The Correspondence of John Hancock

John Hancock, the Victorian taxidermist and natural historian, over his life, was a great communicator keeping many of his correspondents letters as well as his draft replies. His collection of correspondence contains over 1600 original and draft letters from 363 correspondents, covering the years 1837 to 1890, mainly on the subject of natural history.

The letters highlight his career achievements and give an intriguing insight into the social world of Victorian taxidermists, ornithologists and natural history collectors.

The numerous correspondents are wide ranging and include members of the nobility and gentry, of whom Hancock would have known through the Natural History Society or from his career as a professional taxidermist. They included his friend Lord Armstrong of Cragside, the Duke of Leeds, Lord Ravensworth, Lord Ridley and many more.

In discussing and identifying new species he regularly communicated with local and national scientists of the day. There are fascinating letters from Sir William Jardine, Richard Owen, Canon Henry Baker Tristram, Henry Seebohm, Professor Alfred Newton and Francis Henry Salvin.

Hancock also kept in touch with his friends, local North East worthies such as William Chapman Hewitson, George Clayton Atkinson and the inventor Joseph Swan.

His regular communications with sea captains and explorers maintained a constant flow of exotic creatures to the museum and expanded his knowledge of the wider world; Hancock, sadly and much to his regret, was never able to travel further than the Scandinavian countries.



The Natural History Society received  small grants from the Dickinson Memorial Fund in 2011 and again in 2013 which has allowed us to present thirty letters from the Hancock Correspondence Collection on our website, in order to make them more accessible and highlight the diversity of the collection.

The Society acknowledges the many years spent by volunteer Ann Stephenson who has meticulously catalogued and transcribed the correspondence and has been instrumental in preparing the letters for website publication with the Society Archivist, June Holmes and the late Dr David Gardner-Medwin (Editor). Michael Kerr assisted as copy typist.

The letters have been transcribed, digitised and interpreted using similar protocols to those used in the Darwin Correspondence and the Alfred Russell Wallace Correspondence Projects.



Letter 320    William Chapman Hewitson to John Hancock   (14 September 1845) 

Hewitson describes his journey from Switzerland to Genoa, Italy and discusses the natural history of the areas visited with particular reference to birds and butterflies while bemoaning his health problems. He refers to a number of contemporaries including Harrington, Doubleday, Evans, Wailes and Van Voorst. He reminisces about a trip he made to Norway with Hancock and suggests a repeat visit.

 Letter 405    John Hancock to the Duke of Leeds (15 January 1847)

Draft letter from Hancock to the Duke of Leeds discussing estimates for casting a model of a Gyrfalcon in either silver or in a combination of silver and bronze.

Letter 942    Charles W G St John to John Hancock (1 May 1851)

St John discusses a pair of Peregrine Falcons he has shot in Moray, Scotland. He has sent the skins to Hancock for his bird collection. He mentions the possible sighting of an Icelandic Falcon (Gyrfalcon) and the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London. 

Letter 1112   Captain Frederick C St John to John Hancock (17 July 1879)

St John discusses his experiences on campaign in Afghanistan, with the British Indian Army, during the second Anglo-Afghan War. He mentions the difficulties his wife and family are experiencing, living in Bath, England while he is stationed in India.

Letter 22     John Hancock to Prince Albert  (7 September 1852)

Draft letter to Prince Albert petitioning the Prince to subscribe to his forthcoming publication A Fasciculus of Eight Drawings on Stone of Groups of Birds etc.

 Letter 165    The Crystal Palace to John Hancock  (30April 1856)

An official request asking Hancock to consider exhibiting a further collection of his taxidermy studies at the Crystal Palace, London.

Letter 522    John Hancock to Alfred Newton  (24 February 1871)

A draft copy of a letter to Newton asking his advice about a forthcoming ‘Catalogue of Birds’ Hancock is compiling for the Transactions of the Natural History Society.

Letter 523    Alfred Newton to John Hancock  (27 February 1871)

Newton replies to Hancock’s letter of 24 February 1871 [Letter 522] discussing a classification format for his proposed new ‘Catalogue of Birds’. Newton dismisses Temminck preferring Nitzsch, which he will modify for his own new edition of Yarrell’s Birds and agrees with Hancock on the unfortunate recent trend in subdividing genera. 

Letter 1233   John Hancock to Lady Armstrong  (5 Nov 1877)

Draft letter to Lady Armstrong from Hancock informing her Ladyship of the safe delivery of Thomas Atthey’s fossil collection to the Newcastle Museum.

