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Peter D. A. Boyd

The Young Charles Darwin - student, naturalist and gardener

Peter D. A. Boyd

Web version of

BOYD, P.D.A. 2009. 'The Young Charles Darwin - student, naturalist and gardener'. In Proceedings of International Conference Bioscience and Society: Biodiversity - Diversity of Living Systems. Ljubljana, Slovenia / Mednarodni posvet Biološka Znanost in Družba: Biodiverziteta – Raznolikost Živih Sistemov. 1st & 2nd October 2009, Ljubljana, Slovenia. [with colour versions of images and some extra images with captions that were not included in the original publication]

Charles Darwin (aged about 6 years)

[©English Heritage Photo Library By kind permission of Darwin Heirlooms Trust].


Charles Darwin was one of the most important scientists who ever lived. He was born in 1809 (200 years ago) in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. He was fortunate to have a wealthy father who was a doctor and be part of an intelligent and educated family. He lived in a large house called 'The Mount' with servants and a large garden, on the edge of the town and open countryside. He had developed a strong interest in natural history before he attended his first school at the age of eight, having been taught previously by his mother, brother and sisters. Many poor children of his age never had the opportunity to attend school. However, he was unfortunate because his mother died soon after he started at day school. He was sent to Shrewsbury Grammar School as a boarder for seven years where he studied Latin and Greek but little that interested him. Science was not taught in schools at that time but Charles developed his knowledge by collecting natural history specimens and helping his older brother with Chemistry experiments at home. He was not an exceptional child at school but his father taught him about observation, recording and analysis of information in the garden and surgery, assisting with his patients and diagnosing illnesses. This prepared him for Edinburgh University where he studied to become a doctor but he 'dropped out' because he did not like operations or dissections and was sent to Cambridge University to train for The Church (to become a priest). However, both in Edinburgh and Cambridge he disliked lectures, preferring to read about the subjects in books and spent most of his time having a good time with his friends and collecting beetles. However, he worked hard enough to pass examinations and achieved a good Bachelor of Arts Degree as a first step to becoming a clergyman. That career path was cut short because he had impressed influential professors and lecturers who admired his scientific prowess at a time when the study of natural history (studying the wonders of God's Creation) was considered an appropriate pastime for a clergyman! He was recommended for the role of ship's naturalist on the survey ship 'The Beagle' because of his natural history skills and because he was 'a gentleman' of the right social background to be the captain's companion. His self-motivated study of plants, animals and rocks commenced as a child in Shrewsbury and encouraged at last by perceptive teachers, propelled him into a new direction. However, his five year voyage on The Beagle around the world and his subsequent life of research would have been impossible if his father had not supported him financially and later, when he married, invested a large sum of money, the income from which supported his research, wife and family. He had been raised in a one-parent family and did not do well at school where his interests were dismissed as a waste of time. However, he had the support of his family and eventually, at university, found the support of teachers who recognised his potential.



Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England on 12th February 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars with France. His birthplace was a house called 'The Mount' built by his father, Robert Darwin, in an elevated position overlooking the town. Charles spent his childhood in Shrewsbury but left it to attend university from 1825-1831 and for his voyage on 'The Beagle' 1831-1836. However, Shrewsbury remained his home and it was Shrewsbury and his family to which he returned between terms from university and after his great voyage. Although he spent most of the rest of his life living in London and Kent, he continued to visit Shrewsbury until his father's death in 1848 and later.



Shrewsbury is the County Town of Shropshire. Shropshire is England's largest inland county with Wales bordering it on its west side. The historic town centre of Shrewsbury is within a loop of the River Severn. It is well known for its historic buildings including Norman castle, medieval abbey, timber-framed tudor buildings, fine churches and museums. The remains of the Roman town of Viroconium (Uriconium) at Wroxeter and the Ironbridge Gorge ('Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution') are nearby.

Shrewsbury viewed from Sutton. 19th century. Watercolour by J. Bather (Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery)

Shrewsbury is surrounded by beautiful countryside of hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, moors and mountains with diverse geology and natural habitats. The coast of Wales is not far away. This was the countryside in which Charles Darwin was brought up and which influenced his lifelong interest in natural history.


The Darwin Family in Shrewsbury

Charles Darwin was born into a family of intelligent, influential and shrewd people. His father was Dr Robert Darwin. In 1786, Robert's father, Erasmus Darwin, took him to Shrewsbury from Derby and left him, with Ł20 in his pocket, to set up a medical practice in Shrewsbury. From that start as a young doctor of 20, he was to become one of the richest and most influential men in Shropshire and the West Midlands.

In 1796, Robert married Susannah Wedgwood, first child of Josiah Wedgwood I, the pottery manufacturer of Etruria near Stoke, Staffordshire. The marriage made the up-and-coming doctor more secure financially and led to an increase in the number of 'useful contacts' as a physician and entrepreneur.

In about 1799, he built the house called 'The Mount' on high ground at Frankwell, overlooking the River Severn and Shrewsbury. The Mount was a large, plain, square, red-brick house, 'of which the most attractive feature was the pretty green-house, opening out of the morning room'. Dr Darwin loved his garden, planting it with a wide variety of trees, shrubs and other plants. He and other members of the family maintained a 'perennial garden diary' recording details of flowerings and fruiting in the kitchen garden, pleasure gardens and glasshouses of The Mount. The doctor travelled about his lucrative practice, covering more than three counties, in a yellow chaise (a type of horse-drawn carriage). He was a physician to rich and poor alike and much respected. He was also a shrewd businessman and part of his wealth came from his sidelines - property speculation and lending money to the landed gentry.

