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The Tsar and the Fabulous Russian Mineral Collection

The Great North Museum: Hancock boasts a fantastic collection of over 800 valuable mineral specimens which were presented to the Natural History Society, in 1838, by his Imperial Highness the Emperor of Russia, Tsar Nicholas I. At his specific request, nine cases of the finest minerals, fossils and mammoth teeth where shipped to Newcastle from the Museum of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute. The letters and documents recounting the story are housed in our Archives.

How did a provincial museum in the north of England acquire a treasure chest of specimens from the Tsar of Russia?

A number of influential men and contacts in high places of course. But who were these men?

The Tsar of Russia

Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855), the grandson of Catherine the Great, was Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855.

What were his connections to the North East?

In 1816, at the age of 20, Grand Duke Nicholas came to England on a state visit with his brother Tsar Alexander I. Seeking adventure, he set off to Tyneside with a few members of his entourage to see the thriving mining industries for himself. Respected mining engineer, John Buddle, showed him the workings of the Wallsend Colliery but the Duke declined an invitation to descend into the pit by means of a rope and a large iron hook. Exclaiming in French, “Ah! My God, it is the mouth of hell! None but a madman would venture into it!

Legend has it that he also met our local hero, the wood engraver, Thomas Bewick!  The Newcastle Courant  recounted “Mr Bewick had afterwards the honour of laying before the Grand Duke specimens of his skill in the art of engraving upon wood.”

Tsar Nicholas remained interested in the profitable mines of the North East and in 1840 he sent a delegation of Russian mining engineers to meet Thomas Young Hall, the internationally acclaimed mining engineer at Stella Colliery in Ryton.

The Geologist

William Hutton (1797-1860) was a founder member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. He was appointed Honorary Secretary and Honorary Curator of Mineralogy and Geology from its inception in 1829 until 1846.
Hutton began negotiations with Matthew Anderson (1754-1834), a merchant in St Petersburg to obtain a collection of minerals from Russia for the Society’s recently built ‘Newcastle Museum’, located on the Westgate Road.

 The Foreign Trader

Mathew Anderson (1754-1834) was part of the hugely successful Anderson family business based in Jesmond. At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, there were strong trading links between Newcastle and the Russian Baltic ports. Mathew’s brother John Anderson (1757-1829) handled the Newcastle end of the business becoming the town’s principal Russian merchant. However, nothing came of Hutton’s endeavours until a local celebrity became involved ― John George Lambton, the first Earl of Durham.

The Politician

John George Lambton (1792-1840), or Radical Jack” as he was commonly referred to, was a British Whig statesman and the Vice President of the Natural History Society.

Between 1835 and 1837, he served as Ambassador to Russia and received one of their highest accolades when he was invested as a Knight of the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky.

Lord Durham, another one of his titles, used his influence and pulled some strings!

The Russian Vice-Consul in Newcastle

John Thomas Carr (1794-1855), was appointed as the Russian Vice-consul in Newcastle  in 1833.

He was well rewarded for his efforts receiving a large emerald and diamond ring as a gift for his work with a group of Russian Mining Engineers in 1838.

Carr was delighted to inform the Natural History Society, on 21 July 1838, that he had received an important letter from the Imperial Russian Government:-

I have the Pleasure to inform you that at the particular desire of Lord Durham, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor has ordered a Collection of the most rare & Valuable Minerals found in the Empire of Russia to be made & forwarded to the Society. 

The letter was signed by two highly decorated ministers of the Russian government, Count Cancrine, Chief Commander of the Corps of Mining Engineers and General Tcheffkine, Superior Chief of Mining Engineers of Russia.


The Natural History Society of Northumberland and Durham, and the town of Newcastle on Tyne, requested Lord Durham, through its secretary, Mr. Hutton, in January last, to procure it a collection of Russian minerals from St Petersburg, in exchange for which the Society proposed to send hither specimens of the most remarkable minerals found in the above-named counties, and particularly of the coal formation and lead mines.

When this was communicated through our Ambassadors at London, his Majesty the Emperor most graciously commanded me to comply with the wishes of the Society.

In consequence of this command, a collection of the most remarkable Russian minerals was prepared from the Museum of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, consisting of 949 specimens, of the value of 3446 rubles and which is now being sent to Newcastle upon Tyne, in your name.

Having given you the above information, I respectfully request that, on the receipt of the within-named collection (of which you will find a list enclosed in the chest with the specimens), you will present it as a gift to the above-mention Society of Natural History, with the above explanation.

Of the latter you will not fail to inform me.

Cr Cancrine  [signature]

Minister of Finance, Chief Commander of the Corps of Mining Engineers, General of Infantry.

Scheffkine [signature]

Chief of the Staff. General Major.

John Thomas Carr, Esq., Russian Vice Consul,

Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Russian Minister of Finance

Count Georg von Cancrin (1774-1845) was the Russian Minister of Finance from 1823-1844 and Chief Commander of the Corps of Mining Engineers in St Petersburg. He was a Russian aristocrat from German descent who returned to Russia in 1797 with his father, an eminent mineralogist. In 1827, Cancrin invited Alexander von Humboldt, the famous Prussian scientist, to visit Russia and identify areas where new mining enterprises could be developed.

In 1839 a newly discovered mineral found in the Ural Mountains was named cancrinite after the Minister of Finance.

Count Cancrin was made an Honorary Member of the Society in 1838 for his assistance in acquiring the mineral specimens.

The Russian Mining Engineer

General Tcheffkine or Konstantin Vladimirovich Chevkin (1803-75) was Superior Chief of Mining Engineers of Russia

He was appointed Chief of Staff of the Corps of Mining Engineers in 1834 and later famously visited Tyneside to inspect foreign railway and mining practices. His Russian delegation party spent several days at Stella colliery with Thomas Young Hall, the internationally acclaimed mining engineer.

Tcheffkine was made an Honorary Member of the Society in 1838 for his assistance in acquiring the mineral specimens.

See some of these fabulous Russian minerals on display in the Crystals and Gems section of the Geology Gallery.

You can also access part of the collection on the Geofinder website – search for ‘Tsar’.