Letter 38     Sir William George Armstrong to John Hancock  (12 January 1881)

Lord Armstrong invites Hancock to accompany him to Cragside where he is entertaining a number of guests including the local gentry. John Hancock declines as he is already committed to visiting the Bewick family.

Letter 647   John Hancock to Earl Ravensworth  (15 November 1876)

Hancock regrets that he did not visit the Eslington estate to see Ravensworth’s collection of Scottish Capercailles. He also discusses a specimen of the American Passenger Pigeon shot in Yorkshire and sent to him by the Dowager Marchioness of Normanby.

Letter 1286    John Hancock to James E Harting   (15 February 1877)

Hancock refers to his note on the Passenger Pigeon in the Society’s Transactions. He thanks Harting for the review of his recently published “Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham” in the ‘Field’ magazine but points out a few errors.  He wishes him well in his new undertaking as Editor of the Zoologist.

Letter 1291    James E Harting to John Hancock    (6 March 1877)

Harting thanks Hancock for the recent copy of the Transactions and mentions the account of the Passenger Pigeon. He attempts to justify his criticism of Hancock’s catalogue in the ‘Field’ magazine but says it is too late to rectify the mistake.

 Letter 651    Earl Ravensworth to John Hancock  (20 February 1878)

Ravensworth asks Hancock’s opinion on a Mallard duck he has recently shot which is exhibiting male plumage.

Letter 652    John Hancock to Earl Ravensworth  (9 March 1878)

Hancock offers his opinion on the female Mallard displaying male plumage which Earl Ravensworth sent to him in February. He discusses male and female specimens of the Bar-tailed Pheasant he has recently prepared for display.

Letter 701    Francis Henry Salvin to John Hancock  (12 May 1871)

Salvin describes a visit, with Colonel Radcliffe, to the home of the Maharajah Duleep Singh in Norfolk, commenting on his collection of live birds. He then covers a number of unrelated topics including the purchase of a set of pruning saws and his pet monkey, Oko Jumbo.

Letter 705    Francis Henry Salvin to John Hancock  (22 August 1873)

Salvin describes a visit to Galway, Southern Ireland, referring to the scenery, river fishing, fishing with cormorants and the local people he meets on his visit.

Letter 707    Francis Henry Salvin to John Hancock  (25 January 1878)

Salvin discusses a Peregrine Falcon he thinks may belong to the Maharajah Duleep Singh, asks about Thomas Bewick’s ‘Memoir’ and refers to a group of Laplanders he met in London. He updates Hancock on the latest news from the ‘Old Hawking Club’ and bemoans the activities of the maverick Falconer, Captain Dugmore

Letter 708    John Hancock to Francis Henry Salvin  (7 February 1878) 

Hastily scribbled on a collection of scrap paper, Hancock composes a reply to Salvin’s letter of 15 January 1878 [Letter 707]. He answers Salvin’s questions on the provenance of a Peregrine Falcon, the autobiography of Thomas Bewick and some specimens he had previously alluded to.  Hancock discusses some interesting skins from New Zealand he is working on then moves on to his plans for the building of the Society’s new museum in Newcastle.

Letter 688    John Hancock to Howard Saunders  (13 March 1874 )

Hancock thanks Saunders, a noted expert in gull identification, for taking time to look at his unidentified Shearwater specimen which he hopes to include in his forthcoming catalogue on the birds of Northumberland and Durham. 

Letter 1046   John Hancock to Henry C St John  (20 December 1875)

Hancock mentions his ‘Catalogue of Birds’ and some derogatory comments made about his work in the Field magazine. He refers to St John’s voyage in the Far East and regrets that he is too old to made a journey there himself. He advises St John to collect bird species similar to British ones and includes a long list of desiderata from Fauna Japonica. A local lepidopterist W C Hewitson is interested in receiving St John’s collection of Japanese butterflies and has offered to act as his agent for any surplus.

Letter 1048   Henry C St John to John Hancock  (19 March 1876)

St John, on board HMS Sylvia, replies to Hancock’s letter of December 1875 [Letter 1046] discussing the list of specimens he is collecting. He mentions procuring a large Japanese Spider Crab for the Museum. He writes about the geologist Hugh Miller and the latest views on creationism versus evolution, stimulated by his observations of the animal and plant life he sees during the dredging operations. He asks for Hancock’s opinion on where the line can be drawn between animals and vegetables. 

