Hancock: A Name Rooted in Natural History

Our name 'Hancock Gallery' comes from brothers John & Albany Hancock, 19th century Naturalists, who once lived next door at No.4 St Mary's Terrace.

Today we'd like to share the story of John and Albany and how they left their mark on Newcastle upon Tyne. 

John Hancock

Born on a chilly February 24th in 1808, John Hancock's arrival took place within the confines of his father's residence, perched at the northern terminus of the iconic Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. An early affinity for birds and a burgeoning fascination with collecting them manifested in his formative years. As recounted by his sister Mary, even at the tender age of four, young John would dart through the fields of Bensham, an area where his family had settled, in pursuit of elusive avian specimens.

Tragedy struck in 1812 with the passing of John's father. Consequently, his mother relocated the family to a house beyond the Windmill Hills in Gateshead, a locale enveloped by the open countryside. During the summertime, both John and his sister Mary indulged in the pursuit of birds, plants, and insects that abounded in the fields and hedgerows. Education beckoned, and John commenced his academic journey at the Misses Prowitt's school, a modest establishment tucked away on Pilgrim Street. Subsequently, he transitioned to Henry Atkinson's institution on the High Bridge, renowned as the town's premier educational facility.

The rhythm of life oscillated between city and coast for the Hancock family. Summers ushered in coastal retreats to Tynemouth or Cullercoats, providing ample opportunity for the siblings to marvel at marine flora and fauna. Winters saw their Newcastle abode transformed into a hub of entertainment, where private theatricals, puppet shows, games, and dances took center stage. In these social gatherings, John's charisma shone, often assuming the role of caregiver and friend to the timid and overlooked.

John Hancock, a well dressed man with grey hair holding a newspaper looking to the right

Upon concluding his schooling, John embarked on a new chapter, joining his elder brother Thomas in the family's saddlery and ironmongery enterprise situated at the end of Tyne Bridge. Yet, the world of commerce proved less captivating than his fervor for natural history. An agreement was struck with his brother, freeing him to wholeheartedly pursue his scientific inclinations. This marked the inception of his journey into avian taxonomy and the meticulous preservation of birds. His artistic endeavors also flourished as he ventured into clay modeling, plaster casting, and wood engraving.

John Hancock's relationship with ornithology burgeoned further through his alliance with fellow enthusiasts William Hewitson and Benjamin Johnson. The trio embarked on a collecting expedition to Norway in 1833, followed by a voyage to Switzerland in 1845. During this latter trip, the melodious trill of the nightingale graced John's ears for the first time along the banks of the Rhine.

A notable milestone emerged in 1851 when John contributed a series of meticulously mounted birds to the Great Exhibition in London's Hyde Park. This marked a pivotal moment, catapulting him into the national spotlight as a masterful taxidermist. His dynamic and lifelike approach to preserving specimens set him apart, particularly his specialisation in birds of prey.

John Hancock's influence extended beyond his scientific pursuits, as he played a central role in the establishment of the new museum building at Barras Bridge. He was revered not only for his scientific contributions but also for his benevolence and kindness. His character, marked by simplicity, temperance, and unwavering patience, endeared him to humans and animals alike.

In the twilight of his years, John Hancock passed away on October 11th, 1890, at his residence near the museum that had become a testament to his legacy. His departure left an imprint not only on the world of ornithology but also on the hearts of those who cherished his gentle spirit and profound insights into the natural world.

Albany Hancock

Albany Hancock, an English naturalist, biologist, and devoted supporter of Charles Darwin, was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1806. His notable contributions revolve around marine creatures and coal-measure fossils.

Albany Hancock shared kinship with the naturalist John Hancock. The siblings, along with their sister Mary Jane, resided at 4 St. Mary’s Terrace in Newcastle, which is now encompassed within the designated terrace located at 14-20 Great North Road.

A black and white photograph of Albany Hancock, a well dressed man sitting in on a chair in a photographers studio

His formative years were spent at The Royal Grammar School before being apprenticed to a local solicitor. Upon successfully completing his apprenticeship and passing the required examinations, he even established his own solicitor's office in Newcastle. Despite his legal pursuits, his true passion lay elsewhere. After a brief stint at a manufacturing firm, he dedicated the remainder of his life to his genuine calling: natural history.

Though his enthusiasm for natural history dates back to his childhood, his serious publications didn't emerge until he turned 30 in 1836. Notable among these were "Note on the Occurrence of Ranicefis trifurcatus on the Northumberland Coast" and "Note on Falco ruazlies, Regulus ignicafiillus and Larus," featured in Jardine's Magazine of Zoology and Botany.

From this modest beginning, Albany Hancock evolved into one of the era's preeminent naturalists, contributing around seventy significant works, many of which appeared in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History.

Albany's involvement extended to being a founding member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham, and Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as the Tyneside Naturalists' Field Club. He played a role in the formation of the College of Physical Science in Newcastle and held positions as a Fellow of the Linnean Society, a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London, and an honorary member of the Imperial Botanico-Zoological Society of Vienna. In recognition of his contributions, he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1858.

Kingfisher turquoise colours made from bronze

Our homage to the Hancock brothers is more than a nod to history—it's a celebration of curiosity, passion, and the enduring connection between humanity and the natural world. Explore our curated collection of bird-specific artwork, inspired by the legacy of John and Albany Hancock.

Share on your Socials: