Sir Thomas Crooke, 1st Baronet

Sir Thomas Crooke, 1st Baronet, of Baltimore (1574–1630) was an English-born politician, lawyer and landowner in seventeenth-century Ireland. He is chiefly remembered as the founder of the town of Baltimore, County Cork, which he built into a flourishing port, but which was destroyed shortly after his death, in the Sack of Baltimore. He sat in the Irish House of Commons as member for Baltimore in the Parliament of 1613–1615. He was the first of the Crooke baronets of Baltimore.

Early life

He was born in Cransley, Northamptonshire, the eldest son of the Reverend Thomas Crooke; his mother was a Miss Samuel. [1] His father was a Calvinist clergyman whose strong religious views often brought him into conflict with the English Crown, but who escaped serious censure, due largely to his position of preacher at Gray's Inn. Helkiah Crooke, Court physician to James I, was one of Sir Thomas's brothers, and Samuel Crooke, a preacher of some note, was another. Stephen Egerton, another leading Puritan preacher, married Thomas's sister Sarah. [2] Egerton's niece, Margaret Tyndal Winthrop, was the third wife of John Winthrop, who became a coloniser with a much wider vision than Crooke's, being several times Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. [3] Crooke and Winthrop, although they must have been acquainted, are not known to have been intimate; Crooke's sister Sarah however was a close friend of Margaret Winthrop and left her a substantial legacy at her death in 1624.

Thomas spent much of his childhood in Suffolk, where his father served for some years as vicar of Great Waldingfield. The younger Thomas, on his father's petition, was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1597.[4] He is said to have acquired a successful practice at the English Bar, but after his father's death he turned his mind towards colonisation. His motives appear to have been twofold: to establish a thriving commercial centre, and to create a safe haven for those who shared his strong Calvinist views.

Settlement of Baltimore

Baltimore, his foundation

In or about 1600 Crooke entered an agreement with Sir Fineen O'Driscoll, the Gaelic lord of Baltimore County Cork, to establish an English colony in Baltimore. Their agreement was disrupted by the closing stages of the Nine Years War. O'Driscoll throughout his long career had been an ally of the English Crown, and was something of a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I; but his relatives persuaded him, against his own better judgement, to take the Irish side at the Battle of Kinsale. After the failure of the Irish cause at Kinsale most of his relatives fled the country, and Sir Fineen himself only with difficulty obtained a royal pardon.[5]

In 1605 Crooke decided to regularise the matter: he surrendered the extensive lands granted to him by O'Driscoll to King James I and had them regranted back to him. James disliked extreme Calvinists, but he was pragmatic enough to see the advantages to the Crown of a strong English presence in West Cork. In 1607 the town was given the right to hold a weekly market and two fairs a year.[6] In 1612 it was incorporated as a borough, with a "sovereign" (Crooke himself) and twelve burgesses. Baltimore was given the right to return two members to the Irish House of Commons, with the franchise known as a potwalloper (that is, a constituency where every male householder with a hearth wide enough to boil or "wallop" a pot had the vote). Crooke himself sat in the Irish Parliament of 1613–15. He reached the high point of his fortune in 1624 when he was created a baronet.

Development of Baltimore

The town of Baltimore thrived from the beginning: we are told that Crooke "divided the town into tenements with lots for gardens, and gave to each settler land convenient for building and grazing". It grew prosperous as a centre for the pilchard fisheries and also traded in wine. From the start of the colony however there were repeated accusations that Baltimore's real prosperity depended on piracy, and that all its inhabitants, including Crooke himself, were pirates or the accomplices of pirates.[7]

Portrait of James I by Nicholas Hilliard

Charge of piracy

The coast of West Cork has many deep sheltered coves which have long been suitable for smuggling, and the O'Driscolls were widely believed to take advantage of to this engage in piracy. Not surprisingly similar accusations were made against Crooke, and in 1608 the Privy Council summoned him to London to answer a number of charges, including one that he slaughtered cattle in his own yard to victual pirate ships. Crooke denied all the charges, and by now he had gained the goodwill of most of the influential men in Munster, including William Lyon, Bishop of Cork, Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, and Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, Lord President of Munster. His friends spoke up for him: Bishop Lyon in particular praided his extraordinary achievement in having created a well-ordered town out of nothing in less than 5 years. The Privy Council exonerated Crooke completely, but not everyone was satisfied: the authorities in Venice continued to call Baltimore "a nest of pirates", and it was claimed that the entire population of the town were implicated in the illicit business. Historians are still divided as to whether or not, and if so to what extent Crooke condoned or engaged in piracy.[8]

Conflict with Sir Walter Coppinger

From the start of his Irish career Crooke was forced to contend with the increasing power of the wealthy Roman Catholic lawyer Sir Walter Coppinger. Coppinger came from one of the most prominent families in Cork city; though himself of Viking rather than Gaelic descent, he was hostile to the English settlers, and he had a bad reputation for ruthlessness.