Dr Robert Darwin (1766-1848) and his wife Susannah (1765-1817) had 6 children:

Marianne 1798-1858
Caroline Sarah 1800-1888
Susan Elizabeth 1803-1866
Erasmus Alvey 1804-1881
Charles Robert 1809-1882
Emily Catherine 1810-1866.

Charles's sisters had a great influence on his upbringing and were important correspondents, keeping him in touch with news of Shrewsbury when he was away from it. Susan Darwin lived at The Mount until her death in 1866. She was the last member of the Darwin Family to live there. The sale details of the house and its contents provide an insight into the nature of the household and way of life of the Darwins in Shrewsbury.

Lot 1 MANSION HOUSE, called "THE MOUNT", Shrewsbury, containing Dining Room, Drawing Room, Morning Room opening into Conservatory, Library, Fourteen Bedrooms with suitable Dressing Rooms, Kitchens and all usual offices, ample Cellaring, very extensive Stabling, Coach Houses, &c., Conservatories, Fernery, Forcing Frames, extensive walled Garden, Pleasure Grounds, and adjoining piece of Land, the whole containing 37,752 square yards, or 7a. 3r. 8p., and standing in an elevated position on the Banks of the River Severn, commanding extensive and beautiful scenery, and fit for the immediate reception of any family, and lately occupied by Miss Darwin.


Lot 2 GARDENER'S HOUSE with Garden attached, Coach-house, Stable, &c., comprising 320 square yards, in the immediate vicinity of Lot 1.

The plan which accompanied the particulars shows four or five glasshouses: a 'conservatory' leading off the house, a 'plant stove' (for tropical plants), 'vineries' (for growing grape vines) and, in the walled kitchen garden, a 'greenhouse'. The kitchen garden also had a 'tool house' and 'shed'. There was a concentric circular parterre with an adjacent summerhouse and another summerhouse closer to the house. There was an Ice House on the slope facing the River Severn.

The Darwin family was wealthy and had several house servants, gardeners and a coachman. The Mount was not just a house and garden but was also the 'Home Farm' for the far more extensive Darwin properties.

Figure 1. The Mount with adjoining conservatory greenhouse. Photograph c.1860 (Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery)


Figure 2. Plan of the buildings and garden at The Mount in 1866 (coloured by Peter Boyd)


Charles Darwin as a boy in Shrewsbury

Charles's earliest memories were of a time when he was four years old, when the Darwin family went to the Welsh coast for sea-bathing but he seems to have remembered little else from his childhood until he was seven or eight years old.

Figure 3: Charles Darwin (aged about 6 years) holding a Lachenalia plant from one of the greenhouses and Catherine (aged 5 years) in 1816.

[©English Heritage Photo Library By kind permission of Darwin Heirlooms Trust].

As a young boy, Charles was educated by his mother and by his sister Caroline when his mother became ill. Charles considered that his education by Caroline had not been very successful:

"I have been told that I was much slower in learning than my younger sister Catherine, and I believe that I was in many ways a naughty boy. Caroline was extremely kind, clever and zealous; but she was too zealous in trying to improve me; for I clearly remember after this long interval of years, saying to myself when about to enter a room where she was-"What will she blame me for now?" and I made myself dogged [determined] so as not to care what she might say".

In the spring of 1817, Charles was sent to a day-school in Shrewsbury kept by Rev G. Case, the Minister of the Unitarian Chapel on the High Street in Shrewsbury. Charles remained a pupil of the Rev. Case for a year. The Rev Case's house with schoolroom overlooked the churchyard of St. Chad's Church. Charles's mother Susannah Darwin was a Unitarian and had attended Rev. Case's chapel with Charles and her other children. However, both Charles and his brother Erasmus had been christened in St. Chad's Church (Church of England) soon after their birth because, at that time, it was difficult to advance in society and a profession if you were not a member of the Anglican Church. It is significant that the Unitarian Church (attended by the Wedgwood side of the family) encouraged more freedom of thought than the dogmatic Church of England. After his early boyhood and the death of his mother, Charles usually attended St Chad's Church rather than the Unitarian Chapel.

Figure 4: Caroline Darwin 1816 (aged about 16 years) by Sharples.

[©English Heritage Photo Library. By kind permission of Darwin Heirlooms Trust].

Charles remembered little about his mother:

"My mother died in July 1817, when I was a little over eight years old, and it is odd that I can remember hardly anything about her except her death-bed, her black velvet gown, and her curiously constructed work-table. I believe that my forgetfulness is partly due to my sisters, owing to their great grief, never being able to speak about her or mention her name; and partly to her previous invalid state".

Charles stated that he had been "born a naturalist" but he had certainly developed a strong interest in natural history and collecting man-made objects by the time that he was eight years old:

"By the time I went to this day-school my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to make out the names of plants, and collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion for collecting, which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso or a miser, was very strong in me, and was clearly innate, as none of my sisters or brother ever had this taste".

Figure 5: Erasmus Darwin 1816 - Charles Darwin's brother (aged about 12 years) by Sharples.

[©English Heritage Photo Library. By kind permission of Darwin Heirlooms Trust].

All members of the Darwin Family were enthusiastic gardeners. Robert had filled his large garden with native British and exotic trees, shrubs and other plants. The 'tender' plants that needed to be protected from frost were grown in their conservatory and greenhouses. Susannah and his sisters had worked in the garden at The Mount with Charles. The earliest portrait of Charles (aged 7 years old) is a charming painting showing him holding a potted plant of Lachenalia (a tender bulbous plant from South Africa) that was probably grown by Charles in one of the glasshouses.

