Robert Cook (c1646 – c1726)
We are beginning to see a bit of a theme developing around the concept of eccentricity. To earn this badge of honour either your behaviour or way of life had to be out of line with the generally accepted mores of the time or thanks to your status, connections or wealth behaviour that would have seen the great unwashed be up before the beak is regarded with amusement and a knowing nod of the head.
Our latest eccentric, Irish born Robert Cook, is firmly in the former camp.
A member of the landed gentry from Cappoquin in County Waterford, Robert was known as Linen Cook. The reason for this endearing sobriquet is fairly straightforward – because of his predilection for white linen. All his garments, be they his under garments, night-clothes or shirts or his outer garments of coat, hat and suit, were made of the finest white linen. Naturally, when he was laid to rest for the final time, at the ripe old age of eighty in 1726, his shroud was made of white linen.
His predilection for the colour white even extended to his livestock on his farms. He would only countenance having white cattle and rode a steed whose colouration matched his suits.
Cynics, and there are always some, have suggested that this mania for all things linen was nothing more than a piece of self-interest. After all, his family’s fortunes came in part from the textile industry. Perhaps he saw himself as a living, talking testament to the quality of his family’s goods. But I suspect there is a more deep-rooted reason than that.
He was what we would call passionately animal friendly and practised an extreme form of veganism. As Charles Smith reported in The Ancient and Present State of Waterford, published in 1746, Cook was “a kind of Pythagorean philosopher, and for many years neither ate fish, flesh, butter, &c., nor drank any kind of fermented liquor, nor wore woollen clothes, or and other produce of an animal, but linen.” Indeed, Cook attributed his long and healthy life to his regimen, finding that “water for drink and pulse, corn and other vegetatives for food and linen and other vegetatives for raiment be sufficient.”
A fox had the audacity to attack his poultry. The offending beast was caught and instead of being despatched was subjected to a lecture from Cook on the subject of murder. The fox was then let go, having to run the gauntlet of a posse of farm hands armed with sticks. I doubt it turned over a new leaf.
Originally a Quaker, Cook soon began to develop his own religious and philosophical theories which he was keen to share with the unsuspecting world or, at least, a circle of educated Irishmen. In 1691 he published a pamphlet outlining what he termed his Phagorian philosophy, helpfully reprinted by the obliging Smith. It caused a storm and prompted the Athenian Society to pen a furious rebuttal of each of his points.
This wasn’t the only time that Cook got into a bit of bother. The Catholic majority in Ireland sided with James II in his dust-up with William of Orange during the glorious revolution and Waterford, a Protestant bastion, bore much of the brunt. Cook fled to England, spending some time in Ipswich. The Patriot Parliament declared Cook a traitor if he didn’t return to Ireland by 1st September 1689. The Jacobites, as they were known, were only finally defeated in Ireland in 1691.
Before we leave Linen Cook, we should mention Cook’s Folly, a pile of stones erected on top of a rock in the Bristol Channel. It was a memorial to his first wife, a Bristolian lass. Alas, the stones were not white.