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Our History

Below you can read a selected history of the Society. If you would like to learn more then why not visit our library and archives?


Marmaduke Tunstall FRS (1743-1790), a collector of natural history and ethnographic items from all over the world, inherited the family estate at Wycliffe, a village on the south bank of the River Tees in North Yorkshire.

He began to rebuild Wycliffe Hall in about 1773 and had specially built a handsome, large, airy room, in the back of the house, much better than that in London, to rehouse his museum, the collection being installed from London in about 1780. By this time the museum was the third largest private collection outside London, and was especially rich in mounted birds. Tunstall originally lived in Welbeck Street, London and it was here he amassed his Natural History Collection, which included live specimens as well as preserved ones. Many well-known naturalists of the time visited his collections and artists used his specimens as models to illustrate natural history books.


Tunstall brought his museum from London to Wycliffe-on-Tees in Yorkshire.


Thomas Bewick and Marmaduke Tunstall were never to meet, yet in 1789 Tunstall commissioned one of Bewick’s best known engravings, that of the Chillingham Bull.

On Easter Sunday in 1789 Thomas Bewick set off on a fifty-mile walk from Newcastle to the small Northumbrian hamlet of Chillingham to fulfil a commission for Marmaduke Tunstall, the antiquarian and naturalist. He had been asked to ‘draw from life’ a bull from the celebrated and rare herd of Chillingham ‘wild’ white cattle owned by Lord Tankerville, of Chillingham Castle. He stayed that evening at the home of John Bailey, the land agent for Tankerville, and the next day, crawling on his hands and knees through the undergrowth in Chillingham Park, Bewick made his sketch of a bull sheltering in the woods away from the rest of the herd. The famous works of the bull by Bewick, are owned by the Society.


Edward Sheldon inherited the Tunstall estates when Marmaduke Tunstall died in 1790 (aged 47) and he sold the museum, library and pictures. Tunstall’s friend George Allan (1736-1800), a solicitor of Blackwell Grange near Darlington in County Durham, bought part of the contents of the museum in 1791 for £700.

The collections occupied two large rooms at Blackwell Grange and Allan opened his museum to the public in June 1792, receiving 7,327 visitors in three and a half years. He added considerably to the Wycliffe collections.

After Tunstall’s death in 1790, Bewick visited Wycliffe to make use of the extensive collection of stuffed birds spending two months there in 1791. A number of drawings he made at the time are now in the Great North Museum: Hancock although he only used a few of them to illustrate his History of British Birds, preferring to draw from life if possible. Some of the bird specimens he used can also still be seen on display in the museum today.


The Newcastle upon Tyne Literary & Philosophical Society was founded in 1793 and, in its early years, members and friends gave a number of donations of natural history and ethnographical items.

This included the first ever Wombat to reach Britain from Australia (preserved in spirit), a gift from John Hunter, Governor of New South Wales. This species was first described by Thomas Bewick and the specimen can still be seen on display in the museum today. Another notable donation was our mummy, Bakt hor Nekt, given by Thomas Coates of Haydon Bridge in 1821.


George Allan died, the Allan Museum, housed at Blackwell Grange, was left to his son.


The Society of Antiquaries was formed – the first daughter Society of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne.


George Townshend Fox was a businessman and a prominent member of the Literary & Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne.

When the Allan museum came up for sale in 1822 it was Fox who advanced the £400 to the Society for the purchase.

The magnificent collections made their way from Darlington in a sprung glass-wagon, and despite a strong gale on Gateshead Fell arrived safely in Newcastle. They were stored for a while until the Literary & Philosophical Society’s new building opened in 1825.


In 1827 Fox published a catalogue of the collections called A Synopsis of the Newcastle Museum.


By 1828 there were considerable differences between the members of the Literary & Philosophical Society who were interested in natural history and the collections and those interested in the library.