Charles remembered:

"One little event during this year [at Rev. Case's school] has fixed itself very firmly in my mind, and I hope that it has done so from my conscience having been afterwards sorely troubled by it; it is curious as showing that apparently I was interested at this early age in the variability of plants! I told another little boy (I believe it was Leighton, who afterwards become a well-known Lichenologist and botanist) that I could produce variously coloured Polyanthuses and Primroses by watering them with certain coloured fluids, which was of course a monstrous fable, and had never been tried by me". [This was William Allport Leighton who later became a Founder of Shrewsbury Museum]

Of course, it is actually possible to make a white flower coloured by placing the base of a flowering stem (e.g. a carnation) in a coloured solution or even splitting the stem to take up dye from two different solutions. During the course of a few hours, the white flower takes up the colour of the dye. Charles would have enjoyed this experiment if he had tried it!

A later account by William Leighton quoted by Francis Darwin provides an insight into the botanical education that Charles received from his mother when he was a boy. Leighton remembered Charles bringing a flower to the Rev. Case's school and saying that his mother had taught him how by looking at the inside of the blossom, the name of the plant could be discovered. Leighton recounted that "This greatly roused my attention and curiosity, and I inquired of him repeatedly how this could be done?" However, Charles had clearly not remembered his mother's lesson on the classification of plants through the structure of the flowers very well because he could not explain how looking into a flower could help identify it!

Charles was very honest in his recollections:

"I may here also confess that as a little boy I was much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was always done for the sake of causing excitement. For instance, I once gathered much valuable fruit from my Father's trees and hid them in the shrubbery, and then ran in breathless haste to spread the news that I had discovered a hoard of stolen fruit".

Robert Darwin wisely undermined the intended affect of these falsehoods by making little of these 'discoveries' rather than accusing Charles of being a liar. However, Charles also admitted that:

"About this time, or as I hope at a somewhat earlier age, I sometimes stole fruit for the sake of eating it; and one of my schemes was ingenious. The kitchen garden was kept locked in the evening, and was surrounded by a high wall, but by the aid of neighbouring trees I could easily get on the coping. I then fixed a long stick into the hole at the bottom of a rather large flower-pot, and by dragging this upwards pulled off peaches and plums, which fell into the pot and the prizes were thus secured". [This kitchen garden wall with the stone slabs along the top can still be seen although the kitchen garden itself no longer exists].

In the summer of 1818, a year after his mother's death, Charles was sent to Shrewsbury Grammar School at which Dr. Butler was the Headmaster. He remained there for seven years until Mid-summer 1825 when he was sixteen years old. He boarded at this school, sleeping there rather than living at home at The Mount with his family. He stated that this gave him "the great advantage of living the life of a true school-boy" but as the school was little more than a mile from his home he often ran back there in evening, returning to the school before it was locked up at night:

"This I think was in many ways advantageous to me by keeping up home affections and interests. I remember in the early part of my school life that I often had to run very quickly to be in time, and from being a fleet runner was generally successful; but when in doubt I prayed earnestly to God to help me, and I well remember that I attributed my success to the prayers and not to my quick running, and marvelled how generally I was aided".

Figure 6: Exterior of Shrewsbury School. Pencil and wash picture by C.W. Radclyffe. Early 19th century. [Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery].

Figure 7: The School Room, Shrewsbury School. Pencil and wash picture by C.W. Radclyffe. Early 19th century. [Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery]

As a young boy, Charles liked going for long solitary walks and, on one occasion, was so absorbed with his thoughts that he walked off a footpath along the medieval town walls and fell seven or eight feet (about 2.5m.) to the ground. He recounted:

"the number of thoughts which passed through my mind during this very short, but sudden and wholly unexpected fall, was astonishing, and seem hardly compatible with what physiologists have, I believe, proved about each thought requiring quite an appreciable amount of time".

Charles considered that he had been a humane boy who hated cruelty to animals but he stated that he owed this entirely to the instruction and example of his sisters:

"I doubt indeed whether humanity is a natural or innate quality. I was very fond of collecting eggs, but I never took more than a single egg out of a bird's nest, except on one single occasion, when I took all, not for their value, but from a sort of bravado".

Strangely, he was more concerned about the worms used for bait when fishing than the fish that he was seeking to catch:

"I had a strong taste for angling, and would sit for any number of hours on the bank of a river or pond watching the float; when at Maer I was told that I could kill the worms with salt and water, and from that day I never spitted [put on a fishing hook] a living worm, though at the expense, probably, of some loss of success". [N.B. Maer was home of his uncle Josiah Wedgwood II and his cousins - about 20 miles from Shrewsbury]

With regard to insect collecting he had similar concerns:

"I must have observed insects with some little care, for when ten years old (1819) I went for three weeks to Plas Edwards on the sea-coast in Wales, I was very much interested and surprised at seeing a large black and scarlet Hemipterous insect, many moths (Zygćna) and a Cicindela, which are not found in Shropshire. I almost made up my mind to begin collecting all the insects which I could find dead, for on consulting my sister, I concluded that it was not right to kill insects for the sake of making a collection".

He also developed an interest in birds:

"From reading White's Selborne [Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White 1720-93] I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on the subject. In my simplicity I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist".

However, later, like many people who are interested both in wildlife and field sports, Charles became passionate about shooting birds:

"In the latter part of my school life I became passionately fond of shooting, and I do not believe that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds. How well I remember killing my first snipe, and my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands. This taste long continued and I became a very good shot".

