In the early 1800s, the study of natural history was largely limited to those with the time and affluence to pursue it as a hobby. The Industrial Revolution was blazing its way across Britain at breakneck speed, with landscapes re-wrought by the introduction of railways and other large-scale urban developments, and while this prompted concern over loss of habitats and increasing threats to our nation’s flora and fauna, these were overshadowed in popular consciousness by the intrigue, excitement and unrelenting envelopment of this deluge of new technology. What we have now come to know as ‘outreach’ did not yet exist, and culture across its various disciplines – whether art, literature, music, theatre, history or science – was only accessible to those who could afford it.
But in 1829, a small offshoot group of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society started to change that. Embarking on a 190-year journey that would lead them to become one of the first organisations to open a museum to the public free of charge, take over the protection of one of the most important nature reserves in the North, publish their own magazine so that they could share nationally-significant biological artwork and groundbreaking scientific discoveries in the region with the rest of the country, and lead their local community out on field trips that had never before been available to them, the Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN) ignited a passion for nature in the North East that is still going strong today.
‘There was a lot to discover in natural history in the early 1800s,’ reasons Clare Freeman, Director of the NHSN. ‘The Lit & Phil Society was very much about indoor meetings, debates, discussion, but it was deemed by a group of its members that it would be beneficial to have more of an outdoor focus – to be able to go out on field trips, and concentrate specifically on natural history.
‘You had a lot of wealthy gentlemen (and they did tend to be predominantly gentlemen) whose hobby was natural history, but they also wanted to share their knowledge. That was ultimately why the NHSN was established. One way they did that was they started delivering evening lectures to enable the working classes to attend. A little later, they started reaching out to a younger audience with Saturday talks too, and some of our members would regularly take long journeys down to London to talk to the government about the value and importance of keeping culture free for everybody. So it would be easy to think of us as a cliquey, dusty old society, but in actual fact we’ve always been really proactive about reaching out and sharing our passion for the natural world as much as possible.’
By 1831, the Society’s collection of specimens, artefacts and biological illustrations had grown so much that they had to rent a storeroom, and subscriptions were raised in order to build a museum to permanently house them all behind the Lit & Phil Society. Having experimented with opening this museum to the public free of charge one evening a month – an incentive many other museums in the country quickly copied – the NHSN’s popularity grew so much that their museum was welcoming more than 44,000 visitors a year by 1848.
Just 30 years later, plans were announced for the building of an even bigger and better museum, led largely by local naturalists John and Albany Hancock. A site was found at St. James’, Barras Bridge, and the New Museum of Natural History was officially opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1884, amid great celebrations hosted by Sir William and Lady Armstrong of Cragside. It was renamed the Hancock Museum in 1891, in memory of the two distinguished brothers who dedicated their lives to the NHSN, and still stands proudly today as Great North Museum: Hancock.
The prestige of the NHSN’s alumni is remarkable testament to the role the North East has played in the advancement of ecological conservation. The Society’s journal, Northumbrian Naturalist, contains groundbreaking research by renowned figures such Joshua Alder, the Hancock brothers, Henry Bowman Brady and Thomas Atthey, and the NHSN also protects an important archive of the works of the North East’s most famous and talented naturalist, Thomas Bewick. But it has undoubtedly been its ability to engage with the local community that has fortified the NHSN’s place within the cultural landscape of the North East for the last 190 years.
‘Whether or not it’s our volunteers, our trustees, our staff or our partners, the success of the NHSN is down to the coming together of people who are passionate about the natural history of the region and who want to do something positive to protect it,’ says Clare. ‘Unless everyone cares, conservation doesn’t stand a chance.’
The widening of access to natural history was one of the foundations the Society was built upon. Less than a year after ensuring the public could access their first museum for free, they were inviting disabled children and charity schools to visit their collections. Evening lectures brought people together, and field meetings – together with the formation of the Tyneside Naturalists’ Field Club – cemented those close relationships. Having not only welcomed, but actively encouraged engagement with anyone with an interest in natural history since their beginnings, the NHSN has successfully created a community that has led to many collaborations with wildlife, civic and scientific organisations over the course of their history.
‘When we were digging around our archives to produce the 190th booklet, we found that in 1961 the NHSN produced a poster that read: “a bird in the bush is worth a brace in the hand”, and had distributed 1,000 of these posters to local pubs,’ Clare says. ‘I just love that, how they were doing everything to spread their message. But that same message is, sadly, still so relevant today. There is this continuity and you have the strands that inspired the members to form the Society in 1829 still running through our work now.
‘That’s really a unique quality of working here: the fact that we are continuing work that was started nearly 200 years ago. That’s why, when we found a photograph from the 100th birthday gathering at The Hancock Museum in 1929, we thought it would be nice to recreate that same photo of the current NHSN’s members sitting on the front steps during our own anniversary party this year.’
Having just celebrated 190 years as a society, looking back through their long and prestigious history has helped the NHSN formulate their new 10-year development strategy: Towards 2029. The result of more than a year of hard work, pilots, countless community workshops and the input of hundreds of supporters, the Towards 2029 project will see the NHSN work harder than ever to develop public support for the natural world – not only on our doorstep but further afield too, in the context of the ecological emergency that we are all now facing.
‘We’ve been able to dive back into our history recently, but have done so to look outwards, way beyond the NHSN, to what’s happening in the region, what’s happening nationally and internationally and what are some of the greatest pressures on conservation right now,’ explains Clare. ‘Part of our records are annual reports, which are fascinating to read. What’s really impressive is that some of the concerns we have today were exactly what drove the setting up of the Society and its success in the early years. Back then, they very much wanted to protect local flora, positively influence landowners, protect birds of prey from persecution, and make sure that they were reaching out to all members of the community in their efforts. Because people will not protect what they don’t know about and don’t care about. Natural history is a wonderful heritage asset, but can easily be overlooked.
‘It was really interesting when there was the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral, because there was a huge amount of fundraising immediately overnight. But in the conservation sector there was quite a backlash, because their argument was: this is ridiculous, we’re destroying the Amazon Rainforest, we’ve lost 95 percent of our lowland meadows in the last 90 years, we’ve lost huge amounts of ancient woodland, why are we so concerned about one building? A building we can replace, but the insidious decline and lack of conservation of valuable habitats can never be reversed. Once a species becomes extinct or you’ve lost a habitat, that’s it.’
We are all increasingly aware that human activities have resulted in significant biodiversity declines, continued wildlife persecution, unsustainable resource consumption, urbanisation, pollution and, perhaps most worrying of all, a public disconnection with nature. And it is these things that the NHSN’s new Towards 2029 strategy seeks to combat by nurturing a growing appetite for change within our local community.
Something that promises to be particularly big on the Society’s agenda is their targeted support of young people in the region. Their new series of 1829 Talks – which give early-career scientists experience presenting their findings in front of an audience – harks back to the NHSN’s pioneering series of Saturday talks in the 19th century, and their Lantern Fund hopes to inspire energy and enthusiasm for conservation among younger children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, by raising money to fund field trips.
‘We’re really focused on reaching out to a younger audience,’ Clare explains. ‘We currently work with Children North East and Wild Intrigue to deliver a programme of field trips and events as part of our new Lantern Fund, but we’re also looking into working with some more children’s charities south of the Tyne so that we can make sure we are reaching the whole of the North East. But, already, the difference we can see this project has made to some children is huge. We’re able to give them opportunities which can actually be quite life-changing.’
For 190 years, the NHSN has been a pioneering force within the North East. Dedicating themselves to protecting our region’s landscapes at a time when others were tearing them up in the name of progress, they also found new and exciting ways to bring their own passion for nature into conversation with their local community and, by doing so, have helped to ensure the continued survival of a number of rare animals and plant species from the Tees up to the Tweed. Many of their members are volunteers, committing their time and energy to a variety of projects because of their belief in the Society’s importance to our region, and fuelled by the positive results they can see on a daily basis in the fight against climate change and urbanisation. Having successfully created and maintained a community in which people from all ages and backgrounds can come together, the NHSN look set to continue inspiring wonder for the natural world for years to come.
To find out more about the work of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, visit www.nhsn.ncl.ac.uk