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The Impact of the Second World War on the Hancock Musem

WW2 destabalised the museum and society which were already fragile in the aftermath of WW1.

On the 3rd of September 1939 war was declared and the Hancock Museum, situated at Barras Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, immediately closed its doors to the public. The Trustees of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne, held an emergency Council meeting to discuss the protection of their museum and the valuable collections. T Russell Goddard, the Museum Curator, was given the immense task of saving the museum and its contents from the threat of the imminent conflict.

Various items were removed from display and carefully placed in strong wooden packing cases to be stored in a variety of ‘safe’ locations.

The Museum staff packing up the collection in 1939. Stephen E Cook, the Museum’s ‘technical assistant’ and taxidermist, in the foreground.

Museum assistant and taxidermist Stephen E. Cook, in the lab coat, supervising the loading of the collections onto the back of an open lorry ready to go to Cragside, Northumberland

Loading the wooden packing cases onto the lorry. The caretaker A E Bennett (wearing the apron) waits with the next load.

Among the many items dispatched were the collection of drawings and watercolours by Thomas Bewick, Albany Hancock‘s drawings of Nudibranchs (Sea Slugs), the Atthey and Hutton collection of Coal Measure fossils and the irreplaceable specimens of the Great Auk. The Society’s minute books and a complete set of its Transactions as well as other valuable documents were also packed ready for removal.

Fifty-seven cases were sent by lorry to the home of Lord Armstrong at Cragside and stored in the Gilnochie Tower. One single case, containing the egg of a Great Auk was housed in the cellar of Dr Wilfred Hall’s house at Sharperton. Library books were dispersed among members living in the country. Part of the herbarium of local plants was sent to the British Museum of Natural History in London and unfortunately destroyed during a bombing raid.

In a letter to entomologist Dr C D Day, dated 26 April 1944, the Deputy Museum Curator Miss Gladys Scott commented on the loss of the botanical specimens.

As for sending specimens to the B.M., that will have to wait a bit. Part of our precious Herbarium was at South Kensington when the Botanical department got it so badly and was lost so we are a little shy of London at present.

Back in the Museum the staff boarded up the large windows, fixed wire netting under the glass roof and painted yellow lines on the floors to guide air raid wardens as they groped their way around the building in the dark. Staff undertook air raid precautions and fire-watching duties. A large trench was dug in the grounds for the staff but it suffered from flooding and thankfully was never required. A much more secure refuge eventually became available when the City authorities made an entrance to the Victoria Tunnel (still in existence on Claremont Road). Originally an 18th century wagonway running from Spital Tongues to the Tyne, the disused tunnel became one of the safest air raid shelters in the North East.

The original entrance to the Victoria Tunnel on Claremont Road, used during World War II. This entrance is now inaccessible.

Inside the Victoria Tunnel.  Photographs courtesy of Brian Pears.

Other pictures available show the remains of baths, seats and handrails and a plan of the tunnel

Many of the staff were called up or left to aid the war effort. Only the caretaker A E Bennett, an employee from 1916-1947 years living in the caretakers lodge at the rear of the museum, and Miss Gladys Scott, a Deputy Curator who joined the staff in 1914, were left to ‘man the fort’. However the taxidermist Stephen E Cook, appointed in 1928, eventually returned to look after the collections after a brief stint as a voluntary ARP Warden.

The museum reopened to the public in 1940 on a limited basis but the enforced closure and the war had brought great financial hardship due to the loss of revenue and members. Many members had died in the war including the joint president of the Society the 9th Duke of Northumberland who was killed in action in 1940.

Luckily the Hancock Museum and its collections, except for the herbarium specimens, survived the war years unscathed to become the premier natural history museum it is today.


Read the Society’s Council and Curator’s Reports from 1938-1945, please click here

To read about the VE Day celebrations at the Hancock Museum in 1945, please click here.