John Hancock: A Biography by T Russell Goddard (1929)

Oil painting after a photograph taken by J W Swan

John Hancock was born in his father’s house at the north end of Tyne Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on February 24th, 1808. His love of birds and desire to collect them appear to have developed very early. We have it on the authority of his sister Mary that when a little boy of about four years of age he used to run about the fields at Bensham, where his father had taken a house, trying to catch the birds. In 1812, after his father’s death, his mother furnished a house beyond the Windmill Hills, Gateshead, which was then right out in the open country. Here during the summer months John and Mary Hancock hunted the fields and hedges for birds, plants and insects. John Hancock first attended the school of the Misses Prowitt which was situated down an entry off Pilgrim Street. Later he was sent to the school of Henry Atkinson on the High Bridge, which at that time was the best in the town.

During the summer the family used to go to the coast for a period, either to Tynemouth or Cullercoats and here the children had an opportunity to observe marine animals and plants. At home in Newcastle during the winter they amused themselves and their friends with private theatricals, puppet shows, games and dances. John, we learn, was usually the life and soul of the party and made it his business to look after the little ones and those who were shy or neglected.

When he left school he joined his eldest brother Thomas in the saddlery and ironmongery business at the shop at the end of Tyne Bridge. He soon found business irksome, however, and longed for freedom to pursue his natural history interests. He therefore entered into an arrangement with his brother which enabled him to give up the business altogether. At this time he was collecting birds, insects, shells and plants and commenced to skin and stuff birds himself. He was on friendly terms with Richard Wingate, the well-known Newcastle taxidermist, and spent much time in his workshop. A specimen of the Golden Plover which he considered his first successful attempt at taxidermy is in the Hancock Museum. It was mounted before 1829.

As a young man he thought nothing of leaving home at three o’clock in the morning and walking to the coast and back, especially at the seasons of the migration of birds. He was an excellent shot and collected the majority of his specimens himself. He appears to have been the first to notice the specific distinction between the Whooper and Bewick’s Swan in January, 1829, but he left it to others to publish the fact.

As a young man John Hancock became interested in modelling in clay and casting in plaster. Several plaster casts of his clay models still decorate the Hancock Museum, and the two eagles in hardened lead surmounting the stone gate-posts at the entrance to the museum grounds are also his work. He also executed a number of wood-engravings. His most successful is a gorged Iceland Falcon which he engraved in 1845.

His collecting expedition to Norway with his friends William Hewitson and Benjamin Johnson in 1833 has already been mentioned in William Hewitson’s biographical sketch.  In 1845 he and William Hewitson went on an expedition to Switzerland. They travelled up the Rhine to Cologne and John Hancock heard the nightingale singing for the first time in his life on the banks of this beautiful river.

He was keenly interested in falconry and delighted in training peregrines and merlins. He trained some of his birds on the Newcastle Town Moor.

In 1851 he contributed a series of mounted birds to the Great Exhibition which was held in Hyde Park, London. Three of the exhibits illustrated different aspects of falconry and a fourth was a Lämmergeier from Switzerland. These specimens are still on exhibition in the Bird Room at the Hancock Museum. The exhibits at the Great Exhibition created a considerable amount of enthusiasm, and John Hancock’s national reputation as a taxidermist dates from this time. His work was generally recognised as a distinct advance upon anything of the kind which had been seen before. In place of the old stereotyped attitudes John Hancock with great artistic skill had succeeded in creating a semblance of life in his specimens. He specialised in mounting birds of prey and his collection, now in the Hancock Museum, is one of the finest in existence of this particular group of birds.

In 1874 his “Catalogue of the Birds of Northumberland and Durham,” with fourteen photographic copper plates from drawings by the author, was published as Volume VI. of the Natural History Transactions of Northumberland and Durham. In addition to this volume he published twenty papers in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, the Transactions of the Tyneside Naturalist’s Field Club and the Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle- upon- Tyne. He also prepared the Synopsis and revised the nomenclature for the 1847 edition of Bewick’s “British Birds.” His first paper “Remarks on the Greenland and Iceland Falcons, shewing they are distinct species” was published in the British Association Report for 1838.

John Hancock, was one of the original members of the Tyneside Naturalists’ Field Club and a Vice-President of the Natural History Society. The prominent part he played in connection with the planning and erection of the new museum building at Barras Bridge, and his generosity in presenting his extensive and valuable collections to the Society, have already been dealt with in previous chapters of this history. At one period of his life he devoted much attention to landscape gardening and he planned and laid out a number of beautiful gardens for his friends.

Finally a word should be said about his character and temperament. His habits are said to have been of Spartan simplicity and temperance. He was kind and gentle, patient and ever ready to take the upmost pains to explain to others problems in natural history which he had worked out himself. All children and all animals loved him. He was never tired of teaching the former how to collect and preserve their specimens and he was ever solicitous of the comfort and welfare of the latter. A friend of his, now also passed away, once told the author the following story which casts a clear light upon his character and his understanding of the feelings of inarticulate animals. He had been spending a period at Newbiggin on the coast of Northumberland studying and collecting birds in company with his dog. The time for his return to Newcastle arrived and he decided to travel by train. This was in the early days of railways. When he arrived at the station he discovered that the dog was terrified at the locomotive and showed great reluctance to go anywhere near the train.  John Hancock, therefore, rather than submit his canine friend to a prolonged period of terror turned his back upon the station and the two of them walked back to Newcastle together.

On October 11th, 1890, he died at his house at the end of St. Mary’s Terrace opposite to the museum at the age of eighty-three years. He was survived by his sister Mary who had devoted the whole of her life to the comfort and welfare of her two bachelor brothers.


GODDARD, T R (1929).  The History of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne 1829-1929. pp.171-176.