Visit North East: Great North Museum

The Great North Museum, previously known as the Hancock, sits on a small hill at the Haymarket at the top end of Newcastle. When I was a child, the Hancock seemed like a ‘proper’ museum – we had to pay to visit, and it had an old-fashioned feel to it. I distinctly remember a school trip to see the dinosaur exhibition and crying at the incredibly realistic diorama of a family of woolly mammoths drowning in a swamp.

In recent years, they’ve got rid of the Noah’s Ark full of stuffed animals and opened out the main hall, creating displays where you can see the animals in their native environments, and making it a lot more welcoming. They also have a very cool planetarium with different shows to choose from, which I might have enjoyed more than my goddaughter. You have to pre-book and pay for these, but the general admission is now free.

The History of the Building

The sandstone front of the Great North MuseumThe Great North Museum is housed in a purpose-built, sandstone building, with two floors of exhibition space. After it outgrew its original site on Westgate Road, the current home was built in 1884. John Hancock, a taxidermist, and his older brother, Albany, a biologist and naturalist, were both big supporters of the museum, and were instrumental in its opening.

The new museum was known as the ‘New Museum of Natural History’ and was immediately a success. Much of this was down to the hard work of John Hancock, who secured much of the funding that was required. On his death in 1890, the museum was renamed ‘The Hancock’.

In his will, John left his British bird collection to the museum, many of which are still on display today, which goes to show how good he was at taxidermy. I’m not a fan of birds and had to close my eyes when going through the old display room.

The History of the Hancock Museum

Part of the museum collection, although not the museum itself, dates back to around 1780. Marmaduke Tunstall, a collector and ornithologist, began accumulating natural history objects from around the world.

Tunstall, also the author of Ornithologica Britannica, was a Yorkshireman who founded his first museum in London, which later moved to Wycliffe, which is now County Durham. On his death in 1771, his half-brother William inherited his estate, including the museum collection.

The north-east based natural history writer Thomas Bewick was invited by William Constable to study the bird

A green field, with a stone building to the right and a white tower to the left

The view from the steps of the Great North Museum

collection, which led to its purchase by the Newcastle Society in 1822. This was the beginning of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne Museum, an offshoot of the Literary and Philosophical Society.

The museum opened on Westgate Road, Newcastle, in 1834, not too far from the current site. Local businessman William Armstrong was an early supporter, and donated £11,500 to help it get started. Other founders included zoologist Joshua Alder (who was featured on BBC2’s amazing ‘A House Through Time’ – definitely worth checking out) and the Hancock brothers.


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