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John Hancock’s ‘Monster Crab’ – The Giant Japanese Spider Crab

One of the most impressive specimens on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock is the Giant Japanese Spider Crab, which is over 120 years old.

Dated: 06/11/2009 HRH Queen Elizabeth II touring the Great North Museum in Newcastle city centre which she later officially opened, pictured here with Director of Tyne and Wear archives Alec Coles ...

The Giant Spider Crab Macrocheira kaempferi is a very large marine crustacean found in the waters around Japan. So how did one of these amazing creatures end up on display in our museum in Newcastle and why does it have 2 fake legs?


In 1877, when our museum’s famous namesake John Hancock (1808-1890) was trying to raise the funds to create a new museum in Newcastle, his great friend Captain Henry Craven St John was on his way home from sailing the seas in the Far East on the HMS Sylvia.

St John (1837-1909) had been commissioned to survey the seas around the coast of Japan and China and while engaged in his duties he collected numerous zoological specimens to send back to John Hancock in England, one of which was a specimen of the rare Japanese Spider Crab.


While in the Inland Sea region of the Japanese Islands, St John set about searching for his unusual specimen. He recounts in his book Notes and Sketches from the Wild Coasts of Nipon, published in 1880.

Some years ago the large species of spider-crab Inachus Kaempferi, was common, and constantly to be seen in the markets and fish-shops. A native generally bought part of a limb, a yard long, or more, which was quite enough food for the whole family for a couple of days. I constantly visited the markets ……. but not a vestige of the creature could I ever hear of.

Finally he was lucky, some fishermen thirty miles from his ship caught one of the creatures, and it was so big it took two porters to carry it overland

What a colour the animal was! No paint could produce the crimson that in great splatches spread over a bright yellow ground. This one measured eleven feet six inches tip to tip ….. I soon set to work and disjointed my crustacean, and, washing each joint out with carbolic acid diluted in water, afterwards had the satisfaction of sending the big fellow to my old friend Mr. John Hancock, who most kindly mounted it and presented it to the Museum at Newcastle-on-Tyne where it now is.

What he fails to mention in his book is the loss of two legs to the hungry Japanese porters!

In a letter to Hancock, dated 5 October 1877, St John notes that his crab is two legs short:

The color [sic] of the back and legs was a mixture of the brightest vermilion and clearest gamboge –These colors [sic] could not be put on too bright — There are two legs short — the natives having made him pay toll en route to me — They could very easily be modelled — It is the 2nd. leg one side & I think the third or fourth the other –  Click here to read the full account


The crab eventually arrived at Hancock’s home in a large crate with the legs in several pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle.  Hancock acknowledged receipt of his prize:

The Monster Crab was delivered at St. Mary’s Terrace a few days ago, and I have never had time to open the Package out until this morning . . . . . It appears all right but it will be a queer job (I think) to fit it all the joints in their proper places, but it must be done . . . . . I shall endeavour to undertake the job and I intend to set to work with it immediately —   Click here to read the full account

Later in December, Hancock informs St John that the Spider Crab is now housed in a large glass case on display in the Newcastle Museum, a purpose built natural history museum at the rear of the Literary and Philosophical Society Building, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The great Crab is now put together, and is now in a large case in Our Museum. It took me about 10 days to attach the joints & finish him & place him in the case. He is of course attracting great attention numerous visitors have paid their respects to his majesty already although he has only been available to view for two or three day —  Click here to read the full account

St John, pleased to hear that the Crab has been put on display, asks whether Hancock had remodelled the missing two legs and further explains its provenance.

I am delighted to think the Big Crab is “on his legs” again — did you model him two for those eaten by the Japanese — This creature came from Misaki at the entrance to Yedo Gulf Japan South Coast Lat. 35.6 N. Long.’ 139.40’ E.  just in this locality they are common . . . . .        Click here to read the full account

Hancock replied explaining that he has decided to display the specimen without repairing the legs.

I did not model the Big Crab’s legs.  It was thought better not to have any artificial work about the specimen.  In a Natural History point of view it is best to avoid meddling I think it decidedly to keep as a rule the specimens as they come to hand.   Click here to read the full account

St John responded:

… I am delighted to think the crab is well on his legs ….   Click here to read the full account

In 1884, the spider crab was relocated, in its case, to the gallery of the Zoology Room in the newly built Hancock Museum where it stayed – minus its legs – reminding us of the story of the hungry Japanese porters.


The Museum was transformed in 2009 and the Giant Japanese Spider Crab was given a more prominent position in the new Living Planet Gallery. Miraculously it had also re-grown the two missing legs and a claw!!!

Can you tell which of the 8 legs are fake? (its the 2nd left leg and 3rd right leg)

It is interesting to consider what John Hancock would think of the two fake legs – an improvement? or as he pointed out in his letter to St John, unnecessary ‘meddling’?


Watch  a short film on ‘The Monster Crab’ produced by Chris Bradburn of Beacon Film CIC, narrated by Amy Baird – Click here.