In order to resolve this conflict, supporters of the museum met in February 1829 and drew up proposals for the formation of a separate society. On the 19th August 1829 the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne (now the Natural History Society of Northumbria) was formed with the objectives of the pursuit of natural sciences and the development of the museum. It began with a membership of 134.

The Society’s first lecture was given on the 20th October 1829 at the Literary and Philosophical Society, Westgate Road, Newcastle. The subject was on the identification of a new species of swan, discovered by Richard Wingate, a taxidermist from Newcastle. The swan was later given the name Bewick’s Swan Cygnus bewickii in memory of the celebrated Tyneside engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick.


By 1831 the new Society’s collections has grown and they had to rent a storeroom.

In 1832 subscriptions were raised in order to build a new museum on land behind the Literary & Philosophical Society’s building (now part of the Central Station), which was opened to the public in 1834 and was known as the Newcastle Museum.

The Natural History Society experimented with opening the museum to the public, one evening a month, free of charge. This was extremely popular and other museums in England copied the idea.

The collections grew and the popularity of the Society’s museum increased with over 44,000 visitors in 1848.


In 1846 some members of the Natural History Society, who were interested in field outings (including John Hancock), formed the Tyneside Naturalists’ Field Club within the Society to record birds, plants and geology etc in the field.

The first meeting was held on the 20th May 1846, when a party of sixteen members started with breakfast at Ovingham. Some of the group visited the grave of Thomas Bewick in Ovingham churchyard while others went to look at the plants in the rectory garden of Rev. John Bigge. Afterwards, the party spent an enjoyable afternoon around Whittle Dene, the rather heavy thunderstorm passing overhead failing to dampen their spirits. The photograph shows a similar meeting, some 60 years later. The formation of the Tyneside Naturalists’ Field Club within the Natural History Society, lead to a period of intense scientific development of the Society leading later to strong links with Armstrong College and eventually the University of Newcastle.


In 1878 plans were announced for the building of an even bigger and better Museum. John Hancock, a local naturalist and taxidermist, was the main organiser and fundraiser for the project; the new building owed its existence mainly to his energy and personal influence.

Among the many famous naturalists who have been members of the Natural History Society, John and Albany Hancock are probably the most well known. John (1808-1890) was an ornithologist, producing his Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham in 1874, but his greatest talent was as a taxidermist. He donated his magnificent collection of mounted British birds, many of which can still be seen today in the Northumbria Gallery of the Great North Museum: Hancock. His brother, Albany (1806-1873) was interested in the anatomy of sea creatures, especially sea slugs or nudibranchs, which he drew in minute detail. His watercolour drawings are held in the Society’s archives. They lived, with their sister Mary, at 4 St. Mary’s Terrace, a house opposite the site on which the Great North Museum: Hancock was built nearly fifty years later by the Society to which they dedicated their lives. A site was found at St. James’, Barras Bridge, and the New Museum of Natural History was built with three main rooms to display the collections, at the cost of over £40,000. The Prince and Princess of Wales officially opened the museum on the 20th August 1884 amid great celebrations hosted by Sir William and Lady Armstrong of Cragside. It was later renamed the Hancock Museum in 1891 in memory of the two distinguished brothers Albany and John Hancock who had worked so hard to spread the knowledge and love of natural history to the public. To read about the Royal Opening celebrations click here.


John Hancock died aged 83 years. The museum was renamed The Hancock Museum in memory of him and his brother Albany Hancock (d. 1873) in 1891.


In 1924, one of the Society members, W E Beck, leased the shooting rights over Gosforth Park, Newcastle-upon-Tyne from the owners, the High Gosforth Park Company. This was the beginning of the Gosforth Park bird sanctuary (now Gosforth Park Nature Reserve). In 1929, when ill-health forced Mr Beck to give up these rights, they were taken over by the Society Honorary Secretaries and it has been managed for wildlife by the Society ever since.

1939 - 1945

During the Second World War the Society had to make special arrangements to protect the museum and its collections from bombing. You can read about the Hancock Museum at War by following this link to our archives section click here.

