This may be considered a followup to yesterday’s post on Orpington chickens. It will chronicle the lives of the creator and of his children who carried on the business after his death.
All agree that William Cook created the Orpington breed of chickens, first the black, then the buff, but the waters are somewhat muddied regarding the creation of subsequent breeds like the Cuckoo. With that in mind, let’s look at the Cook family and see what part each member played in Wm. Cook & Sons.
An article in the Northern Advocate , on Jan. 26, 1901 discussed a local man who had ordered Orpington chickens and ducks from William Cook & Sons of Orpington House, St. Mary Cray, Kent, whom the writer referred to as one of the greatest poultry breeders in England, if not the world. “He exports hundreds of birds every year to all parts of the Empire, and on a recent trip which he made to Australia he brought out no less than two hundred thoroughbred fowls. It was on his farm of 3000 acres in Kent where he keeps no less than 8,000 birds that the now famous breeds of Orpingtons were produced, taking their name from his house and farm. Mr. Cook is among that unfortunately small number of breeders who believe in breeding for utility more than for ‘show points’. Before the Orpingtons were introduced, it was thought to be well nigh impossible to combine in one fowl all the best qualities of the table and laying varieties. But Mr. Cook by judicious selection and crossing at last succeeded, and all those who keep fowls for profit owe him a debt of gratitude.”
William Cook was born in 1849 in St. Neots, Huntingdon, England. He began working as a carriage driver at age 14. One account said he was breeding poultry by 1869 and established a poultry business at St. Mary Cray, near the town of Orpington, Kent, England in 1886. If those dates are correct, then he spent several years raising and cross-breeding chickens before making a career of it. His son said in an interview, years later that his father spent 10 years developing the first Orpington chicken which means he would have started work in developing them around 1876 which probably leaves about 7 years for the transition from beginning to professional. An article on Orpingtons said William Cook spent 15 years breeding and perfecting the first Orpington.
He began publication of a magazine in 1886. He was a keen businessman who promoted his poultry with tours, lectures, and the magazine which he edited and also contributed articles to. He called it, William Cook’s Poultry Journal. The title was later changed to William Cook & Sons’ Poultry Journal. The journal was filled with ads for Cook’s poultry – namely the Orpington chickens and Orpington ducks.
The blue duck (1896) was the first of the Orpington ducks followed by the buff (1897). They are good layers and quick-growing meat ducks. Apparently they were first shown in the U.S. in 1908, and were admitted to the American Standard of Perfection in 1914. Like Orpington chickens, Orpington ducks are a dual-purpose breed.
William Cook & Sons created a bird hospital and sold medicines, vitamins, and feed for poultry. There were Cook’s Poultry Powders, Cook’s Roup Powders, Cook’s Improved Insect Powder, Ointment for Destroying Nits on Fowls, W. Cook’s Fattening Powders, Poultry houses, sitting coops, drinking fountains and corn bins, W. Cook’s book, The Poultry Keeper’s Account Book, W. Cook’s Flint Grit, etc. Between selling poultry and selling all the products needed to keep them they had quite a monopoly going.
William Cook was also a horse breeder and developed products for horses such as W. Cook’s Horse Powders.
Percy Cook was using peat moss brought over from England on the floor of his chicken houses because it absorbed odors, it could be stirred occasionally so it continued to absorb the droppings, and when it was changed, the material was used as fertilizer.
All of Cook’s children had a hand in running the business at one time or another. There were Elizabeth Jane, the oldest; William Henry, the oldest son; sons Messrs. Albert Lockley and Percy A. Cook; and a young daughter, Lily, who married Arthur C. Gilbert. No indication was found that Lily took part in the business, but her husband did.
Elizabeth Jane married R. Wakeman Clarke. She was forward-thinking in many ways, such as being the first to ship poultry via airplane. Accounts credit her with having created the Cuckoo Orpington although other accounts gave that honor to her brother-in-law, A. C. Gilbert.
Elizabeth Jane ran the poultry yard when her father was away on business or in seclusion writing and became quite talented in raising poultry. After her father died she managed the firm.
William Cook wrote in 1901 that the Orpington ducks were being marketed under a different name by a different party. He named no names, but his children would not always be as discreet. He could have meant Mrs. A. Campbell who is credited with having created the Khaki Campbells, Miss N. Edwards who bred a fawn colored duck, or he most likely meant his eldest son, William Henry Cook, who by that time had left the firm and gone out on his own. It has been written that the family squabbles stemmed from William Cook having lent William Henry money to buy his home, Elm Cottage, which was not paid back in a timely manner. Some accounts claim he did eventually repay the debt hoping to share in the inheritance, but there is no indication he received anything.