This skill was to become a useful one when collecting birds and animals for food or specimens for study during The Beagle voyage.

He also continued to collect natural history specimens but with the acquisitiveness of a collector rather than a scientist:

"I continued collecting minerals with much zeal, but quite unscientifically-all that I cared for was a new named mineral, and I hardly attempted to classify them".

Charles enjoyed the satisfaction of some scholastic endeavours during his seven years at Shrewsbury School but commented that:

"Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler's school, as it was strictly classical [Latin and Greek], nothing else being taught except a little ancient geography and history. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank. During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language. ..... I was not idle, and with the exception of versification, generally worked conscientiously at my classics, not using cribs. The sole pleasure I ever received from such studies, was from some of the odes of Horace, which I admired greatly".

He found chemistry experiments with his brother Erasmus far more stimulating than his lessons at school:

"Towards the close of my school life, my brother worked hard at chemistry and made a fair laboratory with proper apparatus in the tool-house in the garden, and I was allowed to aid him as a servant in most of his experiments. He made all the gases and many compounds, and I read with care several books on chemistry, such as Henry and Parkes' Chemical Catechism. The subject interested me greatly, and we often used to go on working till rather late at night. This was the best part of my education at school [out of it], for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science".

The fact that Charles and his brother worked at chemistry became known at the school. This was such an unprecedented activity that he was given the nick-name 'Gas' by his school friends. However, his teachers were not impressed and Charles was publicly rebuked by the head-master Dr. Butler for wasting his time over such useless subjects. It is not surprising that Charles did not flourish in such an educational environment.

Charles thought that, at the time when he left school, he was considered a very ordinary boy and rather below the average in intellect by all his masters and by his Father. He was deeply upset when his father told him: "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family". However, in later life, Charles commented that his father "who was the kindest man I ever knew, and whose memory I love with all my heart, must have been angry and somewhat unjust when he used such words".

Figure 8: Dr Robert Darwin. c.1830. Oil painting by W.W. Ouless. From an original by J.C. Pardon. [Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery].

Charles Darwin's father, Dr Robert Darwin, was a remarkable man, loved by his patients, admired by his son and loved by him more as both of them grew older.

"He was about 6 feet 2 inches in height, with broad shoulders, and very corpulent, so that he was the largest man whom I ever saw. When he last weighed himself, he was 24 stone, but afterwards increased much in weight. His chief mental characteristics were his powers of observation and his sympathy, neither of which have I ever seen exceeded or even equalled. His sympathy was not only with the distresses of others, but in a greater degree with the pleasures of all around him. This led him to be always scheming to give pleasure to others, and, though hating extravagance, to perform many generous actions. ....The most remarkable power which my father possessed was that of reading the characters, and even the thoughts of those whom he saw even for a short time. We had many instances of this power, some of which seemed almost supernatural.....Owing to his strong memory he knew an extraordinary number of curious stories, which he liked to tell, as he was a great talker. He was generally in high spirits, and laughed and joked with every one-often with his servants-with the utmost freedom; yet he had the art of making every one obey him to the letter. Many persons were much afraid of him. .....He was a cautious and good man of business, so that he hardly ever lost money by any investment, and left to his children a very large property...... My father's mind was not scientific, and he did not try to generalise his knowledge under general laws; yet he formed a theory for almost everything which occurred".

Charles's brother Erasmus "possessed a remarkably clear mind, with extensive and diversified tastes and knowledge in literature, art, and even in science. For a short time he collected and dried plants, and during a somewhat longer time experimented in chemistry. ... He read much, even whilst a boy, and at school encouraged me to read, lending me books. ... He was extremely agreeable. He was very kind-hearted; but his health from his boyhood had been weak, and as a consequence he failed in energy". Erasmus seems from later in Charles's account to have suffered from depression.

Charles considered that the minds and tastes of his brother and sisters were very different to his and to each other and commented that some of his sisters had strongly marked characters! However, all were extremely kind and affectionate towards Charles during their whole lives. He was inclined to believe that "education and environment produce only a small effect on the mind of any one, and that most of our qualities are innate".

"Looking back as well as I can at my character during my school life, the only qualities which at this period promised well for the future, were, that I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing. I was taught Euclid by a private tutor, and I distinctly remember the intense satisfaction which the clear geometrical proofs gave me. I remember with equal distinctness the delight which my uncle gave me by explaining the principle of the vernier of a barometer".

Charles also enjoyed literature when he was a boy, including the historical plays of Shakespeare and poetry, but this was a pleasure that he lost in later life. However:

"in 1822 a vivid delight in scenery was first awakened in my mind, during a riding tour on the borders of Wales, and which has lasted longer than any other aesthetic pleasure".

Early in his school-days, a boy had a copy of a book called the Wonders of the World, which he often read and disputed with other boys about the veracity of some of the statements. He believed that this book first gave him a wish to travel in remote countries, which was ultimately fulfilled by the voyage of The Beagle.

Charles had many friends at school and his propensity for making close friendships lasted all his life.


Edinburgh University 1825-27

As Charles was not doing well at school, his father removed him at an earlier age than normal and sent him to Edinburgh University in October 1825 to train as a doctor. His brother Erasmus was already there, close to completing his studies. Dr Darwin had prepared Charles for the transition to university by involving him in his surgeries and visits to patients:

"During the summer before coming to Edinburgh I began attending some of the poor people, chiefly children and women in Shrewsbury: I wrote down as full an account as I could of the cases with all the symptoms, and read them aloud to my father, who suggested further enquiries, and advised me what medicines to give, which I made up myself. At one time I had at least a dozen patients, and I felt a keen interest in the work. ..... My father, who was by far the best judge of character whom I ever knew, declared that I should make a successful physician,- meaning by this, one who got many patients. He maintained that the chief element of success was exciting confidence; but what he saw in me which convinced him that I should create confidence I know not".

