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JOHN HANCOCK, ORNITHOLOGIST by Richard Welford,1895

John, third son of Thomas [sic John], and younger brother of Albany Hancock, was born at his father’s house facing Tyne Bridge, Newcastle, on the 24th of February, 1808. He accompanied Albany to the schools of the Misses Prowitt, and Henry Atkinson, and, after his education was completed, joined his elder brother Thomas at the Bridge End shop. Dr. Embleton, whose loving Memoir of him appropriately forms the opening paper of volume xi. of the “Natural History Transactions of Northumberland and Durham,’’ relates that after a time, finding business irksome, he entered into an arrangement with Thomas by which he was set free to follow the bent of his mind.

From his earliest years John Hancock showed a remarkable fondness for birds. After his father’s death, when the family were residing at Bensham, he and his sister Mary hunted through the fields and hedgerows for birds, insects, and flowers, and during summer trips to Tynemouth wandered together about the banks and sandhills for insects and plants that were new to them. In similar pursuits his youth was spent. After a storm, or during the seasons of bird migration, it was no uncommon thing for him to leave home at three in the morning, walk to the seaside to observe the forms and study the habits of his feathered friends, and perhaps secure a specimen for his collection. He became one of a little band of naturalists who used to meet every Wednesday evening at each other’s houses to discuss their discoveries and ventilate their theories, and who, in summer-time, made frequent excursions to places in the neighbourhood where the objects of their study were to be found. By degrees his mother’s house became a museum; his treasures, and those of his brother Albany, not only filled the room which was at first assigned to them, but overflowed into almost every other apartment. Frequent visits to the workshop of R.R. Wingate, a celebrated bird-stuffer in Strawberry Place, Newcastle, enabled him to acquire the art of taxidermy, and thus he was able to mount his bird specimens with his own hands, and enrich the family museum with accurate representations of plumage, attitude, and habit.

In 1833 John Hancock accompanied his friend, W.C. Hewitson, on an expedition to Norway, under circumstances which will be found more fully described in the biography of his companion a few pages further on. In 1845 he went with the same friend on a tour in Switzerland. The result of these journeys was extensive collections of bird-skins, shells, plants, and lepidoptera, which served not only to add to their own treasures, but to enrich the Newcastle Natural History Museum.

At the Great Exhibition of all Nations, held in London in 1851, Mr. Hancock contributed a series of stuffed birds, three of which were illustrative of Falconry. They were highly admired by naturalists, artists, and the public as a signal advance upon all previous specimens of bird-stuffing, a combination of scientific accuracy with artistic feeling. The Rev. T. W. Robertson, of Brighton, in one of his lectures declared that although he had spent days in watching birds, and visited all the great museums of Europe, he had never seen the  reproduction of life till he saw these. “They were vitalised, not by the feeling of the mere bird-stuffer, but of the poet who had sympathised with Nature, felt the life of birds as something kindred with his own, and inspired with their sympathy, and labouring to utter it, had thus re-created life, as it were, within the very grasp of death’’.

John Hancock was one of the original members of the Tyneside Naturalists’ Field Club, founded in 1846, and afterwards became a member and a vice-president of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, etc. On the death of Albany Hancock it was proposed to set up a memorial of his life and labours, and John suggested that a new Museum in Newcastle would be the most appropriate form for such a memorial. The old Museum in Westgate Road had served its purpose in former days, but was too cramped and inconvenient for the treasures that the Hancock’s and their friends had accumulated. The proposed memorial to Albany did not however make further progress, and in 1879 his brother set about providing one upon an independent basis. In that year the house and grounds to the north of the Barras Bridge, known as St. James’s, came into the market; Colonel Joicey purchased them, and John Hancock’s personal influence raised the rest of the money required to erect a Museum worthy of the town. As soon as the building was ready to receive them he presented to it his entire collections of British birds, skins, eggs, and nests, and the magnificent groups under glass shades and cases which now fill the central room of the edifice.

At the meeting of the British Association in Newcastle in 1889, Professor Flower could scarcely find words to express his sense of the excellence and value of the Museum as an educational institution, its chief attractions being due, as he observed, to the fact that Newcastle possessed  “an artist who, by a proper application of taxidermy, can show that an animal may be converted into a real-like representation of the original, perfect in form, proportions, and attitude, and almost, if not quite, as valuable for conveying information as the living creature itself.”

In the early days of their manhood Albany and John Hancock had in contemplation the publication of a quarto book on British Birds, with plates. This project was dropped because John found that they had not stuffed birds enough to enable them to complete it. Both of them were for some years engaged in drawing objects in Natural History, modelling in clay and casting in plaster. John Hancock modelled, among other objects, the two eagles which surmount the pillars at the entrance of the Museum.  He also tried his hand at wood-engraving, and not without success; an impression from one of his blocks, showing a gorged Iceland Falcon, illustrates the title-page of one of the Museum Handbooks – the “Guide to the Central Room, the Hancock Bird Room.’’

His love of Nature gave to John Hancock a remarkable taste for landscape gardening. How many of his friends he assisted to beautify their surroundings by judicious planting of trees, shrubs, and flowers will never be known. His reputation in this matter stood so high that when, in 1868, it was proposed to improve the dreary waste of Newcastle’s “bleak Northumbrian moor,” it was to John Hancock that the promoters turned for assistance. He prepared a plan, utilising the Leazes and the Bull Park for ornamental planting, appropriating thirty acres to the east for a plantation, placing a belt of trees, a hundred feet wide on each side of the North Road, forming other plantations towards Kenton, and making a sheltered drive round the Moor fully six miles in circuit. The scheme was too great for the Corporation of Newcastle to undertake at that time; but portions of it have since been realised.

Mr. Hancock, unlike in this respect his brother Albany, who wrote and worked with equal facility, was rather a worker than a writer. Attached to Dr. Embleton’s Memoir is a list, compiled by Mr. Wright of the Museum, of the papers which bear his name as author. They are twenty-one in number, and all of them were contributed to the “Annals of Natural History,” the “Transactions of the Tyneside Naturalist’s Field Club,” or the “Natural History Transactions of Northumberland, Durham, and Newcastle.” The largest and best of them is the “Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham,” which forms of itself volume vi. of the Natural History Society’s series.

Under the will of his life-long friend, W. C. Hewitson, Mr. Hancock became the owner of a charming residence at Oatlands in Surrey, where, during the rest of his life, he and his sister spent the months of summer. Like his brother Albany, he was never married; his sister Mary, the faithful companion of his childhood, was his housekeeper, and she outlived him. He died at his Newcastle residence, 4 St. Mary’s Terrace, on the 11th of October, 1890, and was buried in Jesmond Cemetery.

Upon the magnificent building at the Barras Bridge, deeply cut into the stone, are the words “The Hancock Museum,” and within the vestibule is a massive slab recording the services of the brothers Hancock to Natural History – fit introduction to the edifice which forms their everlasting memorial.


 

Reference:

WELFORD, Richard (1895) Men of Mark ‘twixt Tyne and Tweed. Vol. II, pp. 449-444.