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Mary Jane Hancock

Mary Jane Hancock (1810-1896), the youngest sister of John and Albany Hancock, was an amateur botanist and enthusiastic watercolour painter. The Natural History Society of Northumbria holds over 60 of her paintings and more than 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. As a child, she developed a fascination for nature, searching for birds, insects and flowers with her brothers during trips to Tynemouth, Winlaton Mill, Gibside and Prestwick Carr.

She knew many influential scientists, naturalists and engineers of her day.  She was friends with Lord and Lady Armstrong of Cragside, and maintained a close association with the children of the famous wood engraver Thomas Bewick: Jane, Robert Elliot, Isabella and Elizabeth.

Natural history was a family affair, and Mary had a key supporting role as a housekeeper for her bachelor brothers, Albany and John, assisting them in their many endevours. Albany played a major role in establishing the Natural History Society, and John managed 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 the Great North Road a few steps away from the family home at 4 St Mary’s Terrace, Newcastle.

In 2005, a small collection of Mary Jane’s pencil and watercolour sketches were discovered by one of the Society’s members in an antiquarian bookshop in London. Having recognised the works as being by Hancock our enterprising member, the late Dr David Gardener-Medwin,  purchased and most generously deposited them in the Society’s archive.

The seven sketches were produced in 1836 while Mary Jane was on holiday in Cumbria with her brother Albany and her friend Miss Jane Bewick (1787-1881), elder daughter of Thomas Bewick. Mary would have been aged twenty-six and Jane would have been in her late forties.

One of these sketches, a detail of which is 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 this cottage we would be delighted to hear from you.

The collection of sketches is a remarkable addition to our archives and suggests a closer lifelong friendship between the Hancock and the Bewick families than had previously been thought.

Read more about the relationship between Thomas Bewick and John Hancock in the Cherryburn Times vol 4:2.