Charles's sisters were important correspondents, keeping Charles in touch with news of Shrewsbury when he went to university - including news of developments in the garden at The Mount. Caroline sent him a letter on 26th February 1826:

"We have been very busy in the flower garden, planting sweet peas &c. I flatter myself it will look much gayer this year than it did last - that I know you will think it may easily do, I have remembered your admiration of the Holyhocks at Maer & and have been buying some, so that at least we will not be outdone in that flower".

Charles had to help with watering plants in the garden when he was home at The Mount and, in the same letter, Caroline tells him that:

"We are going to have pipes laid to have a supply of water in the flower garden, so next summer your good nature will not be so often taxed with "Charles it is very hot." ("Very hot indeed" you unthinkingly answer.)

"Dear Bobby, the ground is so dry that the pans of water you brought half an hour ago did hardly any good, would you bring one more?"

[N.B. 'Bobby' was one of Charles's nicknames - apparently used when his affectionate sister wanted him to do something!]

In a letter written to Charles by Caroline on the 22nd March 1826, she was clearly missing him:

"It made me feel quite melancholy the other day looking at your old garden, & the flowers, just coming up which you used to be so happy watching. I think the time when you & Catherine were little children & I was always with you or thinking about you was the happiest part of my life & I dare say will always be".

Catherine and Caroline wrote again on 11th April 1826:

"We have all been taking to gardening very vigorously, and shall expect some very elegant compliments from you on its beauty; and I assure you it is very gay, and much admired".

Charles found the lectures at Edinburgh "intolerably dull" with the exception of those on chemistry. He considered that there are no advantages and many disadvantages in lectures compared with reading. Both Charles and Erasmus apparently made more use of the university library than was usual among the students of their time. The anatomy lectures disgusted Charles and he attended two very bad operations in the operating theatre in the hospital at Edinburgh but rushed away before they were completed. Nor did he ever attend again,

"for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year. It has proved one of the greatest evils in my life that I was not urged to practice dissection, for I should soon have got over my disgust; and the practice would have been invaluable for all my future work. This has been an irremediable evil, as well as my incapacity to draw".

Erasmus only 'overlapped' with Charles one year at the University,

"so that during the second year I was left to my own resources; and this was an advantage, for I became well acquainted with several young men fond of natural science".

He conducted some original research into marine creatures during this time and presented a paper to the Plinian Society in Edinburgh.

"This society consisted of students and met in an underground room in the University for the sake of reading papers on natural science and discussing them. I used regularly to attend and the meetings had a good effect on me in stimulating my zeal and giving me new congenial acquaintances".

He was also a member of the Royal Medical Society and attended fairly regularly but as the subjects were exclusively medical he did not much care about them.

"Much rubbish was talked there, but there were some good speakers".

During his time in Edinburgh, Charles became acquainted with a black man called John Edmonstone who was a freed slave and who had travelled with the naturalist Charles Waterton, (1782-1865) in South America:

"He gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently; he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man".

Later, during his time in South America, Charles was horrified by slavery and the way that negro black slaves were treated. Charles had been brought up in a family that campaigned against slavery and injustice but developing a personal relationship with and respect for this man must have affected him.

During his second year in Edinburgh, Charles attended lectures on Geology and Zoology but found them incredibly dull:

"The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science. Yet I feel sure that I was prepared for a philosophical treatment of the subject; for an old Mr Cotton in Shropshire who knew a good deal about rocks, had pointed out to me, two or three years previously a well-known large erratic boulder in the town of Shrewsbury, called the bell-stone; he told me that there was no rock of the same kind nearer than Cumberland or Scotland, and he solemnly assured me that the world would come to an end before anyone would be able to explain how this stone came where it now lay. This produced a deep impression on me and I meditated over this wonderful stone. So that I felt the keenest delight when I first read of the action of icebergs in transporting boulders, and I gloried in the progress of Geology".

The Bellstone in Shrewsbury [photo by Peter Boyd]

(moved from its original location on the site of the present NatWest Bank at Mardol Head, where Darwin knew it, to the yard at the Morris Hall, Barker Street)

Charles was healthy and energetic when he was a young man - a stark contrast to his debilitating ill-health that he suffered later in life after the Beagle voyage:

"My summer vacations during these two years were wholly given up to amusements, though I always had some book in hand, which I read with interest. During the summer of 1826, I took a long walking tour with two friends with knapsacks on our backs through North Wales. We walked thirty miles most days, including one day the ascent of Snowdon. I also went with my sister Caroline a riding tour in North Wales, a servant with saddle-bags carrying our clothes".

The autumns were devoted to shooting

"chiefly at Mr. Owen's at Woodhouse, and at my Uncle Jos's [Josiah Wedgwood II] at Maer. My zeal was so great that I used to place my shooting boots open by my bed-side when I went to bed, so as not to lose half-a-minute in putting them on in the morning. ...I kept an exact record of every bird which I shot throughout the whole season. ... How I did enjoy shooting, but I think that I must have been half-consciously ashamed of my zeal, for I tried to persuade myself that shooting was almost an intellectual employment; it required so much skill to judge where to find most game and to hunt the dogs well".