1949 - 1951

Following the development of British bird ringing in the first half of the 20th century, members of the Society had been involved in catching and ringing seabirds on the Farne Islands. In 1949 the Society became the official ringer for birds on the islands and this important research work continues today. In 1951 the Society began a scheme to tag grey seals on the Farne Islands and to monitor breeding success. The result has been the longest period of continuous research in any British grey seal colony. The Society still publishes an annual report for the Farne Islands in partnership with the National Trust.


After the Second World War the Society was finding it increasingly difficult to raise the funds to run and curate the museum and maintain the ageing building, let alone make essential improvements. Various ideas were put forwards, including that of selling some of the ethnographic collection. Kings College (Newcastle University) came to the rescue and in 1960 an agreement was reached with the Society for a 99-year lease of the museum and the collections. The University was now responsible for the running of the museum and for the storage and preservation of the Society’s collection of specimens and artefacts. A Museum Management Committee was made responsible for the running of the Museum and the Society was represented on this, as it still is today.

1961 - 1962

In 1961-62 the Society played an important part in the birth of the Northumberland and Durham Naturalists’ Trust, which later went on to become the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Durham Wildlife Trust. Since then we have worked closely together and shared many trustees and members.


Access to the Society’s nature reserve is through the garden of Lake Lodge, a stone-built cottage, which belonged, like the reserve, to the High Gosforth Park Company. Lake Lodge was put up for sale and purchased by the Society in May 1970 in order to ensure access to the reserve and to provide accommodation for a volunteer on-site warden.

In 1975 the Society changed its name from the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne to the Natural History Society of Northumbria.


By the 1990‚ the Hancock Museum was in need of major investment to improve its visitor facilities and its outdated permanent displays. Access was difficult for wheelchair users, parents with buggies or anyone who found steep steps hard to climb. The glass roof of the building was over 100 years old and constantly needed repair and the original heating system could no longer provide the sort of environment which the collections require. Newcastle University led an ambitious project to redevelop the museum to make it a showcase for the North East in the 21st century. £26million of funding was secured to renovate the old building, create a new extension and bring into the museum some of the collections from the Society of Antiquities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (SANT) that were previously held in the Shefton Museum. A new storage facility was also created in the basement of the Discovery Museum to house over 500,000 of the Society’s items that are not on public display.

The Hancock Museum closed its doors to the public in April 2006 and was transformed into the award winning Great North Museum: Hancock, which re-opened in May 2009. As a result of the redevelopment the Society offices, Library and Archives are now located in a modern purpose built extension at the rear of the museum.

Present day

The Natural History Society of Northumbria still owns the Great North Museum: Hancock building, land and its many varied collections and continues to lease them to the University of Newcastle on whose behalf they are administered by Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums.

The Society still maintains its magnificent natural history library and archives and the nature reserve at Gosforth Park as well as carrying out research and promoting the study of the natural sciences by providing lectures, field outings and education courses and publishing scientific papers. Almost 190 years after its foundation, the Society remains very active with over 1,700 members.

Learn more about our history

If you are interested in finding out more about our history and some of our distinguished members and supporters from the past then we have a wealth of material for you to explore:

  • To celebrate our 100th birthday the Society’s then curator of the Hancock Museum, T. Russell Goddard, published a book, The History of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne 1829-1929. You can now download this book in sections: Pages 1-24,Pages 24-61, Pages 62-95, Pages 96-131, Pages 132-165, Pages 166-195 and a new Index. Alternatively this book is available from our library.
  • To celebrate our 150th birthday, the Society’s then Honorary Secretary, Grace Hickling MBE, published The Natural History Society of Northumbria 1929-1979. This book is available from our library and we also have some copies for sale.
  • Our archives contain thousands of letters, photos, notebooks, diaries and Society documents dating back to the start of the 19th century. To find out more about our archive material please click here.