Tragedy struck June 25, 1903 and took the life of William Cook’s wife, Jane. She accompanied her son, William Henry, and daughter-in-law, Catherine, on a visit to Lily and A. C. Gilbert’s home. Afterward, she went with them to the property owned by William Henry and Catherine which was undergoing restoration. Noticing a gas chandelier that was lowered, William Henry raised it, when the flame set off an explosion that destroyed the house and rattled the nearby neighborhood. Jane’s death was recorded in The Express July 3, 1903. William’s death was reported by Feathered Life on July 6, 1904. Both are buried at St. Mary Cray Cemetery, Greater London, England.
William Henry first carried out his wife and went back inside to rescue his mother. All three suffered serious burns, with Jane’s being the worst. She died the next day. William Cook died almost one year later of emphysema at age 55. In William’s obituary it was noted that all his children (Elizabeth Jane was now the wife of R. W. Clarke) and Lily’s husband, A. C. Gilbert, would be running the business. Mr. W. H. Cook was said to have relinquished his connection prior to his father’s death. Elizabeth Jane then bought out her other two brothers’ and her sister’s interest in the English branch of the business.
William Henry was called, “Poultry Farmer of the Model Farm” in documents related to his father’s estate. When William Henry advertised his poultry claiming that as the eldest son he had managed his father’s concern until 1903, his sister, Elizabeth Jane, did some advertising of her own claiming her brother had no ties to William Cook & Sons and that anyone who wished to correspond with the business should address their requests to Orpington House where she would receive it.
One of those ads in the International Poultry Book noted William Cook & Sons, originators of all the Orpingtons, had been in business upwards of half a century. “The Original Cook Strains are only obtainable from their one address in England, St. Mary Cray, Kent. They have NO BRANCHES ANYWHERE and no connection whatever with anyone else of same name”. – Woodard, George. Victoria Australia. 1913.
That wasn’t exactly true as her brother, Percy, was operating in New Jersey, USA, and brother Albert operated another branch in South Africa, but Elizabeth Jane’s admonishment was probably never seen outside England in which case it would have had no effect on either of the brothers.
William Cook and Sons became an international entity, operating simultaneously in England, South Africa, and the U.S , each under the care of a different child of William and Jane Cook. “The first foreign plant was started at Sydney, in Australia. After this got under way and a manager placed in charge, another plant was started in England by P. A. Cook, called the St. Leonard’s Poultry Farm. This was sold at a good profit after running for seven months. Then after one month Mr. Cook started for South Africa with eight hundred birds.
The first plant started in South Africa was near Durban in Natal, a beautiful spot. Then a manager was left in charge there and a hurried trip was made to England and from there to the show at Madison Square in New York. Mr. Cook and his father visited this show and won 23 firsts out of 25, then on to Boston and Chicago. They brought 108 birds and sold 107. This was in 1902, and since then they made the raising of Orpingtons worth while in the United States.
Mr. Cook reports that people told them that it would be impossible to sell a bird for more than $50. They said nothing but thought the more, and by the end of the week all their best birds were sold for $200 each, and breeders were looking for more.
After the shows in America, Mr. Cook sailed for England then to Belgium and France to some shows, and back to South Africa, where he started another farm at Johannesburg, having a town office in that town, and the farm eighteen miles out at Misgund, a ride on horseback of thirty-six miles every day. There Mr. Cook demonstrated that an egg will stand more rough usage than was thought possible and still hatch. He tied a box of thirteen eggs on my back, and rode thirty-six miles each day for two weeks, and jumped everything in the way, then set the eggs under a hen and hatched and raised ten good chicks”.
That article said Cook had shown birds and lectured in South Central and Northern Africa, Tasmania, India, Ceylon, New Zealand, South America, Bermuda, Russia, Spain, and Austria.
“It was in 1904 that he came to this country to live [U.S.], and he has never regretted it, and has succeeded in building up one of the largest poultry businesses in the world”. It was in 1904 that Percy’s father died. – Poultry Success. Dec. 1916.
Percy Alexander Cook was born in 1882 and was involved in poultry raising by the time he was seven years old. He married the very wealthy Beatrice M. Davidson on Jan. 2, 1915, the ceremony taking place at the home of the bride’s mother, Mrs. Anna F. Davidson in Saratoga, NY. Beatrice was 34 years old when the couple married. The couple honeymooned in Bermuda and Florida.
