JOHN COOKE – 1765 - 1845


I. London

 For a long time John Cooke (1765-1845) was largely overlooked. At the end of the 18th century there was a father and son partnership printing in London and publishing works which were fairly popular in their time. Tooley’s influential work on the mapmaking trade[1] had over 10 entries for the name Cooke and the first listed a father John (1731-1810) and his son and successor Charles Cooke (1750-1816). John was listed as Engraver, draughtsman, and publisher of London and this was followed by a list of London addresses. Charles was listed under Publisher of No.17 Paternoster Row. All of the addresses given for John the father and the three works noted all belonged to a different John Cooke. The works attributed to Charles were correct and included George Alexander Cooke’s (no relation) The Modern British Traveller (1802-1810), the Topography of Great Britain as well as an atlas, the Universal System of Geography. All of these works were very successful and possibly contributed to the confusion. To be fair, Tooley had another John Cooke in Hendon, London (with note N.B. Compare with father and son; one map) and another in Plymouth (five maps).

We now know that there were indeed two men of the same name working as engravers in London about the same time. The lesser well-known John Cooke was the son of Ann and John Cooke of Fetter Lane, a shagreen-case-maker[2]. He was baptised 1st August 1765 in the nearby church of St Andrew in Holborn, London, three years before a brother, Stephen William, who also became an engraver, and another brother James William, born 1773; the family living in Church Yard Alley at this time. He may well have been the grandson of William Cooke who was bookbinder to the House of Commons and whose address was also Fetter Lane[3].

He was apprenticed to the bookbinder Mary Cooke, also of Fetter Lane on 7th September 1779 at the age of fourteen (normal practice in those days). Eight years later he was turned over to William Wells, an engraver, of Fleet Street on 6th November 1787 “and to John Russell, by whom he was freed the same day.” Laurence Worms[4] believes this points to some kind of special arrangement and given the fact that Mary and John may have been related this could well be the case. Russell himself was a well-known engraver and it may be that his influence led Cooke in that direction. Between 1787 and 1812 John Cooke worked as an engraver from a number of different London addresses. He had a number of apprentices himself during this period, his brother Stephen being taken on in the same year as his own apprenticeship finished, but although his output of signed work seems to have been relatively modest it includes some sophisticated maps for some of the leading publishers of the day.

Fig.1. Dedicaton to HRH the Duchess of York, Princess Royal of Prussia (see below).

John Cooke not only executed work for a variety of successful and well-respected publishers including David Steel, Robert Bowyer, John Boydell, W Walker, Joseph Mawman and William Faden, but found time to publish some of his own work and produced an atlas and a guide to drawing maps.

A considerable amount of Cooke´s early work appears to have been for David Steel, probably the most influential maritime expert of the day. Steel published a number of maps expressly for mariners at the end of the eighteenth century. Cooke´s signature is on a map of the route between England and Greenland of 1789 (1aas well as on four of six maps of the complete Irish coast, all published by Steel. Temporarily at New Road, St Georges (Whitehall) (1a), he must have moved in late 1789 or early 1790 to Clare Court, Drury Lane, as this is the address given on his set of charts of Ireland, A New Mercators Chart of the Coast of Ireland, published in London circa January 1790 (1b). 

He also later produced a large number of engraved plates for Steel´s, The Elements And Practice Of Rigging And Seamanship (Fig.6.). This manual, published by David Steel in 1794, has over forty plates on sail-making, block-making, rigging etc. signed by Cooke. Interestingly the address in the signatures changes, possibly indicating that Cooke was earning well at this time: from J Cooke sc Clare Court, D(rur)y Lane, the address becomes Mill Hill Middx from Clare Ct. before it stays as J Cooke sct Mill Hill, Middx.[5] Not only does this manual instruct how to build and sail any naval ship, but there are complete lists of every single piece of equipment and materials to build each type of vessel.

In 1792, shortly after moving to his new address in Mill Hill, Cooke produced a map of the road from London to Mill Hill and Barnet (2). This map has a slightly strange appearance as it follows the road something like a strip map, but takes a slight dog leg to the right, meaning that the map area is a rectangle “broken” just over half-way up and bent at some 45°. The bare area between the map and the border is taken up with a dedication which is on the one hand a gesture of his sincere thanks to his friends and the public for their favours, but is also a method to let them know he has removed from London to Mill Hill as it even gives the coach times for potential customers. Cooke lived for three years at Mill Hill before moving to Hendon 1795-96. We even have a trade card printed and distributed during his time there (Fig.2).