Charles very much enjoyed his visits to Maer with his uncle and cousins:

"My visits to Maer during these two and the three succeeding years were quite delightful, independently of the autumnal shooting. Life there was perfectly free; the country was very pleasant for walking or riding; and in the evening there was much very agreeable conversation, not so personal as it generally is in large family parties, together with music. In the summer the whole family used often to sit on the steps of the old portico, with the flower-garden in front, and with the steep wooded bank, opposite the house, reflected in the lake, with here and there a fish rising or a water-bird paddling about. ... Nothing has left a more vivid picture on my mind than these evenings at Maer. I was also attached to and greatly revered my Uncle Jos".

About ten years later, Charles married his cousin Emma at Maer.


Cambridge University 1828-1831

When Dr Robert Darwin realised that Charles did not wish to become a physician, he proposed that Charles should become a clergyman:

"He was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination".

Charles rather liked the idea of life as a country clergyman. He probably thought that it would give him plenty of opportunity for country pursuits such as shooting, fishing and studying natural history! However, he asked his father for more time to consider the proposal more carefully because he had

"scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England".

He read some books about divinity and

"as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible. ......Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman".

Charles was sent to Cambridge University in early 1828 but his success was mixed: Although

"there were some redeeming features in my life at Cambridge, my time was sadly wasted there and worse than wasted. From my passion for shooting and for hunting and when this failed, for riding across country I got into a sporting set, including some dissipated low-minded young men. We used often to dine together in the evening, though these dinners often included men of a higher stamp, and we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards. I know that I ought to feel ashamed of days and evenings thus spent, but as some of my friends were very pleasant and we were all in the highest spirits, I cannot help looking back to these times with much pleasure".

[Francis Darwin commented that he understood from some of his father's contemporaries that his father had exaggerated the Bacchanalian nature of these parties but, perhaps, Charles was more honest about them!].

However, he also had other friends with whom he developed a taste for Fine Art and music although he commented that

"I am so utterly destitute of an ear [for music], that I cannot perceive a discord, or keep time and hum a tune correctly; and it is a mystery how I could possibly have derived pleasure from music".


"no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one".

He was very pleased to see one of the beetles that he caught during his time in Cambridge illustrated in a book:

"No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen's Illustrations of British Insects the magic words, 'captured by C. Darwin, Esq' ".

Charles was introduced to serious entomology and supported in his beetle studies in Cambridge by his more knowledgeable second cousin, William Darwin Fox (1805-80) "a clever and most pleasant man". When Charles returned to Shrewsbury during the summer vacations, he clearly missed the stimulating conversation of his university friends. He wrote to William Fox on 12th June 1828:

"My dear Fox, I am dying by inches, from not having any body to talk to about insects .... I have been very idle since I left Cambridge in every possible way & amongst the rest in Entomology. I have however captured a few insects, about which I am much interested: My sister has made rough drawings of three of them ..."

The delightful drawings, around which Charles inserted various written comments, were probably made by his sister Caroline and actually rather skillful!

Figure 9: Detail from a letter from Charles Darwin to William Darwin Fox with drawings of beetles by his sister [Courtesy of Christ's College Library, Cambridge by kind permission of the Master and Fellows, Christ's College Cambridge].

In a letter from Charles, dated 30th June 1828, in which his sister contributes more charming drawings of his beetles, he tells William that regarding 'Insectology', his "ardour as it is I think redoubled; but my success does not equal what it did in Cambridge." Later in the same letter, he states:

".... my dear Fox remember this, although my prosing unscientific details about insects may be very tiresome to you, do not for one instant suppose, that your letters are so to me, for you cannot conceive, with what great pleasure I look out for an Entom[ological] Letter now that I have nobody to talk to."

Charles attended very few lectures connected with his formal studies but worked hard at the end of his second year to pass his examinations and, through concentrated effort in the third and last year, he achieved tenth place out of over 100 students in the final examination for the Ordinary Degree of Batchelor of Arts (BA) - a good result!

He seems to have enjoyed the various public lectures given in the university more than those that were necessary for his degree course. These included lectures on Botany given by Professor John Stevens Henslow 1796-1861

"and liked them much for their extreme clearness, and the admirable illustrations; but I did not study botany. Henslow used to take his pupils, including several of the older members of the University, on field excursions, on foot, or in coaches to distant places, or in a barge down the river, and lectured on the rarer plants or animals which were observed. These excursions were delightful".

Professor Henslow had a profound affect on Charles:

"He kept open house once every week, where all undergraduates and several older members of the University, who were attached to science, used to meet in the evening. I soon got, through Fox [his cousin], an invitation, and went there regularly. Before long I became well acquainted with Henslow, and during the latter half of my time at Cambridge took long walks with him on most days; so that I was called by some of the dons "the man who walks with Henslow"; and in the evening I was very often asked to join his family dinner. His knowledge was great in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. His strongest taste was to draw conclusions from long-continued minute observations. His judgment was excellent, and his whole mind well-balanced .... His moral qualities were in every way admirable. He was free from every tinge of vanity or other petty feeling; and I never saw a man who thought so little about himself or his own concerns. His temper was imperturbably good, with the most winning and courteous manners".

Through his enthusiasm and prowess for natural history, Charles got to know a number of older distinguished men through Henslow. These men took take distant excursions into the country, which Charles was allowed to join and which he much enjoyed.

"Upon the whole the three years which I spent at Cambridge were the most joyful in my happy life; for I was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits".

During his last year at Cambridge, Charles read with care and profound interest Humboldt's Personal Narrative.