Beatrice Cook and her mother were well placed financially in the motor car industry prior to her marriage with Percy which meant they were a very wealthy couple. Margaret E. Knight and Anna Davidson, of Saratoga Springs, received credit for a patent on a “resilient wheel” in 1910. Anna and Beatrice were listed as Corporators for K-D Motor Co. with $100,000 capital to manufacture motors the same year.
“The Knight-Davidson [K-D] Motor Co. was formed with three women, namely, the inventor of the motor, Margaret E. Knight of South Farmington, Mass; Anna E. Davidson and Beatrice M. Davidson, both of 259 Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, NY.” For three women to form a company with that much working capital in 1912, was unheard of. They were certainly ahead of their time.
These ladies were related, however the exact nature of their kinship is not known. Over the course of 45 years Knight was granted 22 patents. Her first was for a machine that manufactured “satchel-bottomed” paper bags [modern grocery bag], her last for improvements in the internal combustion engine in 1915. Knight was awarded the Decoration of the Royal Legion of Honour by Queen Victoria in 1871.
The K-D Motor Co. produced an automobile with the little known K-D engine invented by Knight and Anna Davidson. It was a five passenger touring car and it sold for $6,000.
An obituary in The Westfield Leader [NJ] on November 20, 1958 for Mrs. Percy Cook says she died Monday, Nov. 10 at Cook Island, Summerland Key, Fla. She was “of the Cook Bird Farm, Route 22. She was the wife of Capt. Percy A. Cook, noted sea explorer and retired officer of the British and U.S. navies”. She was buried in Key West, FL. As an author I am reluctant to pass along information without being certain of the facts, in this case I am not certain this refers to the Percy Cook of Wm. Cook & Sons, but it certainly does seem to. The obituary appeared in a New Jersey newspaper where the Cooks were known to live, it references Cook bird farm, and it is true that Percy Cook, son of William, served in the British and American navies, having achieved at least the rank of Lieutenant. The reader will decide whether or not the obituary applies. No obituary was found for Percy as of this writing.
In 1909, Percy Cook attended the Crystal Palace Show after which he brought home to New Jersey 250 Orpingtons, several of which had won first prizes at the show. [This may have been the same year his father exhibited poultry at that facility.] In 1914, he was elected Vice President of the American White Orpington Club and served on the Executive Committee. – American Poultry Advocate. April 1914. – Poultry Journal. April 1909.
After William Cook showed Orpingtons in Boston, New York, Chicago, etc. demand was high and Percy opened the breeding yard at Scotch Plains, N. J., also named Wm. Cook & Sons, to help fill orders for chicks and eggs. “Every one of the old school remembers Peggy the Kellerstrass White Orpington hen valued at $10,000., a 99 score fowl. The many eggs laid by that hen and her prodigy sold at $5 an egg”.
“About 1,500 fowls, including all the varieties of Orpingtons are kept constantly on hand and fresh pedigreed birds are imported from England at the rate of four to six hundred a month. Thus purchasers are sure of stock directly imported from the offspring of the original flock or from birds raised in America from the same stock; the same may be said of the eggs. A careful record is kept of every bird sold so that if a buyer wishes unrelated fowls for the sake of new blood they can always be furnished to him. All fowls coming from the Wm. Cook & Sons Farms are guaranteed to be in good condition.” – Country Life in America. March 1905.
American Poultry Journal called William Cook & Sons the, “well-known originators of all the Orpingtons”. They voiced the opinion that Scotch Plains would have been better called Cookstown, “as nearly everything belongs to them anyway”. Their record was over 12,000 first prizes won in the U.S. shows and the exhibition at the Crystal Palace in England. – June 1910.
“Cook’s Farm”, operated by Percy Cook was once owned by Wesley Roll, a local farmer. It sat on the, “old Springfield Road”, between Springfield and Scotch Plains, NJ. The Roll home was torn down prior to 1855 when Wesley Roll died. Ownership of the property passed to at least one other party who then sold it to Percy Cook about 1904. – Franz, R. J. The Roll Family Windmill: Genealoty of the Roll Family. 1977. http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~windmill/html/letter.html
“During the World War Percy joined the forces of the United States in Uncle Sam’s uniform, and the plant at Scotch Plains discontinued furnishing stock, but under a skillful poultryman the breeding stock was kept up and increased in order to take care of the demand after the war. I had a long talk with Mr. Cook a short time ago and he told me he was proud to say that his stock is better than ever and the stock and eggs he will sell will sure make his customers happy. Besides being the originator and breeder of Orpingtons, Mr. Cook breeds most every kind of water fowl and ornamental bird. He is also a lover of animals even to lions. One large African lion used to be chained like a huge dog on the front lawn. Instead of a flivver [car] Percy Cook rides in an airplane.” – Poultry Success. June 1921.