Fig.2. Business card issued by J Cooke while in Mill Hill (c.1792-94). 

(His printing works are shown exactly where the top right of the address panel meets the map.)

In the same year as the above map was produced there was considerable disorder in Toulon and the French royalists took control of the port and opened it to the British fleet, by whom it was occupied until 1793 when Napoleon, as an artillery colonel, made it untenable by capturing the forts which dominated the harbour. The Chart of the roads and harbours of Toulon with their environs was published April 12th 1795 in London by William Faden, then Geographer to His Majesty and to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales with the signature of J. Cooke now living in Hendon, Middlesex (5).

Over the period 1790-1796 besides his work for David Steel, he worked on a number of quite impressive projects completing a map of the River Thames for Boydell´s Rivers (6, on two sheets) which was a popular and copiously illustrated work. Besides the plates on rigging for D Steel mentioned above he executed a large and detailed plan of Philadelphia for John Hills (9) as well as a plan of St Petersburg (13) for a popular guide to the city by the German, Heinrich Storch, translated into English as the Picture of St Petersburg. During his time in Hendon he also completed a map of that area for William Faden.

While living in Mill Hill Cooke may have overstretched his resources. Although the work he completed was impressive there is not a lot of it at this stage. We know that he would go on to produce an atlas (1802, see below) and a work on geography (his Synopsis, 1812); perhaps he was already preparing plates for these two projects, but be that as it may, we learn from the London Gazette of August 5th 1797 that John Cooke, late of Mill-hill and Hendon, Engraver is in Fleet Prison for bankruptcy and serving the Third Notice of debt (Fig.3.).[6] This would not be his last sojourn in jail.


Fig. 3. Excerpt from London Gazette of August 1797. See Third Notice section.

Non-map material by Cooke during this period is scarce: we have various illustrations of aspects of shipmaking already mentioned and the British Museum has a view of St Saviour's Church in Southwark. The illustration of the church itself is signed J Morton del. / W Hawkins Sc. However, under the picture is a ground plan of the church and this is signed J Cooke Sc. Mill Hill. The two drawings show St Saviour's after being repaired and beautified and the opening is dated 11th day of May, 1800 (Fig.4.).[7]


 Fig.4. Plan of St Saviours after refurbishment, 1800.

Although he seems to have worked mainly for others in his London years the quality of his work shows he was more than just another engraver. His Universal Atlas was published in 1802 (14) and has nearly 30 attractive, circular maps, all executed by John Cooke and with imprints dated from August 1800 to January 1802. The imprints strongly suggest that Cooke was a co-publisher together with others. A few of the earliest dated sheets have the name of V Goddard (for V Goddard by T Boone); but these imprints seem to have been replaced, suggesting revisions before atlas publication or, more likely, Goddard was an early partner who left and Harris, Boone and Cooke were the main shareholders in the work and took over Goddard´s shares. The atlas has a dedication to Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York, Princess Royal of Prussia signed Faithful humble servant, John Cooke.

The Universal Atlas is an impressive piece of work. The 27 map plates are preceded by a chart of the Solar System, an explanation of the Seasons and Rotundity of the Earth, a pair of Globes (in complete colour), and a fully functional Geographical Clock by which it was possible to tell the time in any other country. Half of the engravings are signed by John Cooke with his address now given at 50, Howland Street. 

Copies of the atlas are rare and two entries (10 and 11) in Volume XLII of the Monthly Review of (November) 1803 suggest it may initially have been published monthly. The former entry refers to The Circular Atlas ... illustrated with circular maps ... By John Cooke, Engraver. Pt. I. 4to. 10s 6d. Boards. Hurst & Co. The very short review complains of a "turgidity of style" and goes on to say "English ladies would be better pleased, and better instructed indeed, if they were presented to [precepts of philosophy] with greater simplicity". This suspicion is strengthened by a review written for Critical Review; or, Annals of Literature. In Volume XXXV of 1802, The Circular Atlas is described as above, published by Hurst & Co. in 1801. The reviewer starts by stating: It is a common observation, that a good book never has a long title; and we see nothing in the present production to affect the justice of the maxim. The writer then spends some time criticising Cooke´s use of the word "circles" in connection with his maps of Germany: vividly exposing his own ignorance of the use of "Kreis" in German.