"This work and Sir J. Herschel's Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two".

Influenced by these books, he planned an excursion to Teneriffe in the Canary Islands "but the scheme was of course knocked on the head by the voyage of the Beagle".

Charles had to remain two more terms at Cambridge after passing his degree examinations before he could graduate. Professor Henslow persuaded Charles to begin the study of geology.

"Therefore on my return to Shropshire I examined sections and coloured a map of parts round Shrewsbury. Professor Sedgwick intended to visit N. Wales in the beginning of August to pursue his famous geological investigation amongst the older rocks, and Henslow asked him to allow me to accompany him. Accordingly he came and slept at my Father's house".

This was a valuable experience for Charles. A discussion about the significance of a shell found in a nearby gravel pit opened Charles's eyes to scientific method:

"Nothing before had ever made me thoroughly realise, though I had read various scientific books, that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them".

A geological tour of North Wales with Professor Sedgwick that followed

"was of decided use in teaching me a little how to make out the geology of a country. Sedgwick often sent me on a line parallel to his, telling me to bring back specimens of the rocks and to mark the stratification on a map. I have little doubt that he did this for my good, as I was too ignorant to have aided him".

Eventually, Charles left Sedgwick and went in a straight line by compass and map across the mountains to Barmouth,

"never following any track unless it coincided with my course. I thus came on some strange wild places and enjoyed much this manner of travelling. I visited Barmouth to see some Cambridge friends who were reading there, and thence returned to Shrewsbury and to Maer for shooting; for at that time I should have thought myself mad to give up the first days of partridge-shooting for geology or any other science".

On returning home from his short geological tour in North Wales, Charles found a letter from Professor Henslow, informing him that

"Captain Fitz-Roy [Robert Fitz-Roy 1805-1865] was willing to give up part of his own cabin to any young man who would volunteer to go with him without pay as naturalist to the Voyage of the Beagle".

Charles was instantly eager to accept the offer,

"but my father strongly objected, adding the words fortunate for me,-"If you can find any man of common sense, who advises you to go, I will give my consent".

Therefore, Charles wrote that evening and refused the offer. However, on the next morning he went to Maer and whilst out shooting, his uncle Josiah Wedgwood sent for him, offering to drive me him over to Shrewsbury and talk with his father.

"As my uncle thought it would be wise in me to accept the offer, and as my father always maintained that he was one of the most sensible men in the world, he at once consented in the kindest manner. I had been rather extravagant at Cambridge and to console my father said, "that I should be deuced [extremely] clever to spend more than my allowance whilst on board the Beagle"; but he answered with a smile, "But they all tell me you are very clever."

It was agreed that he should go and Charles left for Cambridge the next day to see Professor Henslow, and then on to London to see Fitz-Roy. At a later date, Fitz-Roy told Charles that he was nearly rejected because of the shape of his nose!

"He was convinced that he could judge a man's character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely".

This is not the place to discuss the subsequent voyage on the Beagle. The main purpose of this paper was to describe the circumstances of his upbringing as a child in Shrewsbury and a student at university which brought Charles Darwin to undertake a voyage that would change his life and eventually lead to publication of On the Origin of Species 150 years ago in 1859.

He was not the ideal student of the time at school or university. He was not supported by the education system of that time but his self-motivated research and support of family, friends and, finally, his university lecturers at Cambridge, gave him the opportunities to develop his particular skills.


Charles Darwin's Children

Charles married his cousin Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896) in 1839. Although they lived in London for a short time they moved to Down House in Kent which remained their home for the rest of their lives. They had ten children but only seven of them survived to become adults:

William Erasmus 1839-1914
Anne Elizabeth 1841-1851 ('Annie' whose death at 10 years affected Charles particularly badly)
Mary Eleanor 1842 (died as an infant)
Henrietta Emma 1843-1929
George Howard 1845-1912
Elizabeth 1847-1926
Francis 1848-1925
Leonard 1850-1943
Horace 1851-1928
Charles Waring 1856-1858 (died as a baby)

Charles was a loving father. He died in 1882.

Figure 10: Charles Darwin in 1840 at the age of 31 years. Watercolour by George Richmond.

[©English Heritage Photo Library. By kind permission of Darwin Heirlooms Trust].


The main publications of Charles Darwin (excluding his numerous scientific papers)

Charles Darwin was prolific researcher and writer. He wrote numerous scientific papers during his life after his return from The Beagle voyage but also many important books:

1838 First part of The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, during the Years 1832 to 1836.

1839 Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle.Vol. III. Journal and Remarks, 1832-1836 published, June 1; issued separately as Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle .

1842 The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. Being the First Part of the Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle, under the Command of Capt. FitzRoy, RN during the Years 1832 to 1836.

1844 Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands Visited during the Voyage of HMS Beagle, Together with Some Brief Notices of the Geology of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope. Being the Second Part of the Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle, under the Command of Capt. FitzRoy, RN during the Years 1832 to 1836 .

1846 Geological Observations on South America. Being the Third Part of the Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle, under the Command of Capt. FitzRoy, RN during the Years 1832 to 1836 .

1851 A Monograph of Subclass Cirripedia, with Figures of All the Species. The Lepadidae; or Pedunculated Cirripedes. A Monograph of the Fossil Lepadidae, or Pedunculated Cirripedes of Great Britain.

1854 A Monograph of the Subclass Cirripedia, with Figures of all the Species. The Balanidae, (or Sessile Cirripedes); the Verrucidae, etc., etc., etc., A Monograph of the Fossil Balanidae and Verrucidae of Great Britain .

