Mary Jane Hancock (1810 – 1896) was an amateur botanist and enthusiastic watercolour painter.
As a teenager, she developed a fascination for nature, hunting for birds, insects and flowers with her brothers during trips to Tynemouth, Winlaton Mill, Gibside and Prestwick Carr. The Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN) holds over 60 of her paintings and over 300 botany specimens from her personal collections.
Though we know little about her, Mary Jane was clearly an active and knowledgeable member of north east society at a time when the world was opening up to new discoveries. She knew many influential scientists, naturalists and engineers of her day. She was friends with Lord and Lady Armstrong of Cragside, and her paintings suggest that she went on holiday with Thomas Bewick’s eldest daughter,
Natural history was a family affair, and Mary had a key supporting role as a housekeeper to the endeavours of her bachelor brothers, Albany and John. Albany played a major role in establishing the Natural History Society, and John led the building of a new museum (now the Great North Museum: Hancock) to hold its extensive collections. After Albany Hancock’s death, Mary ensured that his collections were donated to the Natural History Society for public benefit.
In 1884, at the age of 74, Mary Jane Hancock became an elected member of the Natural History Society, coinciding with the official opening of the new museum just across from the family home in St Mary’s Terrace, Newcastle
Seven pencil and watercolour sketches by Mary Jane Hancock, the sister of John and Albany, were discovered in London in 2005 by one of our members. They were purchased and most generously deposited with the Society, which already holds a large collection of her works.
What is so interesting about the sketches is that they appear to have been taken while she was on holiday in Cumbria in 1836 with Miss Jane Bewick, the elder daughter of Thomas Bewick. Mary would have been twenty-six and Jane Bewick forty-nine.
The sketch, illustrated here, shows an idyllic scene of a thatched cottage surrounded by flowers with two cows in the foreground. Walking towards the cottage door is Albany Hancock in a brown hat and jacket with Miss Jane Bewick, towering above him in a pink dress and poke bonnet. If you recognise the cottage we would be delighted hear from you.
This collection of sketches is a remarkable addition to our archives and illustrates the close association of the Hancock family with Bewick’s children. Until now there has never been any evidence of their taking holidays together.