Thomas Cooke Telescopes


I am Martin Lunn MBE FRAS, and I was Curator of Astronomy at the Yorkshire Museum in York from 1989-2011. There was a Cooke telescope in the York Observatory and while researching its history I developed a keen interest in Cooke telescopes. I worked with the archivists at the Borthwick Institute in the Physics Department of the University of York to create the Vickers Instrument Archives, which includes Cooke instruments. These archives can be found at:-

On this web site I aim to provide information on as many individual Cooke telescopes as possible, but first, a brief history of Thomas Cooke follows.

Thomas Cooke was born in the village of Allerthorpe in the East Riding of Yorkshire on 8th March 1807. Although born into a very poor family he would go on to become one of the greatest telescope makers of all time. (He had no connection with Thomas Cook, the holiday company.)

His father was a shoe maker, and it was assumed that he would join the family business. However Cooke had other ideas; he wanted to follow his hero Captain James Cook, (no relation) in exploring the world.

He was ready to join a ship at Hull, but was persuaded at the last minute by his mother to stay in England. To earn money he opened a village school and taught mathematics to the sons and daughters of wealthy landowners. He moved to York in 1829 still teaching and it was then that he made his first telescope, using the base of a whisky tumbler for a lens and some tin to make the tube.

In 1837 Thomas Cooke opened his first shop at 50 Stonegate in York, with a loan of £100 from his wife’s uncle. By now he had married Hannah Milner, who had been one of his pupils when he was teachin.

The instrument making business was an instant success.  Within a short period of time he was making not only telescopes but also microscopes, opera glasses, spectacles, electrical machines, barometers, thermometers, globes, sundials, and mathematical instruments.

By 1844, business was so good that he had to move to new premises at 12 Coney Street, York. Here the orders for telescopes kept coming in as did a new venture for Cooke; making turret clocks. Some were real behemoths, being about the size of a medium family car and weighing about three quarters of a ton.  Some can still be found in church and factory clock towers. In 1855 he exhibited instruments at the Universal Exhibition in Paris and visitors were much impressed. Again the orders increased and still larger workshops were needed.

In 1856 the Buckingham Works was built on the site of the home of the second Duke of Buckingham at Bishophill in York. It was one of Britain’s first purpose built telescope factories. An order for a telescope was received from Prince Albert in 1860, and a magnificent instrument was built. In recognition for this work and under orders from H.M. Commissioners, at the 1862 exhibition in London, Cooke’s were given a very prominent position for their display, and consequently received an embarrassingly large number of orders. Many of Cooke’s finest instruments would be made at the Buckingham Works and the factory would be used by Cooke’s until the 1940s.

One of the visitors to the great exhibition in 1862 was Robert Newall from Gateshead, a millionaire who had made his fortune making wire. He was also interested in astronomy. He purchased two lenses 25 inches (63.5 cm) across and asked Cooke if he could make him a telescope. Cooke said he could and that it would take a year. Unfortunately Cooke was making a rare mistake. It took not one but six years to complete and was not finished until a year after his death.

When finished the telescope tube was 32 feet (960cm) long and the whole instrument weighed 9 tons. It was the biggest telescope in the world.

Around 1866 Thomas Cooke started to produce steam cars. He made at least four and possibly six of them. He used three wheels rather than four because he found it was easier to devise a steering system for a single wheel. The steam cars travelled at 15 mph and were unfortunately banned from the roads because they travelled too quickly. In those days a man with a red flag had to walk in front of any vehicle that was not pulled by a horse. The speed of a walking man is only about 4 mph. In frustration he took the steam engine out and fitted it into a boat in which he travelled up and down the River Ouse. He wryly commented that no one with a red flag would bother him there.

Thomas Cooke worked incredibly hard during his life with consequences for his health; sadly, he literally wore himself out. Thomas Cooke died on the 19th October 1868, aged 62.

After the death of Thomas Cooke, the company was run for the next 25 years by his two sons Thomas Cooke Jnr. who was an optician, and Charles Frederick Cooke, who was an engineer.

In 1893 H D Taylor, who was Optical Manager at the Buckingham Works, designed the Cooke Photographic Lens which would become the basic design for nearly all future camera lenses.

The epic journey of Captain Scott and his companions to the South Pole in 1912 captured the imagination of the public. To measure the exact position of the pole they had an instrument called a theodolite which had been made specially by Cooke’s.

The last major astronomical project, a large transit instrument for the Greenwich Observatory was begun in 1932.  Sadly it proved to be a disaster for Cooke’s. The company was hit hard by the great depression in the early 1930s, many of their skilled workers were laid off, and when the transit was finished it was not of the quality expected of Cooke’s.

In 1938 Cooke’s sold the astronomical side of the business to Grubb Parsons of Newcastle.

The last Cooke factory was built at Haxby Road, York, in 1939, although originally it was called Kingsway North as it was planned to extend the inner ring road. This never happened due to World War Two and the factory became known as the Haxby Road Site. In 1948 the Buckingham Works was sold to the North Eastern Electricity Board.

On the 1st January 1963 a new company called Vickers Instruments was formed, replacing Cooke’s as a trading company.

Sadly the Haxby Road site closed in April 2008 and during the latter part of 2008 the building was demolished, ending 170 years of optical instrument making in the City of York.