Ref U.NRC/27/1
  13. HBC. London, Committee Meeting, 21st May 1764. A.1/42. pp192
  14. HBC. London, Committee Meeting, 1st March 1770. A.1/43. pp214.
  15. Cook's Log, page 29, vol. 27, no. 1 (2004).
  16. City of London Guildhall, Sun Insurance Record MS 11936 vol. 278, policy 419116.
  17. Morris, Derek. Mile End Old Town.1740-1780. The East London History Society. pp 16.
  18. Mile End Old Town Residents 1741-1790. The East of London Family History Society CD
  19. Horwoods Plan of Westminster Southwark 1792-1799. City of London Guildhall Art Gallery Archives.
  20. PRO Cat Ref, Prob 11/1790.
  21. HBC. Christopher, William. "Prince Rupert" Log Book, Aug. 1782. C.1/904.
  22. Heavisides, Michael. A Condensed History of Stockton on Tees. 1917. pp 47.
  23. Richmond, Thomas. Register of Memorable Events. Stockton. 1868
  24. Heselton, Rev R.T. Stockton Parish Church. A Record 1235-1950.
  25. Brewster, Rev John. The Parochial History and Antiquities of Stockton on Tees. 1796 and 1829 (revision)
  26. ibid. 1796, pp v of Intro.
  27. ibid. 1829, pp 383-386.
  28. Beddie. Mitchell Library of New South Wales. 1970.
  29. Cooks Log, page 1549, vol. 21, no. 4 (1998).
  30. Ellis. Voyage to Hudson Bay. 1748.
  31. The Family of Christopher. Private publication, William Pollard. Exeter. 1933. pp28.


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 6, volume 31, number 1 (2008).


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