Almost from the beginning of the colony, Coppinger harassed the settlers with dubious legal claims to ownership of their lands. Eventually in 1610 a compromise was reached: Crooke, Coppinger and Fineen O'Driscoll jointly granted a lease of Baltimore to the settlers for a term of 21 years.[9] This gave the settlers a solid claim to their lands but Coppinger soon made it clear that he had no intention of observing the agreement. Crooke, with his wealth, lands, baronetcy, and influential friends, was personally secure enough, but the Baltimore settlers were subjected to constant interference.

In 1616 Crooke and his fellow settlers brought suit in the Court of Castle Chamber, the Irish equivalent of Star Chamber, alleging numerous acts of aggression against them: Coppinger was found guilty on one count of riot but cleared of the other charges. Castle Chamber was not noted for providing effective remedies and this verdict did Crooke little good.[10]

In 1618 Crooke, despairing of any chance of obtaining justice in the Irish courts, appealed to the Privy Council in London to protect the settlers against Coppinger's "malicious and covetous desire to supplant them" both by "bloody riot" and by fraudulent claims to their titles.[11] No firm decision was taken, and Crooke renewed his petition before the new King Charles I in 1626. The King, noting that Castle Chamber was apparently divided on the issue, ordered a hearing before Star Chamber.[12] The case was still proceeding when Crooke died in 1630 ; it seems that the authorities were reluctant to decide finally either in favour of Coppinger or of the settlers.

Sack of Baltimore

See main article: Sack of Baltimore

In 1631 Algerian pirates raided Baltimore and carried away more than 100 settlers, who were later sold into slavery in North Africa. A handful of them were eventually ransomed, but the vast majority never saw Ireland again. This dealt the town a blow from which it has never really recovered. Whatever Sir Thomas Crooke's faults, it was his intelligence and energy which had made Baltimore thrive, and, it has been said, it was symbolically appropriate that it should collapse soon after his death.


By his wife, Mary, Thomas had three sons: Sir Samuel Crooke, 2nd Baronet, Thomas, barrister of Gray's Inn, who was still living in 1624 (although he is not mentioned in his father's 1629 will) and James, who was still living in 1634[13] and at least two daughters: Judith, who married the landowner and writer Sir Vincent Gookin, and a second daughter, who is referred to in his son Samuel's will, (although curiously not in his own), who married a Mr Salmon (this was probably James Salmon of Castlehaven, a prominent local landowner). In his will Thomas refers to his "son-in-law" Arthur Jackson: the term was then interchangeable with stepson, so Arthur was very likely Lady Crooke's son by a previous marriage: in his own will Arthur refers to Lady Crooke as his mother.

Thomas left his estate to his widow, with legacies to his daughter Judith, his stepson Arthur Jackson and his wife Mary, to Thomas' brothers Samuel, "dear Helkiah" and Richard ("for his kindness to my children"), his sister Rachel Rosse (described as "much impoverished"), who was the wife of Henry Rosse, goldsmith, his "dear sister in law" Judith, wife of Samuel, and "good old Aunt Hudson" (who was still living in 1635).[14]


  1. Usher, Brett Thomas Crooke Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004
  2. Waters, Robert Edmond Chester Memoirs of the extinct family of Chester of Chicheley (1878) p.278
  3. Waters p.280
  4. Usher
  5. Ekin, Des The Stolen Village-Baltimore and the Barabry Pirates O'Brien Press Dublin 2008 p.71
  6. Ekin p.408
  7. Ekin p.399
  8. Ekin p.399
  9. Ekin pp.405–6
  10. Crawford, Jon G. A Star Chamber Court in Ireland- the Court of Castle Chamber 1571–1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2005 p.324
  11. Crawford p.325
  12. Crawford p.325
  13. Usher
  14. Waters, Henry Fitz-Gilbert Genealogical Gleamings in England 1901 Vol.1 p. 325
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