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Letter NEWHM:1996.H67.1046

John Hancock to Henry C St John (20 December 1875)

Hancock mentions his ‘Catalogue of Birds’ and some derogatory comments made about his work in the Field magazine. He refers to St John’s voyage in the Far East and regrets that he is too old to made a journey there himself. He advises St John to collect bird species similar to British ones and includes a long list of desiderata from Fauna Japonica. A local lepidopterist W C Hewitson is interested in receiving St John’s collection of Japanese butterflies and has offered to act as his agent for any surplus.




Commander H.C. St. John

H.M. Ship Sylvia


Newcastle on Tyne



20th Dec 1875


My Dear Harry

I wrote to you on the 4th Oct. last, and yours of Aug: is to hand.  It always gives me much pleasure to hear from you — and I was glad to find that you like my Catalogue.  My opinions about the changes of plumage in the Crossbills & Linnets have been attacked in the Field and other publications, but I have not answered any of them yet nor do I think at present of taking any notice of any of them of doing so at present.

I know the Fauna Japonica very well, there is a copy of it in our Lit & Phil Soc library here — I perfectly agree with you that in many cases that the in the two Countries that the species of [p.2] birds are “identical” in the two countries.

If I had been a young man, nothing would have stopped me from shaking hands with you on board your ship and to have wandered with you in that wonderfulpartsof the world where you are at present wh. it has been one of the most interesting to be thrown into.

What an advantage to any one it must be to see the world they[1 word illeg.] to

I think every scientific man ought to make a journey round this wonderful world of ours as a part of his education before he settles down to any work. –

You say in your letter, that now so far as the birds go you are merely collecting rare species.  Now Allow me to say thatI dont see that this is quite the proper thing to do –  In a scientific point of view, my opinion is, that the species which are most similar to nearly approach our own would be [p.3] the most desirable to collectand for your guidance I have gone through the Fauna Japonica, and below I send you a list of those figured in this work which I should like you to endeavour to get, butprobably you have made skins of the most of them –.

Now this brings me to the part of your letter where you mention Butterflies — I have just been on a visit to my friend Mr. Hewitson of Oatlands  and I named to him that you were collecting Butterflies in Japan — and he says if you intend disposing of them, he would be very glad to become your agent — at any rate he would give the best price for new things, and dispose of the others to the best advantage — knowing as he does nearly all the collectors in all countries, he has the best chance of getting good prices, for good things[.]

[p.4]  Should you have the Butterflies each in little triangular bits of paper they would travel over the world safely in a tin box –  Mr. H. says if you would send them to him even before your return, he would do the very best with them  – Of course if any are Knew, he would publish them –

his address isW. C.  Hewitson Esq[,] Oatlands, Weybridge[,] Surry[sic] England –

It is always best to have Nat, Hist. Specimens into the market soon –

I was glad to learn that you had got a couple of beautiful Pink finches.

You ask “When do Seagulls breed”  As So far as my observations have gone I should say never until they are mature “in plumage”, which of course would give them (as you say) a season or two aside –.

A friend of mine Mr Howse whom you will recollectis curious [p.5] to have the Fruit of Sal[i]sburia Adiantifolia ( a Tree like Fern) in all stages of development.  It is a common tree in Japan and the kernels are eaten by the natives –


List of Birds taken from Fauna Japonica

Merlin like Hawk –

Kestril [sic Kestrel]

A Sparrow Hawk male without marking or spots or breast called Astur (Nisus) Gularis

Any other Hawks I should like for comparison

Water Ouzel young, and another specimen or two mature

Long-tailed Titmouse, Robin, Pipits, Wagtails, Thrush, like bird [,] Com. Thrush [,] Missel. T.

Sparrow without black spot on cheek,

Kingfisher like ours –

Jackdaw looking Bird –

A Crow with white neck and underparts –

Jay like ours –

Waxwing or Chatterer with a red tip to tail –




Common Bullfinch especially the one with red only on throat

Pink finch the name of this is (Pyrrhula sanguinolenta.)

Hedge Sparrow like bird

Buntings like our own –

Golden Plover –

Sandpipers generally –

Great Snipe –

Bald Coot

Little Auk like bird with Crest — and without –

Gulls & Terns –

a beautiful bird something like a magpie with a pure white body with green head, wings and a long white tail, tipped with green, red bill & legs — –




Admiral Henry Craven St John

Admiral Henry Craven St John

1.  Admiral Henry Craven St. John (1837 – 1909) was the son of Charles William George St. John and Anne Gibson.

Between 1869─1873 Henry St John was Commander of the HMS Sylvia, a surveying vessel commissioned to sail the seas around China and Japan mapping out the coastline. He was promoted to the rank of Captain in September 1873  and continued his association with the Sylvia until 1877.

He later held the office of Naval Aide-de-Camp to HM Queen Victoria between 1887 and 1889.

Hancock had been close friends with Charles W G St John and his two sons.

For more on Admiral Henry St John click here

For more information on Henry C St John’s home in Thornbury click here

2.  Hancock, John (1874) ‘A Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham’. Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. Vol. 6.

3.  The Field magazine founded in 1853, is a countryside magazine devoted to field sports.

4.  Fauna Japonica is a series of monographs on the zoology of Japan complied by C J Temminck and Hermann Schlegel, published in 5 volumes between 1833 and 1850. Although Hancock suggests that there is a copy in the library of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, there is no record of it now.

To see images from Fauna Japonica click here 

5.  William Chapman Hewitson lived at Oatlands in Surrey.

6.  Pink finches (Pyrrhula sanguinolenta in Fauna Japonica) now known as the Long-tailed Rosefinch Uragus sibiricus.

7.  Richard Howse (c.1821-1901) was Honorary Curator of the Museum from 1864 until his death in 1901. He was a stalwart friend and supporter of both John Hancock and the Hancock Museum. His main interest was in the study of Geology and Palaeontology (fossils).

Salisburia adiantifolia was an early species name for the Maidenhair Tree or Ginkgo biloba.