This year marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook setting sail on first voyage on HMS Endeavour. With him went another North Yorkshire sailor whose story is often overlooked. Philip Sedgwick reports

HE was born in a small North Yorkshire village miles from the sea, but he led an adventurous life on the ocean waves, circumnavigating the globe three times until he died an early watery death.

Not Captain James Cook, who hails from Marton and Great Ayton, but his mate, Richard Pickersgill, who sailed with him on two of his three great voyages of discovery, and who hailed from West Tanfield near Ripon.

Pickersgill was born in the landlocked village in 1749, but his uncle was a servant to Richmond-born George Jackson, a clerk who worked his way to the top of the Admiralty. Jackson secured Pickersgill a place as a seaman aboard HMS Dolphin under Captain Samuel Wallis which, in 1766, was embarking on a journey to the southern hemisphere to search out a location where the Transit of Venus might be observed and so accurately calculate the earth’s distance from the sun.

After discovering Tahiti, Dolphin arrived back in London in May 1768, and Pickersgill, who had therefore just completed his first global circumnavigation was promoted to master's mate.

In London, Lieutenant James Cook was preparing to lead a new scientific mission to the Pacific to record the transit, and so it was thought prudent that he such include some of Wallis’s crew who had experience of the ocean. Six sailors volunteered, including 19-year-old Richard Pickersgill, who was appointed Master’s Mate aboard a converted Whitby collier renamed HM Bark Endeavour.

Setting sail on August 28, 1768, the expedition was dangerous from the beginning – the first casualty was seaman Alexander Weir who was pulled down by an anchor at Madeira.

Arriving back at Tahiti nine months later, Pickersgill accompanied the scientific party who successfully observed the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, which, combined with measurements from other parts of the world, enabled mathematicians to work out a system of longitude.

With secret orders to locate new lands for the British Crown, Cook continued south charting 2,000 miles of New Zealand and eastern Australia. It was in no way plain sailing: they survived many hostile encounters and ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, taking two months to repair the ship.

On one occasion, Pickersgill was ordered before mast for refusing to clean the decks, and flogged.

Jenny Phillips, of the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Stewart Park in Marton, Middlesbrough, said: “Cook was a firm but fair leader who often flogged sailors for crimes such as theft or desertion; you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”

The misdemeanor didn’t hold back his career. When the master, Robert Molineux, died during the voyage, Cook promoted Pickersgill to the role.

Endeavour finally made landfall in England after three long years at sea. Its mission was deemed an outstanding success as the crew had gathered 1,400 new species of plant and identified 1,000 animals previously unknown in Europe. Of the 94 members of crew who set out, 54 returned.

Back on dry land with a new celebrity status, Pickersgill enjoyed a busy social whirl among the North Yorkshire gentry and spent a day at Ayton with Cook and his parents.

Cook, though, was keen to continue the search for a great southern continent and in July 1772, he was promoted to commander and given HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery to complete the task. He had no hesitation in appointing Pickersgill as his third lieutenant.

Pickersgill justified his captain’s faith in his abilities as he proved himself as a surveyor and a diplomat in handling the native people. He was often sent in one of the small boats exploring coastal areas, or he acted as an ambassador at ports of European colonies.

One midshipmen described him as "a good officer and astronomer, but liking ye Grog" – a liking that that was later to haunt him.

Sailing east from the tip of South America, Resolution was the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle, although it had to turn back due to pack ice. Cook named many of the places he discovered after himself, his patrons and a few of his crew.

And so near South Georgia (about 800 miles from the Falkland Islands) in the Atlantic Oceans is an archipelago of islands called the Pickersgill Islands. On New Zealand’s South Island opposite Christchurch is Pickersgill Harbour, where Resolution moored for six weeks after Pickersgill recommended it to his captain as a safe anchorage.

There’s also Pickersgill Cove on the southern tip of South America and Pickersgill Reef off Queensland, close to where Endeavour hit the Barrier Reef.

Returning to England in July 1775, Cook was made Post Captain and sent in search of a western access to Canada’s North West Passage. Pickersgill was given command his own ship, the Lyon. He crossed the Atlantic into Baffin Bay, offering assistance to Cook in his attempts to find the passage.

Pickersgill was now at the zenith of his career – but it did not last long.

The Lyon and her crew were ill-equipped for the extreme conditions and returned to England after less than six months. Pickersgill was initially not blamed for the failure, but following an allegation of drunkenness, he was court-martialled and dismissed from the navy.

He then became a privateer and died in 1779, the same year as Cook, after falling into the Thames and drowning while boarding a ship. He was only 30 years old.

Former President of the Captain Cook Society, Cliff Thornton, who has written extensively about Cook’s connections to the Cleveland area, said: “Pickersgill’s achievements in his early life eclipse his sad demise. He left his mark around the world, thanks to Cook who named various features and landmarks after his Yorkshire lieutenant.

“His promotion through the ranks was not due to any favouritism by Cook, but down to his own hard work and ability. Without the diligence and duty of his crew, Cook would never have achieved so much.”