Article 11 of the same publication reviews The Universal Atlas and is fairly scathing in its criticism. This work could have been a useful book "if the author would have descended from his high and lofty style, and have communicated his knowledge in plainer and more unadorned language". The work was reissued once in modified form (lacking text) for children (1804).

The British Museum has a pair of matching trade cards for J Cooke and for Mrs Cooke (Fig.5.). The cards are clearly from the same hand and must be the work of John Cooke. No marriage certificate has been found and other evidence suggests John married later in life so who is Mrs Cooke? We know that he was apprenticed to Mary Cooke, but she is entered as engraver, not as colourist.


Fig.5. Business cards issued by J Cooke (left) Engraver of Topographical Maps and by Mrs Cooke (right) ... she colours Prints, Map ... . Both bear the Howland Street address (c. 1799-1802).

About this time we find two maps which deserve more attention. A plan Improvements ... between the Royal Exchange and Finsbury Square has Cooke´s signature: Engraver to the Hon. Board of Admiralty and is dated January 1802 (15). A map Denmark, Holstein, Hamburgh, Lübek & Eutin, ... bears the signature: By John Cooke Engraver to the Admiralty. This was published in London, May 15, 1805 (16).

The former was probably a broadsheet map printed in small numbers for local government use and the latter is possibly from an atlas. Nonetheless, these two maps make it clear that John Cooke was active for the Admiralty between 1802 and 1805 and was active as publisher and had moved to Camden before 1805.

Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808) was appointed as the first Hydrographer to the Admiralty in 1795 and the first admiralty chart appeared in November 1800 after a rolling press was purchased: Moore´s plan of the island Houat in Quiberon Bay. John Cooke and Isaac Palmer were both engaged as plan engravers, possibly part-time as both were said to have private businesses outside the Admiralty. Besides these two, Thomas Harmar (writing engraver)and James Andrews and Francis Higgins (draughtsmen) and Richard Bailey (copper-plate printer) worked under their supervisor, John Walker. [8a]

Apparently there was some sort of dispute and Cooke was sacked in 1804 but he petitioned the Admiralty about “unfair dismissal” with the matter dragging on until 1807 or 1808. According to Nicholas Tracy, Cooke applied repeatedly for an increase in pay, which at that time was 136.10s (compared to Dalrymple´s own 1500 p.a.). Apparently Cooke was dismissed for taking a portfolio out of his office. Dalrymple himself was dismissed for rudeness in 1808 and died the same year, being replaced by Captain Thomas Hurd. Given Cooke´s publication of both an atlas and of a guide to producing maps (his Synopsis) he may have been disgruntled that he did not receive better recognition and pay.[8b]

One of the leading figures at the Admiralty at this time was the future king: William IV was christened William Henry (born 21 August 1765) and became King of the United Kingdom and of Hanover from 26 June 1830 until his death on 20 June 1837. William IV was later succeeded by his niece, Queen Victoria. William had two elder brothers and was not expected to inherit the Crown. For this reason he was able, at the age of thirteen, to join the Royal Navy as a midshipman and at age 15 was present at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent and landed in Plymouth in 1780, with his elder brother Prince George, The Prince of Wales, with the news of Rodney's victory, and the relief of Gibraltar. He even served in New York during the American War of Independence.[9]

Fig. 6. The Elements And Practice Of Rigging And Seamanship. Cooke´s signature is bottom right. He prepared a large number of plates for David Steel (1796).

William became a Lieutenant in 1785, was in Plymouth[10] in 1786, when he was appointed Captain of the Frigate, Pegasus, just before his 21st birthday, and in the same year he was stationed in the West Indies as Captain and came to the attention of Horatio Nelson, who had a high regard for his naval talents. Having earned the disfavour of his father, he was compelled to spend another period in Plymouth and the story has it that during this time William threatened to run for the House of Commons as MP for Totnes, Devon, before George III created him Duke of Clarence in 1789. The newly created Duke then ceased his active service in the Royal Navy and was promoted to Rear-Admiral. In 1811 he was appointed Admiral of the Fleet. Although there is no evidence they met, and no reason why they should, the fact that the Duke of Clarence was at the Admiralty and visited Plymouth is interesting.