 Letter 1223  Henry C St John to John Hancock (5 August 1877)

St John communicates with Hancock while on holiday in South Wales. He is considering publishing his notes on the natural history of Japan from his recent voyage and asks Hancock for further information on his specimens. He informs Hancock that the Japanese Giant Spider Crab specimen has arrived safely at his home in Thornbury and he will send it to Newcastle for the new museum of Natural History which Hancock is in the process of planning.

Letter 1209  Henry C St John to John Hancock (5 October 1877)

St John returns from his holiday in Tenby, South Wales giving a short account of the scarcity of birds and animals in the area due to shooting. He is pleased to report that the large crab specimen he collected in Japan has arrived safely and he prepares to send it up to Newcastle mentioning the loss of two of its legs.

Letter 1210  John Hancock to Henry C St John  (13 October 1877)

Manuscript draft of a letter to St John. The crate with the large Japanese crab has arrived, delivered directly to Hancock’s home and the legs are in pieces which he will have to rejoin.  Hancock intends to visit Lord Ravensworth who has procured some live specimens of The Western Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, for his estate

Letter 1206  John Hancock to Henry C St John  (12 December 1877) 

Hancock’s manuscript draft letter informing St John that the giant Japanese Spider Crab is now housed in a large glass case on display in the Newcastle Museum at the rear of the Literary and Philosophical Society Building, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne. He has identified the 28 bird specimens from Japan sent by St John and sold 10 of them to William Brooks while keeping the rest for his own collection. On the verso is a letter from John Dixon.

Letter 1194   Henry C St John to John Hancock  (16 December 1877) 

St John is pleased to hear that the Big Japanese Spider Crab has been put on display and he asks whether Hancock had remodelled the missing two legs and explains its provenance. He goes into a long discussion on the identification of the specimens of birds brought back from Japan. He is glad to hear that Hancock has sold some of the skins for him as he now has 7 children to care for. He is considering re-issuing his late father’s books.

Letter 1195   John Hancock to Henry C St John  (c. December 1877) 

Draft letter to St John mentioning that he has decided to display the specimen of the large Japanese Spider Crab without repairing the legs. He discusses a collection of Japanese bird skins St John sent to him from his voyages on the Sylvia. Hancock advises him against reprinting his father’s book, the Tour in Sutherland thinking it will be a costly exercise.

Letter 1051   Henry C St John  to John Hancock (9 January 1878) 

St John thanks Hancock for the payment for the bird skins he sent to Newcastle. He is pleased that there is a great deal of interest in the giant Japanese Spider Crab he donated. His son, Percy, has completed his naval training on the Britannia and will leave home for a commission soon. St John also mentions an imminent trip to Belfast.

Letter 1053   John Hancock to Henry C St John (3 June 1878)

Draft copy of a letter to St John. Hancock comments on his recent visit to the Yorkshire Moors where he observed the noise or ‘murmuring’ made by the European Snipe in flight and discusses the difference in the feathers of the native species and the Japanese Snipe specimens. He mentions the sad death of his friend William Hewitson and the legacy he has inherited.

Letter 1054    Henry C St John to John Hancock  (1 July 1878) 

St John writes from London where he has been visiting the British Museum and examining his collection of dredging samples taken whilst sailing around the Japanese coastline.  He mentions Professor Albert Günther.

Letter 1071    John Hancock to Henry C St John   (October 1880) 

Hancock has arranged for the Giant Japanese Spider Crab to be photographed by Messer’s Mawson, Swan and Morgan for St John’s proposed book. St John will need to speak to the photographer himself in due course as Hancock is leaving Newcastle for Oatlands, Surrey in the near future.

Letter 1076    John Hancock to Henry C St John   (13 December 1880) 

Draft copy of a letter to St John. Hancock thanks him for a copy of his book Notes and sketches from the wild coasts of Nipon, which he and his sister enjoyed. However, there are a few corrections he would like to make to the text.

Letter App12    Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell to John Hancock  (15 June 1878)

Hancock is invited to join his friend Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell at the Exposition Universelle in Paris where he is acting as one of the judges. He refers to the significant bequest Hancock has acquired on the death of his great friend William Chapman Hewitson.

Letter 802    Joseph Wilson Swan to John Hancock  (c. June-November 1878)

Swan writes from Paris while visiting a science exhibition. He comments on the new form of electric lighting in the streets and hopes that he can be instrumental in furthering its development. Swan also thanks Hancock for his recent pleasurable visit to Oatlands, Surrey.

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