1858 On the tendency of species to form varieties, and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection by Darwin and Wallace, read at a meeting of the Linnean Society, July 1, published August 30.

1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

1862 On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing.

1865 On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.

1868 The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

1871 The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex .

1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals .

1875 Insectivorous Plants.

1876 The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom .

1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species .

1880 The Power of Movement in Plants.

1881 The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits .


Charles Darwin died at Down, April 19th 1882.


Charles Darwin's autobiography and other sources of information for details of his early life

The main sources for an account of Charles Darwin's childhood and his life as a student have been published in print and online. Charles started his autobiography late in his life, adding to and correcting it over many years. It was written for members of his family and he did not intend it to be published. However, five years after his death in 1887, Francis Darwin (one of his sons) included an edited version of the autobiography in his book The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. Francis omitted sections of the original manuscript that other members of the family did not wish to be published. This book was republished a number of times and translated into different languages. However, in 1958, Nora Barlow, a grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, published the complete manuscript of his autobiography in The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. This is available online in the invaluable website The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online at http://darwin-online.org.uk .

The voluminous correspondence between Charles and members of his family, friends and fellow scientists has been published as the Correspondence of Charles Darwin in several volumes by Cambridge University Press and online by the Darwin Correspondence Project at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk . Charles would have loved email but we would probably know less about him if email had existed during his time - his emails would not have survived like his letters have!

The present author has carried out original research into the Darwin Family in Shrewsbury, particularly their gardening activities - available online at http://www.peterboyd.com/darwin.htm .


References and further reading:

Boyd, P.D.A. 2006. 'The Darwin Family and their Plants at The Mount in Shrewsbury'. NCCPG Shropshire Group Newsletter Autumn 2006. Available online at http://www.peterboyd.com/darwingard3.htm .

Boyd, P.D.A. 2003. 'Shrewsbury, Shropshire: Birthplace of Charles Darwin and Darwin Country'. In Special Publication of Darwin Day Program 'The Single Best Idea Ever' edited by Amanda Chesworth et al. Tangled Bank Press, 35-43. Available online at http://www.peterboyd.com/darwinshrews.htm

Boyd, P.D.A. 2000. Darwin Garden Project - Sale of The Mount in 1866. Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust Newsletter. Available online at http://www.peterboyd.com/darwingard2.htm .

Boyd, P.D.A. 1999. Darwin Garden Project. Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust Newsletter. Available online at http://www.peterboyd.com/darwingard1.htm

Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online at http://darwin-online.org.uk .

Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 1 1821-1836. Cambridge University Press.

Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 2 1837-1843. Cambridge University Press.

Darwin, F. ed. 1887. The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray.

Darwin, C. R. 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins. Available online at http://darwin-online.org.uk .

Darwin Country website at http://www.darwincountry.org (Shrewsbury Museums).

Freeman, R. B. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2nd ed. Dawson: Folkstone. Available online at http://darwin-online.org.uk .


Peter D. A. Boyd
Curator (Shrewsbury Museums)
Shropshire Museum Service,
Barker Street,
Tel. 01743 281205
e-mail: peterboyd@btinternet.com


Peter D. A. Boyd

Shropshire Museum Service, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, Barker Street, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY1 1QH. United Kingdom;


Peter Boyd is Curator (Shrewsbury Museums) for Shropshire Museum Service, responsible for the museum collections of three museums and the Darwin Country website at www.darwincountry.org . He was a naturalist, gardener and amateur archaeologist from an early age but he graduated with an Honours Degree in Geology from Aberdeen University in 1970 followed by four years of post-graduate research at Sheffield University on the palaeoecology and micropalaeontology of Middle Jurassic rocks in Scotland. He obtained a Post-graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) with teaching qualification in Biology, Geology and Environmental Studies at the University of Sheffield in 1975 and taught in a secondary school full-time for two years and as a part-time tutor for The Open University, the University of London and the University of Exeter for several years. However, he was full-time Archaeological Scientist (Environmental Archaeologist) at the Department of Human Environment, University of London Institute of Archaeology/Department of Urban Archaeology, Museum of London 1977-81 and The Mary Rose Trust (the wreck of Henry VIII's warship)1981-82. He became Assistant Curator at the Chelmsford and Essex Museum 1983-86 and Museums Officer and Curator, North Devon Museums Service 1986-1993. He was Museum Collections Manager for Shrewsbury Museums Service 1994-2009 and Curator for Shropshire Museum Service since April 2009. He has published papers on a diverse range of subjects including Charles Darwin, Environmental Archaeology, Pteridomania, Scots Roses, Decorative Arts, Biographies, Garden History and database-driven websites (online versions of most at www.peterboyd.com ). He has lectured in several European countries and North America about Charles Darwin and also Scots Roses. He is writing a monograph on Rosa spinosissima and Scots Roses. He has advised at the Europa-Rosarium at Sangerhausen in Germany, the Roseraie du Val-de-Marne at l'Ha˙ in France and elsewhere. He represents Northern Europe on the Heritage Rose Committee of the World Federation of Rose Societies and is a Member of Council of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG) in the United Kingdom.


Video of lecture at International Conference Bioscience and Society: Biodiversity - Diversity of Living Systems. Ljubljana, Slovenia. 2nd October 2009 on The Young Charles Darwin [external website]

For other articles written by Peter Boyd about Darwin see Charles Darwin and Darwin Country .

For other articles written by Peter Boyd about Plants and Garden History see Botany, Plants and Garden History



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