Hancock, John (‘John Hancock II’) (1762–1823), quaker linen manufacturer, merchant, and philanthropist, was born in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, son of John Hancock, one of the Society of Friends, who had inherited a family business near Lisburn, and his second wife, Betty (née Hunter). John Hancock I died young (1764), bequeathing £1,000 to fund a school in Lisburn (still in existence as ‘Friends’ School’ in 2004). One of his two sons died in 1769. The other, John Hancock II, was educated at quaker schools in England and in Lisburn, and was apprenticed to his uncle. Despite a family dispute, his inheritance was safeguarded by trustees, and at his majority he took over a thriving linen business. He was one of the leaders of efforts to persuade the quakers to reform their governance and regulations, and became notorious among British as well as Irish quakers for innovations in his mode of life and doctrine. After a celebrated test case in 1801 which led to a schism known as ‘the quaker separation’ in the Irish Society of Friends, John Hancock II withdrew from the Society, publishing several pamphlets on his reasons for so doing, which were published in England and America as well as in Ireland.
Hancock was noted for philanthropy: in 1800, a year of scarcity, he sold flour and meal at cost price to the poor, and is said to have imported from America for that purpose 200 tons of cornmeal, the first seen in Ulster. In 1817 he supported a school where girls learned to spin flax into thread on newly invented two-handed spinning-wheels, provided by Hancock and his friend John Rogers. With another friend, Jonathan Richardson (qv), he pioneered the techniques of keeping a bleach-green going throughout the year, using chemicals.
Hancock is said to have been captured by United Irish rebels in Wexford and threatened at gunpoint; he was later treated well on account of his being a quaker. Despite this experience, he remained deeply interested in liberal and even radical politics. His commitment to enlightenment values was expressed in his numerous articles in the Belfast Monthly Magazine over the pseudonym ‘K’: some sources say he was editor for a time. He supported catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery, and was instrumental in 1811 in having the law changed to reduce the penalty for linen-stealing from death to transportation; he had refused to prosecute men who stole linen from his bleach-green. He was secretary of a society called ‘the Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty’, and publicly opposed the Orange order.
He married (1784) Sarah, daughter of Thomas Greer, of an important quaker family from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. One of their six children was William John Hancock, land agent and later stipendiary magistrate, who died 29 August 1848 of typhus fever contracted during his work, having married Mary, daughter of Samuel Neilson (qv) and granddaughter of William Bryson (qv) (d. 1815), who was said to be a remarkable woman. Their second son, William Neilson Hancock (1820–88), professor and public servant, was born 22 April 1820 at the Castle, Lisburn; his sister Elizabeth married James Thomson (qv) (d. 1892). William, a member of the Church of Ireland, attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution 1830–34, boarding with the celebrated Rev. Henry Montgomery (qv), and then went to the Royal School, Dungannon. In 1838 he entered TCD, winning a Royal School exhibition of £50 annually. He won several awards in mathematics, and was senior moderator in mathematics in his final examinations. With John Kells Ingram (qv) and others, he took part in discussions on law reform and politics in college societies, before graduating (BA 1843). He had kept terms at the Inner Temple and at King's Inns, Dublin, and in 1844 was called to the bar. In 1846 he took his LLB, and in the same year his outstanding performance in his degree examinations secured for him the chair of political economy at TCD. In 1849 he was awarded an LLD, and from 1849 to 1853 was professor of political economy and jurisprudence at QCB, holding his chair there jointly with his Dublin post until 1851. He was secretary to the Dublin University commission (1851–53), and afterwards held other administrative posts, including that of 'clerk of the custody of papers in matters of idiots and lunatics' in the court of chancery from 1855. Hancock was (from 1861) one of the secretaries of the English and Irish law and chancery commission, secretary of the Irish admiralty commission (1862), and secretary of the Irish railways commission (1869). He became a QC in May 1880, and in October 1881 became keeper of the records of the Irish land commission. He held from 1882 the office of clerk of the crown and hanaper, retiring from ill health with a special pension to reward his many valuable services. One of his most important roles was in compiling and reporting on Irish criminal and judicial statistics from 1863. Although his responsibilities in this area were somewhat reduced after 1873, when other government departments were set up, he prepared reports on the statistics and was also responsible for reports on local taxation and on bank accounts and savings deposits in Ireland. His recommendations were sometimes of practical importance; he is said by Ingram to have completely reorganised the accounting system of the court of chancery. His suggestion (1850) that the ordnance survey maps should be the basis of a new registry of deeds and judgments for Ireland was not acted on, but might well have produced a more streamlined system of land transfer. He opposed indirect taxation, and held that income tax should be totally reformed.
Hancock published pamphlets on political and economic subjects from as early as 1845, and it was at his suggestion that the Dublin Statistical Society was founded in 1847. He was its first secretary (jointly with James Lawson (qv)) from 1849 to 1881, and its president in 1881–2, and was perhaps the most influential member. The society's proceedings contain many of his contributions on social and economic matters. Hancock was able to add legal reform to its formal objects after 1855, when it merged with the Belfast Social Inquiry Society, which he also founded. In both societies and in his publications, he strongly advocated his belief that Ireland's economic problems arose primarily from legal obstacles to efficient transfer of land and capital, rather than from any innate moral or social weakness of the population, and he tended to play down the importance of other factors such as absenteeism. He developed an expertise in the history of law, and was joint editor with John O'Donovan (qv) and Thaddeus O'Mahony of two volumes of early Irish laws, published in 1865. Hancock's grasp of economic theory, his interest in a wide range of social and political questions of the day, and his apparently unwearying industry resulted in over 130 publications (listed in McEldowney's bibliographical appendix to his article in the Irish Jurist). His influence on politics and on the development of government social and economic policies seems to have been important, but in general was behind the scenes, rather than public. His memoranda to Gladstone and to acquaintances such as Thomas O'Hagan (qv), lord chancellor of Ireland, were taken into account in the preparation of legislation on the land question, and his opinion on such topics as the crown prosecution system in Ireland carried weight. He died 10 July 1888 of angina pectoris at his brother-in-law's house in Glasgow, and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin, on 17 July 1888.
He married (1858) Mary Anne (‘Nannie’; d. 1892), youngest daughter of James Haughton (qv); they had no children.