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The Hancock Sisters and the First World War

Kitty and Faye Hancock were the great-nieces of John and Albany Hancock, the founders of the Hancock Museum. The two sisters found themselves caught up in the war after volunteering as ambulances drivers at the Somme.

July 2016 marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest event of the First World War and one of the most fatal conflicts in history.

Kitty (Left) and Faye (Right) Hancock

Kitty (Left) and Faye (Right) Hancock, NHSN Archives

One of the remarkable First World War stories connected to the Society relates to Miss Katherine Milburn Hancock (1893-1977), the great-niece of John and Albany Hancock. The Society holds archives relating to Katherine, or Kitty as she was known by family and friends, and her work during the First World War. Kitty volunteered for the French Red Cross in 1915, with her sister Marjorie (known as Faye), where they both drove ambulances in the Hackett-Lowther Unit.

Notably, the Hancock sisters were both awarded the distinguished French medal the ‘Croix de Guerre’ (transl. Cross of War) for their services in the Somme district in 1917, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme which had concluded in November 1916.

Although the Hancock sisters had been born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, after the war they moved to a country house in West Sussex where together they lived the country life running a farm, keeping horses and bees and maintaining a beautiful garden.

 

 

 

Before her death, Kitty visited the Hancock Museum named after her great uncles, and in 1976 donated £20,000 towards the reorganisation of the old John Hancock Bird Gallery. The new exhibition, called ‘The Magic of Birds‘, was officially opened by television presenter Johnny Morris on the 4 June 1980. Part of the ground floor gallery was known as the Hancock corner with illustrations and information on the life work of both John and Albany. There was also a historical panel commemorating Kitty and Faye’s exploits during the war. Sadly, Kitty did not live to see the completion of the new gallery as she died in November 1977.

“English Sisters’ Pluck”

Newspaper cuttings, from the Society’s archive, describe the recognition received by Kitty and Faye Hancock.

Two sisters, Miss Marjorie and Miss Catherine Hancock, of the Hackett-Lowther Unit, have been cited in the orders of the Third French Army in the following terms: “They were ordered into the Somme district in August 1917 in the Hackett-Lowther Unit. Since then they have, in this unit, given the greatest help to French soldiers. Brave and unwearying during the German attacks of March to June 1918, in the Hackett-Lowther Unit motors, they visited shelled villages to aid the evacuation and assist the civilian population showing in every circumstance the utmost pluck.

 

kitty newspaper cuttinga

Newspaper cuttings, NHSN Archives

 

The Natural History Society of Northumbria holds the two Croix de Guerre medals which were issued to Kitty and Faye after the war. The Croix de Guerre was a distinguished award bestowed by the French government upon those who had carried out heroic acts.

Kitty medals

The Croix de Guerre (left) and the Victory Medal (right), NHSN Archives

As well as the Croix de Guerre, both sisters were awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. The Victory Medal was issued to all of British citizens who served during the conflict, and this medal is inscribed with Kitty’s name. These accolades are all stored in the archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Written and researched by Ashleigh Jackson, a History and English Literature undergraduate student from the University of Edinburgh on a summer placement with the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

 

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