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The remarkable story of the author of The Seven Sisters of Sleep: The Celebrated Drug Classic

A copy of Mordecai Cooke's drug survey The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860) was deposited in the Bodleian Library Oxford. When Lewis Carroll also known as the Reverend Charles Dodgson visited the library. The book  had a chapter on the Fly agaric (Hallucinogenic mushrooms) Lewis Carroll “would have been immediately attracted to Cooke’s Seven Sisters of Sleep for two more obvious reasons: he had seven sisters and he was a lifelong insomniac”. But might Alice’s adventures also have their roots in a psychedelic mushroom experience?!

The Intruder (c.1860) by John Anster Fitzgerald, with a Fly agaric mushroom centre stage. 

Source: Public Domain

Located aside one of the inner pathways in Ladywell cemetery is the imposing if oddly positioned edifice of William Cubitt Cooke which captures the onlookers attention given its parlous balance. It was considerable interest that having alighted on William's final resting place,  albeit some while ago, that I discovered a fascinating family history . Not least of which was that one of his brothers Mordecai was popularly known for his ground breaking book on narcotics called The Seven Sisters of Sleep: The Celebrated Drug Classic written in 1860, a book that had a major influence on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865)

William was born in Horning Norfolk in 1827 to Mordecai and Mary Cooke, whose Baptist faith and radical political views he appears to have imbibed. His love of the Norfolk countryside and the natural world was shared by his older brother ,also called Mordecai. Indeed one account notes that ''They bird's-nested, caught butterflies and worried reptiles with all the pertinacity of youth'. Fungi came early to his brothers notice, which had a shaping influence on his subsequent career as a Botanist and Mycologist (someone who works with fungi). William went on to write a well received family history called 'The Cookes of Horning'. For reasons unknown it appears that William became estranged from his brother and it was only around 1909 that their childhood companionship was resumed. He had 'done well' working as an Ironmonger at the iron works at Chichester where he was appointed the Manager and played a part in the manufacture of the new gates for the Cathedral. Retiring precipitately he moved to Mottingham and Maida Vale, where he suffered ' severe pecuniary losses and the more bitter pains of family bereavement'( four of his six children died young). He died in Maida Vale in February 1916 aged 88 years and was interred in Ladywell cemetery. William's wife Sophia pre-deceased him d.1902 and is also buried here. Their son, also called William Cubitt d.1891 a publican is buried in the same plot.

Interestingly enough their grandson d.1981 is buried nearby in a grave with an upturned headstone (his name is not visible ) He was Fr Cuthbert Cubitt Keet, an Anglo-Catholic, who was an authority on the psalms, his publications include A Study of the Psalms of Ascent, Mitre, 1969. He was for a time the resident priest at St Clement's Church, Cambridge.

 WIlliam Cubitt Cooke's family headstone in Ladywell cemetery (photo taken by author)

The remarkable story of the author of The Seven Sisters of Sleep: The Celebrated Drug Classic

Born on 12th July 1825 in Horning, in Norfolk UK, Mordecai Cubitt Cooke received very little in the way of formal education, but living in the countryside and with the help of personal tutoring in botany, languages and mathematics by an uncle, he soon acquired a broad interest in Nature. Thanks largely to great enthusiasm and a willingness to work hard, he achieved a great deal in his 89-year lifetime. After serving an apprenticeship in the drapery trade and spending some time as a lawyers clerk, Cooke became a schoolteacher in Lambeth until 1860, when he switched to a career in museums, spending the final 12 years of his official working life in the botany department of the Kew Gardens museum.

Cooke wrote, illustrated, edited, or translated many books and some 300 articles as well as being editor and co-producer, with Edward Step, of the magazine Hardwicke's Science Gossip (1865 - 1895) and launching and editing (including writing a great deal of the contents of) Grevillea, a more serious scientific journal of mycology which, when Cooke retired from Kew in 1892, George Edward Massey (Cooke's successor at Kew) became the editor. (Grevillea ceased publication soon afterwards, in 1893.)

It was noted that he enjoyed 'a complicated personal life'

.Despite authoring many books (not all of which, unfortunately, turned out to be financially successful), Cooke struggled to make a living, and after his retirement it seems that he faded into near obscurity. He died in Southsea, Hampshire UK, on 12th November 1914.

The abbreviation Cooke is used to indicate Mordecai Cubitt Cooke as the author when citing a botanical or mycological name.

Source : First Nature.

Written ​in 1860, The Seven Sisters of Sleep: The Celebrated Drug Classic is a groundbreaking survey of the use of the seven most popular narcotic plants of the Victorian era: tobacco, opium, cannabis, betel nut, coca, Datura and Fly agaric(mushroom). M C Cooke's wide knowledge of scientific, historic, and artistic literature on the subject and his ability to present this information in an entertaining style has made this the classic exploration of drug use throughout history. It also provides an excellent view of some of the draconian but fruitless attempts to suppress the practice.

For readers interested in a fuller account of Mordecai's remarkable life and achievements , Mary English 1987 biography, Mordecai Cubitt Cooke: Victorian Naturalist, Mycologist, Teacher and Eccentric is highly recommended 

COOKE, EBENEZER (1837-1913) Photo - Cubitt Cooke Facebook

William's brother Ebenezer was a pioneer in Art Education - the biographical information was written in 1921 by his son Arthur.

Coming to London, he joined, in 1855, the drawing class at the Working Men's College conducted by Ruskin and Rossetti, and in 1865 was appointed teacher of the Ruskin Drawing Class at the Working Women's College. "Experience here, and the influence of Pestalozzi and natural science, led him to see that drawing from Nature was not drawing according to Nature; that teaching must rest on human nature, on the child's nature and its development."

In 1875-1876, Cooke became drawing master at Mr. C. H. Lake's school, and here introduced Nature Study instead of science.

In 1877 the Education Society was founded, and in the following year Cooke introduced a paper, illustrated by children's drawings, entitled "The Method of Nature as the Type of All Method, considered in reference to Drawing." It was the beginning of a new era in the teaching of drawing.

In 1898 Cooke visited the United States to give a course of lessons, and there met and conferred with some of the leading educationists.

In 1900 came the first International Congress on Teaching Drawing, at Paris; in 1904 the second, at Berne, where Cooke proposed the first resolution. At the London Congress in 1908, he gave a special lecture, by request of the committee; and in 1912, at Dresden, a paper, which had to be repeated by request.

In 1908 he was invited by the London County Council to lecture to its teachers, a function which he continued to the time of his death; and in 1909 he took part in the London County Council conference on the teaching of drawing, of which he drew up the minority report.

In 1910 he presented a paper on " The Teaching of Design" to the members of the Society of Arts.

In 1913 the Government conferred an annuity on him "in recognition of the valuable work done towards the improvement of Art teaching," but his death occurred before it came into operation.

He died suddenly, in the interval between two lessons, at the age of 76, the cause being heart failure. "A teacher he remained to the end."

For a fascinating dip into the Cubitt Cooke Genealogy - this link will be of some interest to Royalists. (It including  a family link to Queen Camilla!)