Sometime after his admiralty work Cooke provided maps for Abraham Rees´ Cyclopedia, or Universal Dictionary published by Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme (17a-d). The map-making was supervised by Aaron Arrowsmith, a leading London map publisher but the connection to Longman would crop up again later. Cooke only produced three more maps before disappearing from the scene for a few years, but not before he published an intriguing map of Plymouth as well as an excellent manual of geography.

However, before John Cooke could proceed he had to settle his personal life. In May 1809 he spent at least a month in prison again for debt and probably lost his apprentice. A handwritten letter to the County of Middlesex Justices is extant in which from John Robert Thompson alleging that his Master, John Cooke Engraver, has neglected to instruct him adequately, is absent for long periods and has been the past five weeks in prison for debt. How the case was settled is, as yet, unknown. However, the facts mirror to some extent what we know of John Cooke at this time. He could have been visiting Plymouth or Totnes. 

The first map to link John Cooke with Devon, and more especially Plymouth was A Plan of the Town of Plymouth Dock. This map was surveyed, drawn, and published by T Richards of Totnes, Devon and was published in October 1810 (19). This very detailed map had belonged among the St Aubyn family papers: a family associated with Devon and Cornwall and who still lease parts of St Michael’s Mount, previously part of their property from 1660. The imprint and signature clearly indicate that John Cooke had previously done work for the Admiralty. The John Cooke referred to here was certainly not local, he might not have visited Plymouth, but he executed the plan on behalf of an influential Cornish client with land in Devon and seems to have come into contact with a local publisher, not well-known for cartographical output.

Of the 21 cartographic works[11] identified as engraved by a John Cooke of either London or with no address, all of these can be assigned to a period up to 1812 (entries 1-21 in the Cartobibliography) and range from the set of charts of the Coast of Ireland, to A General Synopsis Of Geography, by John Cooke Late Geographer to the Admiralty.

This Synopsis of Geography, published in 1812, was Printed for James Cooke at his Bloomsbury address (21) but represents another publishing venture for John Cooke. It is a complete manual and guide to the drawing of maps, with historical introduction, geometrical figures and discussion of projections and illustrated with 20 copper plates, most dated 1811 and signed by Cooke.

This manual of geography also contains a beautiful frontispiece of the moon[12] engraved, we are told, by Miss Mary Cooke from a drawing made from actual observations ... under direction of William Kitchiner (Fig.7.). This engraving was probably printed and also published separately as a single sheet in autumn 1808. Imprints on all other engravings are published by J Cooke or John Cooke; the title page has the imprint of James Cooke. Miss Mary Cooke´s precise relationship to John has not yet been established but we know Mary was just 20 when the Synopsis was published and could have been a cousin or even niece. James was probably John´s brother (born 1773). John’s signature typically adds the address of 57 High Street, Bloomsbury, which was the address of James.  

The Synopsis suffered at the hands of the critics just as his Atlas had.  The British Critic for the second half of 1813 (Volume XLII), published by F C and J Rivington complimented the plate of the aspect of the moon by Mary, but ended its negative review with "Altogether it is a book merely for beginners, and in that point of view is rendered rather more expensive than it ought to be, and without necessity" (it cost 1 pound). However, The New Annual Register for the Year 1813 published by John Stockdale in 1814 was rather more complimentary but rather confused: We notice this as an elementary work of great merit, on account ofits neatness and accuracy. The Engravings, which are executed by Miss Cooke, are peculiarly delicate and beautiful. 

Besides James the publisher of the Synopsis, there was a second James in the family: James Cooke was apprenticed to William Cooke, bookbinder, from 1745-1753; William´s business being carried on by his widow, Mary, after his death in 1775. The London Daily Advertiser carries two announcements: 1 On Thursday [6 Apr] died at Pancras, Mr. Cooke, of Fetter-lane, bookbinder to the Honourable House of Commons (8 Apr 1775); 2. All persons having any demands on the estate of William Cooke, late of Fetter-lane, London, bookbinder, deceased, are desired to send an account and particulars thereof to Mary Cooke, his widow and administratrix, and all persons indebted to the estate are desired to pay the same forthwith or they will be sued without further notice. The business is carried on as usual, at the same place, by the widow, for the benefit of herself and small family ... (17 Aug 1775).

