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John Hancock

(1808-1890) John Hancock, the younger brother of Albany Hancock, was highly regarded as an expert in the study of ornithology and attained a national reputation as an accomplished taxidermist. He was a member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne from its inception in 1829 and it is mostly due to his service to this distinguished Society and its Museum – the Hancock Museum – that he is remembered today.

John Hancock: a notable naturalist

John Hancock was born at Bridge End, near the old Tyne Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne. Although his family were working class and ran a successful saddler and ironmongery business in Newcastle, John was well educated and raised with the manners of a gentleman. Even from any early age his family recognised that he had an insatiable appetite for natural history; recording and collecting birds, plants and insects.

When John left school he joined his eldest brother, Thomas, in the family business but he soon discovered that this did not fulfill his need for the freedom to pursue his natural history interests. He left the business with the endorsement of his brother and went on to follow his own ambitions.

He spent time in the workshop of Richard Wingate a well respected taxidermist who had a business on the West Road. Learning from him, Hancock was to produce his first successful attempt at taxidermy in around 1829. The specimen, a Golden Plover is still in the Museum collections today. Possibly one of the greatest influences on Hancock’s life, and that of many other young naturalists in Newcastle, was the accessibility of the North East’s greatest artist and naturalist, the wood engraver Thomas Bewick.  John Hancock was well acquainted with Bewick, possibly through Wingate’s taxidermy shop but more likely through their shared interest in natural history.  This friendship was extended to Bewick’s son and daughters, Robert, Jane and Isabella whom Hancock considered as close friends for the rest of his life.

John Hancock and the Natural History Society

He joined the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne in 1829 taking the position of Honorary Curator of Ornithology and later acting as the Secretary, a prestigious unpaid post. During his time as Secretary Hancock corresponded with many renowned ornithologists, scientists and local natural history enthusiasts. The collection of letters and drafts he carefully preserved form the John Hancock Correspondence Collection held in the archives of the Natural History Society and they provide a wonderful insight into his complex and interesting life.

As an enthusiastic falconer, Hancock trained his own falcons on Newcastle’s ‘Town Moor’. He was well acquainted with local members of the hunting fraternity corresponding with them, receiving gifts of specimens and preparing taxidermy mounts for their collections. As his prowess in the art of taxidermy increased he was often called upon to prepare specimens for the local gentry. In order to advertise his talents further afield he created a selection of dramatic taxidermy mounts which he displayed at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London in1851. He later produced a large folio book of lithographs of the mounts on display A Fasciculus of Eight Drawings on Stone of Groups of Birds etc…, published in 1853.

In 1874 his authoritative work ‘Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham’, was published in the Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. It was the culmination of many years of his careful recording and collecting of data; there are numerous manuscript notes and transcripts from this catalogue in the archives of the Society. He also published a number of other natural history ‘Notes’ in the Transactions and gave scientific papers in the Annals of Natural History on Greenland and Iceland Falcons.

Hancock’s life long interest was in observing the plumage differences between the two falcons, now regarded as geographic colour variations of the Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus. The Society’s collections contain a number of important specimens due to Hancock’s thoroughness in his investigations.

Greatest achievements

John, never married but lived with his brother Albany (1806-1873) and sister Mary Jane, at 4 St Mary’s Terrace which had a view over the North Road to a property known as St James’ House lying on a triangle of land between Barras Bridge, the North Road and Claremont Road. As Secretary to the Society, the burgeoning collections at the Society’s Newcastle Museum, on the West Road, was foremost in his mind, as was his own ever increasing bird collection stored in his own home. His great friend William Chapman Hewitson had recently died in May 1878 leaving a bequest of £3,000 to the Society and a substantial estate called ‘Oatlands’ in Surrey to John.

With the bequest in mind he formulated a project for a ‘New Museum of Natural History’ on the St James’ site conveniently opposite his house. He believed that it would be a fitting tribute to his late brother and his friend Hewitson.

In 1879, with a bundle of building plans generously prepared by local architect John Wardle, the promise of numerous wealthy backers, detailed estimates and his enthusiast offer to organise the process himself Hancock presented the Society with a fait accompli.

One of the great benefactors of the Society, Colonel John Joicey, purchased the site and presented it to the Society. Donations poured in to the ‘Building Fund’ with a substantial sum from Lord William and Lady Armstrong and John Hancock became the works manager overseeing the building project. Hancock himself, was also to oversee the work of the landscape gardening around the museum; another one of his many capabilities.

The work took four years to complete with Hancock in control, sometimes by letter if he had retired to Oatlands for a respite. His right-hand man Richard Howse, employed as Museum Curator in 1882, kept the whole process running smoothly. The Museum was formally opened to great acclaim on the 20th August 1884 by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Hancock had agreed to present his vast and valuable collection of bird mounts to the Society on the condition that a whole gallery would be set aside for their display. The Bird Gallery remained very much as Hancock had envisioned until the recent museum refurbishment during the years 2006 to 2009.

Through his close connections with the Bewick family he was instrumental in securing the family collections of original drawings and memorabilia for the museum in 1881 when his friend Isabella Bewick died. A substantial and internationally important collection, coveted by other establishments in London, was fortunately retained in Newcastle and placed on public display within the museum.

Sadly, John Hancock died on the 6th October 1890, in St Mary’s Terrace, yards away from the museum he had dedicated the last years of his life to with such enthusiasm and devotion.  A blue plaque marks his last resting place.

In 1891, the Society’s ‘New Museum of Natural History’ was renamed ‘The Hancock Museum’ as a lasting memorial to two important and inspirational local naturalists, John Hancock and his brother, Albany.

The Natural History Society carved ‘The Hancock Museum’ in stone over the doors to the entrance hall lest we forget, in years to come, who exactly this great Victorian museum owes its existence to.

A fitting tribute to a notable naturalist.

More published historical accounts on Hancock

Read a biography on John Hancock, published in 1929, by T Russell Goddard here.

Read a biography on John Hancock, published in 1895, by Richard Welford here.

Read A Truly Eminent Victorian by Ann Stephenson here

Read about John Hancock’s ‘Monster Crab’  here

Read about John Hancock and Peter the Hedgehog here