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Eric the Polar Bear

Eric, the Polar Bear, is one of our oldest and most treasured specimens and he can still be seen on display in the Living Planet Gallery of the Great North Museum: Hancock.

Eric the Polar Bear on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock ©NHSN

The Museum has only one example of a Polar Bear in its collections. Gifted to the Natural History Society in 1834 by Captain Richard Warham, a Master Mariner and Merchant, this popular specimen has starred in two museums, featured in an impressive Polar Bear exhibition and even survived an attack by rodents.

The Master Mariner – Captain Richard Warham (1796–1853)

Captain Warham from an original portrait in the Society’s archives.

Warham was born in Leeds but moved to the North East towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars in around 1814. Master of the Lord Gambier from 1831, he is credited with making a significant contribution to the rediscovery and charting of the Davis Straits and Cumberland Sound of Arctic Canada.

The Lord Gambier, a large three mast whaler with a crew of 45-50 men and 7 whale boats, was the flagship of Newcastle ship-owner Thomas R Baston, whose fleet dominated the whaling trade in the North East during the 1830’s.

Eric’s Story

Captain Warham brought several specimens back to Newcastle from his voyages. In 1835 he acquired a Polar Bear Ursus maritimus in the Davis Strait, Greenland which he presented to the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne for their new premises on Westgate Road – the Newcastle Museum.

A proficient young Newcastle taxidermist, John Hancock (1808-1890), was given the daunting task of stuffing the adult male Polar Bear, which later became one of the most impressive specimens in the collections. The bear was mounted ‘traditionally’ with the skull included. It had probably been skinned and salted down while on board the Lord Gambier.

A Pencil Drawing of the Polar Bear from John Hancock’s sketch book ©NHSN

In 1837, Warham wrote a letter to the Society to complain about the dusty and dirty state of his donation in the Newcastle Museum:

I allude to the ‘Ursa Major’, and having had the pleasure of presenting it to the Society, perhaps I may be pardon’d the liberty of stating the disappointment I felt on seeing it at present so much soiled and disfigured by the dust &c to which it is exposed.

At the risk of the charge of presumption I venture to suggest the propriety of cleaning and casing the specimen at your earliest convenience.

The bear was immediately cleaned and re-housed in a glass case. It was later to become a major exhibit, at the top of the west staircase in the new Museum of Natural History at Barras Bridge (later the Hancock Museum) when it opened in 1884.

Abel’s Ark in 2003 with Eric the Polar Bear

In the 1980s our popular Polar Bear was again cleaned and repaired by Hancock Museum taxidermist Eric Morton for a position centre stage in the Abel’s Ark diorama in the East corridor and was subsequently nicknamed ‘Eric the Polar Bear’. During the conservation it was revealed that John Hancock had stuffed the bear with organic material, probably a type of grass, which had led to an ideal home for a family of mice at some point in its history!

Eric’s adventures continued when he was sent out on loan for an unusual exhibition Nanoq: flat out and bluesome A Cultural Life of Polar Bears curated by Bryndis Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson at Spike Island, Bristol in 2004.

In that exhibition Eric was displayed together with a number of other impressive Polar Bear specimens from museums all over the country. Visit the Nanoq website page here and check out the video to see taxidermist Eric Morton preparing our bear for his debut.

Eric the Polar Bear is one of our most treasured specimens and continues to impress visitors to the museum. You can find him standing proud on his platform in the polar section of the Living Planet Gallery of the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle. When you enter through the main entrance just look up and you can’t miss him.