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A Day to Remember

Newcastle celebrates the opening of a the New Museum of Natural History in 1884

John Hancock, ornithologist and professional taxidermist, was the man solely responsible for initiating and forging ahead with a proposal to build a grand new museum of Natural History in the outskirts of the city of Newcastle. The ever expanding collections of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle-on-Tyne had finally outgrown the Society’s ‘Newcastle Museum’, located at the rear of the Literary and Philosophical Society building on Westgate Road.

His project began in 1878 with the purchase of the land at Barras Bridge and the preparation of building plans followed by a major fund raising exercise. By 1883 his ambitious vision was nearly completed and The New Museum of Natural History (later renamed The Hancock Museum) was ready for business. Hancock’s remarkable achievement was publically acknowledged when the museum formally opened to the public, with great pomp and ceremony, on Tuesday 20th August, 1884.

The celebration was organised and presided over by the eminent local industrialist and philanthropist Sir William Armstrong and his wife Lady Armstrong. They were extremely well connected in London society circles and had been successful in arranging a Royal visit from their Royal Highnesses, the Prince and Princess of Wales, to officiate at the opening. The Princes’ children also attended, Prince Edward Victor, Prince George (later King George V) and the three princesses, Victoria, Maud and Louise.

On the morning of the opening the weather was cloudless and fine. The citizens of Newcastle decked their city with banners and flags and the streets were jammed with jubilant crowds of northerners. The Royal party began their day by opening Jesmond Dene, a magnificent new section of Armstrong Park, gifted to the people of Newcastle by Lord Armstrong. After lunch in the city centre, at St. George’s Hall, the cavalcade of coaches arrived at the museum, through streets thronged with eager spectators, waving flags and cheering.

The museum was filled with members and friends of the Natural History Society to offer a heartfelt welcome to the royal party. Lord Armstrong formally introduced the Prince to the doyen of the Society, John Hancock, who proceeded to lead the party around his newly furnished Bird Gallery. The Prince and his party were impressed by Hancock’s skill as a taxidermist, admiring the many mounted specimens and unrivalled large groups of birds. They continued on to the Geology Gallery to look at a display of rare coal fish fossils collected by the late Thomas Atthey, before returning to a purpose built dais in the middle of the bird room.

Lord Armstrong addressed the Prince, “Your Royal Highness – I have to express the pleasure of this Society at being honoured by the presence of your Royal Highness on this memorable occasion, and in the name of the Society I have the honour of asking you graciously to declare the museum open.”

The Prince replied, “I declare this museum now open”, followed by a resounding cheer from the gathering.

With the official business completed, the party retired to the newly appointed Ladies’ Room, in the West Corridor, to sign the Visitor’s Book and to take coffee.

The Prince and his family were very enthusiastic about their visit to the Museum but being short on time and having other civic duties to perform they were swiftly escorted back to their carriages through a Guard of Honour; a group of men from the Newcastle and Durham Engineer Volunteers, under the command of Captain Edmund Carr.

The Royal Party, after opening the new city’s new Public Library and completing their other duties were taken by train to Cragside in Rothbury, the home of Lord Armstrong, whose guests they were during their visit to Newcastle.

John Hancock had achieved his aim, to build a new museum showcasing his extensive British Bird collection, a legacy for local naturalists, as well as honouring the memories of both his brother Albany (1806-1873) and his great friend and mentor William Chapman Hewitson (1806-1878).

His hard work and persistence was recognised by his peers and after his death in 1890, at the age of 83 years, the Society renamed their museum – The Hancock Museum – after the two brothers who had been at the forefront of promoting the study of natural history in the North East.


We have copies of the official Royal Visit souvenir book in our archives and a signed visitors book.   Read about the official opening here.