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At The Mile End Assembly Room

November 16, 2019
by Heather Clarke

Today’s post is by Dr Heather Blasdale Clarke, a dance teacher and historian who is an authority on early Australian colonial dance

Music of the Mile End Assembly, 1748

In 1764, Captain James Cook moved with his young family to a new terraced house at 7 Assembly Row, Mile End. This area on the outskirts of London was developing as a respectable and convenient location for those with an interest in maritime affairs. Nearby were the fine houses of prosperous members of the East India Company, and along Mile End Rd stood the Trinity Almshouses, built in 1695 to house the  “decayed Masters and Commanders of ships or ye widows of such.”

Situated behind Assembly Row terrace was the Mile End Assembly Room. In the eighteenth century, assembly rooms were important venues at a time when dancing was a noteworthy social activity. They also provided for meetings, concerts and other entertainments. This particular venue was celebrated in the dance Mile End Assembly, which was first published in 1748 and was reprinted four times over the next nine years, reflecting its popularity.

Very little is known about Cook’s personal or family life and it is entirely possible that he took advantage of the proximity to the Assembly Rooms for dancing, tea-drinking and socialising on his days of leisure. It would have been a central meeting place for the owners and captains of ships in the East India Company, as well as officers in the Royal Navy who lived in the area. It may have provided Cook with the opportunity to meet people who could help advance his career.

Another place nearby where dancing was popular was the Bell Tavern. Just a short walk from the wharves, shops and warehouses which lined the bustling waterfront, the Bell Tavern on the Ratliff Highway was one of the few reputable establishments in Shadwell, offering food and lodgings to visiting seamen.

It seems Cook stayed at the Tavern on occasions in the years from 1746 to 1755, on his trips from Whitby to London, delivering cargos of coal, wood, and other produce. It could take a week to unload a collier, during which time the crew was billeted in the wharf side taverns. He would have been aware that music and dance were key amusements for sailors, and conducive to their well-being and good humour, a factor he recognised when encouraging his crew to dance on the long voyages in the Pacific.

It was at the Tavern that Cook first encountered Elizabeth Batts, daughter of the well-respected proprietors, Mary and John. On 21st December 1762, James, aged thirty-four, and Elizabeth, aged twenty, married at St Margaret’s Church, Barking.  After the wedding they lived for a time with her parents in Upper St, Shadwell. Cook had returned to sea to survey the coast of Newfoundland but raced home when he learnt of the arrival of their first child, James. This addition to the family sparked the move to their own house at Mile End, where they enjoyed family life together whenever Cook was home from sea.

Although Elizabeth knew about the lives of seafaring men and the long separations which were the lot of sailors’ wives, little could she have anticipated the protracted voyages her husband undertook to the far side of the world. Of their seventeen years of marriage, approximately four were spent together, before they were parted by his death in 1779. Elizabeth lived for another fifty-six years, surviving all six of their children. George, Joseph and Elizabeth died in infancy, Nathaniel, aged fifteen died eight months after his father, Hugh died, aged seventeen in 1793, from scarlet fever and James, thirty-one, drowned in 1794. Throughout her life Elizabeth maintained the greatest respect for her husband and regarded her memories as sacred. Prior to her death in 1835, she destroyed all their private records and correspondence. Little is known of their life together, but perhaps one of her happy reminiscences was dancing at the Mile End Assembly.

Nothing remains of Cook’s home in Mile End. Despite the house being recognised as a significant historical building, it was demolished in 1958 to widen access to a car park. Now a plaque on a brick wall designates the site of his family home. The location of the once famous Assembly Room is still recalled by a thoroughfare named Assembly Passage.

Assembly Passage

Advertisement for the Mile End Assembly, Public Advertiser, October 18th 1769

Captain Cook’s house, c.1936

Captain Cook’s house, c.1940

Wall constructed after demolition of Captain Cook’s house, 1968

Civic dignitaries unveil a plaque to Captain Cook in 1970

Elizabeth Cook (1742–1835) by William Henderson, 1830

Captain James Cook (1728-79) by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, c. 1775

Captain James Cook’s signature

Archive images courtesy Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Read more about Dr Heather Clarke’s studies at Australian Colonial Dance

8 Responses leave one →
  1. November 16, 2019

    There are many good reasons to demolish a historically-important building, but I can think of none more so that ‘to widen access to a car park’. Why more local Authority officials haven’t been summarily hanged is a profound mystery to me.

  2. November 16, 2019

    Wonderful Pictures!! Thank You So Very Much!!!????❤????

  3. November 16, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what an interesting piece about James Cook and his connection to the East End. I attended a fine exhibition about his voyages a few years back at the British Library.

    How sad – “Elizabeth lived for another fifty-six years, surviving all six of their children. George, Joseph and Elizabeth died in infancy, Nathaniel, aged fifteen died eight months after his father, Hugh died, aged seventeen in 1793, from scarlet fever and James, thirty-one, drowned in 1794.”

    Unfortunately, those circumstances were not that uncommon back in those days…

  4. November 16, 2019

    I must say, I am with Jim on this. What a redoubtable woman. I like to look out for assembly rooms when out and about – they are often quite recognisable – and think I spotted one today in deepest Lancashire. Pleasing.

  5. Maureen Cocklin permalink
    November 16, 2019

    I lived quite near to Captain Cook’s house and when I’ve passed by I often wondered the same thing that Jim McDermott said. Why would you want to demolish it. It wasn’t dangerous or falling down. It makes you wonder what some of the officials have for brains.

  6. November 16, 2019

    As my home for the past 20 years has been in North Yorkshire, I know much about James Cook’s life in the north-east; his birthplace at Marton, growing up in Great Ayton where there is a large monument to him, Staithes where he lodged during his apprenticeship, and the wonderful museum in his name at Whitby. However, I knew nothing about his life in London, so this was a really interesting article, albeit with sadness that his life there is now just a brick wall and a plaque. What a wonderful portrait of his wife Elizabeth too, where much sadness must lie behind that enigmatic smile, having lost so many children. Thank you Gentle Author. Your writings are a joy.

  7. November 26, 2019

    Thank you for reposting my article to your site. I love the additional pictures – especially the photograph of Assembly Passage. Is there information about the building above the passage?
    Kind regards,

  8. Cliff Thornton permalink
    November 26, 2019

    It is said that this house was offered for sale to Australia, as Melbourne already housed the Cook cottage from Great Ayton. But that was the cottage of James Cook’s parents, built in 1755, the same year that their son went to sea. So he never actually lived in the cottage. It is said that Australia delclined to buy the house in Assembly Row, fearing that its Cook connections might prove to be nought!

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