The ornamental fowl shown by William Cook & Sons, Scotch Plaines, NJ in Atlantic City included: cranes from Austria, India, and Madagascar; white and gray Java Sparrows; Cut-throat and assorted Finches; Austrian Paraquets; talking Beebee Parrots; Brazilian Cardinals, Canaries, and the Dove with the bleeding heart. Besides, they showed Buff Orpington Ducks from England; Cayuga Ducks from East Indies; Mallard, Pin Tail and White Call Ducks from America; Rouen Ducks from France; Famosa Teal Ducks from East Indies; Chinese Mandarin Ducks from China; Tree Ducks from Japan; and a White Trumpeter Swan from America. He also showed Black, Buff, and Blue Orpington chickens. – American Poultry Advocate. Sept. 1913.
Many of the land birds were killed or scattered when a storm blew away the aviary in which they were housed. There were twelve species of cranes, “some costing up to $200 each”, many pheasants and other birds. “Up to the present all the cranes, peafowl, and storks have been caught, and a number of the pheasants but some three dozen are still at liberty but around the place, they will now be left to roam around the gardens and make rather a pretty sight…The damage done amounted to about $2,000 but no part of the poultry plant suffered.” Percy had won 170 first and 106 second prizes during the year 1913 alone.
Percy sold various birds other than chickens and ducks from the New Jersey plant which incidentally was referred to as the largest in America. “Wm. Cook & Sons also breed a fine line of ornamental land and water fowls that they offer at reasonable prices.”
Something happened just prior to 1913 that caused a reduction in orders for chickens, not just from the Cook’s, but nationwide. What exactly caused the “nationwide panic…which has affected the demand for all varieties of poultry more or less”, is not yet known, but Percy Cook said in an interview with Poultry Success that Wm. Cook & Sons was seeing a renewed interest in Orpingtons and an increase in orders. Perhaps the panic was WWI (1914-1918), but it seems a little odd that economic recovery would come during the war. – Dec. 1916.
William’s son, Albert Loxley Cook, established and managed a branch of the business in South Africa and the Orpington club of South Africa still exists today.
Arthur C. Gilbert, Cook’s son-in-law, continued to show Orpingtons after William Cook died, exhibiting birds in a show at Madison Square Garden in Feb. 1905 for which he took several prizes and was still showing blue Orpingtons in Madison Square Garden in April 1918. He was almost certainly living in the U.S. at that time as the American Poultry Journal noted that “A. C. Gilbert, who for a number of years was manager of William Cook & Sons plant in England, has accepted the position of assistant manager of the American plant. P. A. [Percy] Cook is still active manager and will continue to personally attend to the selection of all orders. Both Mr. Cook and Mr. Gilbert are well known in Orpington circles”.
William Henry Cook moved his business to Orpington where he seems to have had great success, enjoying, in addition to his mail orders, increased chance sales at his farm from passengers arriving or departing from the train station as his farm sat within sight of the station and the name Cook was easily recognized by everyone interested in poultry. William Henry Cook operated his business until he retired at age 75 in 1949. He died the next year in London.
His sister, Elizabeth Jane, produced two editions of her father’s book, “The Practical Poultry Breeder and Feeder”. She managed William Cook & Sons until 1936 when the company may have gone bankrupt. She died in 1947 at home in Orpington House. Some accounts say she died of a massive stroke, another says she was attacked and may have died of injuries afterward. Her actual cause of death remains unknown.
Copyright 2014, Victoria Rumble
See: Thompson, J. M. “The Orpington Ducks”,
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
Show Poultry of South Africa
Nielson, Bent. “The Story of Orpington”. Translated online.
The Poultry Item. April 1918.
Ohio Farmer. Aug. 12, 1916
The Westfield Leader [NJ] on November 20, 1958
Poultry Success. Feb. 1916.
Poultry. April 1906
Poultry Success. March 1916.
Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office. 1912.
Motor World. June 27, 1912. NY.
Automobile Topics. June 29, 1912.
Khan, B. Zorina. The Democratization of Invention. 2005. NY.
1901 England census