Besides the Synopsis set of maps, only six more maps signed by Cooke have been found which were produced after his dismissal from the Admiralty (between 1804 and 1807, see above) but before 1817. These include the four maps for the Cyclopedia written and produced by Abraham Rees, a map of the British Empire in the East and the map of Plymouth Dock already mentioned.

At some time between these dates John Cooke moved permanently to Plymouth. If he had married we would expect to have a marriage entry or at least the registrations of the births of children during this time. If, indeed, the Mrs Cooke on the trade card of 1805 (Howell Street) was his wife we would expect to find children listed. With no marriage certificate and no death certificate for a Mrs Cooke that fits, the suspicion is that John Cooke was too busy to marry.

However, there is some evidence to imply that on 9th November 1809 John Cooke married Elizabeth Beecham of St Martin in the Fields. Certainly two people of these names married. John would have been 44 at the time but we have no information concerning the age of Elizabeth. It may be sheer coincidence, but from 1813 we find a married couple of this name in Stonehouse, Plymouth and we have the births of six children recorded.

Fig. 7. Frontispiece illustration of the moon; engraved by Miss Mary Cooke

The preparation and publication of the Synopsis would have required an incredible amount of work in 1811 and 1812. There is some evidence that the Synopsis was republished as there was an advertisement placed in the Royal Cornwall Gazette in January 1815, and two pamphlets have recently been found at Yale University, Medical History Library. In it a local Penryn printer and publisher, W Cock, announces the forthcoming publication early in February next of A General Synopsis of Geography to be sold by subscription in 40 quarto numbers costing one shilling each. This was to be published also by E Nile and Son, and sold by S King, Dock. A Truro agent and well-known London companies were also involved. There is no proof it ever appeared but Cooke would be associated with Mrs Nile in the period 1817-1820.

Cooke’s last signed work had been the plan of Plymouth Dock of 1810 giving London as his address. It would be five more years before the next maps and plans appeared signed by John Cooke and they would all be connected with the Plymouth area. 


[1] Tooley´s Dictionary of Mapmakers Vol. I; Map Collector Publications;1979; p.295.

[2] I am indebted to Laurence Worms who provided the details here about John Cooke´s birth and apprenticeship and for providing me with a list of Cooke maps he had compiled to supplement my own list.

[3] Death announcement in the Middlesex Journal for April 1775.

[4] See, for example, the more complete listing of John Cooke in British Map Engravers by Laurence Worms and Ashley-Baynton-Williams; Rare Book Society; London; 2011. Stephen engraved Wallis´s complete voyage around the world. This was a game with counters which was extremely popular (1796) and also a new plan of London etc. for Laurie & Whittle (1801).

[5] British Library 1609/4613 and 1651/802. There was a second edition in 1806 published by P Mason of London (British Library A copy is available on-line at Interestingly, Cooke does not seem to have been involved with any of the more "scenic" illustrations of workshops and types of boats.

[6] I am grateful to Dr Shirley Atkinson who brought this to my attention and provided the edition of the London Gazette. Online at see 756.


[8a] I am indebted to Dr Andrew Cook for providing initial information about Cooke´s time at the Admiralty. The early days of the Hydrographic Office are recounted in Pacific Empires: Essays in honour of Glyndwr Williams; ed. by Alan Frost and Jane Samson; UBC Press; British Columbia; 1999.

[8b] The story of Cooke´s dismissal is from Britannia´s Palette: The Arts of Naval Victory; Nicholas Tracy; McGill-Queen´s University Press; Ottawa and Ontario; 2007. Dr Cook suggested his dismissal was as early as 1804. Nicholas Tracy writes that "By 1807 three engravers worked for him", i.e. Dalrymple.

[9] While there the Americans planned to kidnap the Prince, a plan George Washington personally approved.

[10] The port of Plymouth was the most important centre in England for the sale of enemy prize ships, and at one time, it is recorded, that one could walk all the way from Sutton Harbour to Turnchapel, across the decks of such vessels, awaiting sale.

[11] Not including multiple maps in one work.

[12] Miss Cooke won the Silver Pallet from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Sciences on 30th May 1809 (age 17). Volume 27 of their Transactions (p.20). It was Drawn by John Cooke and was published by him on September 1st, 1808 according to the imprint below.

 Link to section II - Plymouth. 

Return to Introduction

Link to IV: Short List of John Cooke's works.


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