Charles Darwin in Cambridge, England

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin’s Room, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

It was probably not too difficult to come across something having to do with Charles Darwin when visiting Cambridge, England before 2009. Following that year’s celebrations (of Darwin’s birth in 1809 and publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859), I can imagine it is guaranteed Darwin will cross your path. I visited Cambridge in the summer of 2009 to attend a conference about, well, Darwin. I spent two days beyond the conference exploring the town and visiting sites related to Darwin with Richard Carter, whom we can thank for Darwin’s portrait gracing the ten pound note.

It was at Cambridge that Darwin took up a increased interest in natural history, and thanks to his cousin William Darwin Fox, also at Christ’s College, a fondness for beetles. Darwin would later reminisce on several occasions about his beetle collecting adventures. For example, in his Autobiography:

“I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture. The pretty Panagaus crux-major was a treasure in those days”
p. 63.

Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

Cambridge is also where he met two of his mentors, botanist John Stevens Henslow (who recommended Darwin for naturalist on HMS Beagle) and geologist Adam Sedgwick, who would both take issue with his transmutation theory years later. His older brother Erasmus was also at Cambridge, and Darwin sent three of his sons there as well. Some of the museums in Cambridge now hold specimens Darwin collected around the world. The Cambridge University Library holds many of his documents, including letters, and Cambridge University Press has published much about Darwin, including the correspondence series.

Darwin’s life in Cambridge began in January 1828, and since he started at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, well into the academic year, he had to find lodging away from the college. Luckily for him, he found one just a minute’s walk from the college. Darwin stayed in a room above a tobacconist on Sidney Street, which is now marked with a plaque outside a Boots pharmacy store:

Site of Darwin Lodgings (1828), Cambridge

Site of Darwin Lodgings (1828), Boots the Chemist, Cambridge, England

Darwin’s college rooms at Christ’s, which he took up in October 1828, have been restored by historian of science John van Wyhe (director of The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online). According to van Wyhe:

“[c]learly a wide variety of activities took place in Darwin’s rooms. He read for his College curriculum, wrote letters, compared his captured beetles with published descriptions in his copy of Stephens Systematic catalogue of British insects and carefully pinned the beetles to cork boards. He had friends to coffee, and in the evenings they sometimes dined there and would then drink wine and play cards”
p. 6

Darwin Stained Glass, College Hall, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin Stained Glass, College Hall, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

While the Tutor of the College thought Darwin was practicing with a horse-whip in his rooms, he was in fact blowing out a candle with the puff of air from a still-capped shotgun. That shooting practice surely went toward Darwin’s collecting practices in the field.

There is an old Cambridge rumor that Darwin’s Christ’s College rooms were once those of theologian William Paley, whose Natural Theology Darwin read while at Cambridge. In the College Hall, a stained-glass portrait of Darwin rests next to that of Paley.

In December 1831, Darwin left England aboard HMS Beagle, and returned in October 1836. Darwin went back to Cambridge in December following a visit home to Shrewsbury. He took lodgings at 22 Fitzwilliam Street, and here Darwin organized his specimen collection from the voyage. Only a few months passed before Darwin decided he needed to move to London, to enter into the scientific community and farm out his specimens to zoologists, botanists, and geologists of repute. Janet Browne described this lodging as Darwin’s “temporary centre for a storm of industry” (p. 346). Today, the Fitzwilliam lodging is marked by a stone plaque.

While Cambridge took little of Darwin’s more than seventy years of life, this place had profound influence on the creation of a young naturalist. Today, the city marks with plaques, sculpture, and exhibits one of its most famous students, who deemed his three years at Cambridge, as he wrote in his Autobiography, “the most joyful in my happy life; for I was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits” (p. 68).

Young Darwin Statue by Anthony Smith, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Young Darwin Statue by Anthony Smith, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

All photos by Michael D. Barton, July 2009.
» View more Cambridge photos by Michael Barton.

More images

Further reading

Barlow, Nora, ed., 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.

Browne, Janet, Charles Darwin: Voyaging: A Biography, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Specifically, chapters 4-6 and 15.

John van Wyhe, “Charles Darwin’s Cambridge Life 1828-1831,” Journal of Cambridge Studies 4 (2009), 2-13. [PDF, based on book listed below]

John van Wyhe, Darwin in Cambridge, Cambridge: Christ’s College, 2009.

Further information

Darwin’s college rooms

Darwin at Christ’s College (1, 2)

Darwin & Christ’s College

Replica of Darwin bust by William Couper (info on original)

Replica of portrait by Walter Ouless in the College Hall

Stained glass portrait in the College Hall

“Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts” at the Fitzwilliam

“Darwin the Geologist” at The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

“Beetles, Finches and Barnacles: the Zoological Collections of Charles Darwin” at the Zoology Museum

Darwin’s microscopes at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Cambridge University Botanic Garden, frequented by Darwin and holding some of his specimens

Darwin Papers at the Cambridge University Library

“A voyage round the world,” 2009 exhibit at CUL

Darwin Correspondence Project (offices at CUL)

Darwin books from Cambridge University Press

Bust of Darwin at Darwin College

Darwin and Glen Roy, Scotland

This article is © The Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge and is used with permission. The original article appears at along with links to the full text of Darwin letters concerning Glen Roy. The Darwin Project Glen Roy page also has a link to historian Martin Rudwick’s field guide to Glen Roy.

Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.

Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.

Although Darwin was best known for his geological work in South America and other remote Beagle destinations, he made one noteworthy attempt to explain a puzzling feature of British geology. In 1838, two years after returning from the voyage, he travelled to the Scottish Highlands to study the so-called parallel roads of Glen Roy.

These ‘roads’ were horizontal terraces on either side of a valley called Glen Roy, and though earlier visitors had supposed that they must be ancient hand-built features, geologists in the last two decades had declared them to be of natural origin. Two geologists, John MacCulloch and Thomas Dick Lauder, proposed in the late 1810s that the roads had been cut into the hillsides by standing water, and were the beaches of a former highland lake that had once filled the valley. They supposed the water in the lake to have stood at several distinct levels, each corresponding to the level of one of the roads.

Darwin’s interest in the parallel roads was piqued by his previous study of a series of terraces at Coquimbo, Chile, which he believed were former marine beaches that had since been pushed above sea level by the bulging of the earth beneath South America. He went to Scotland in hopes of demonstrating that the Glen Roy roads were also former sea beaches. If this were the case, their existence would indicate that Scotland had been elevated from the sea in a manner similar to the process he believed had lifted the continent of South America. In each case, the fact that the terraces remained essentially level indicated to Darwin that tectonic movements could be gradual and equable (as the upright pillars of the temple at Serapis had famously suggested to Charles Lyell).

In 1839 Darwin read a paper on the parallel roads to the Royal Society of London. He dismissed the notion that they were former lake beaches on the grounds that there was no satisfactory explanation for the temporary damming of Glen Roy, which must have occurred for the valley to fill with water and then be emptied. Instead, he advanced his theory: ‘the whole country has been slowly elevated, the movements having been interrupted by as many periods of rest as there are shelves.’ The roads were of marine origin, and each road represented a former stage in Scotland’s emergence from the sea.

While Darwin was thus able to avoid conjecturing about an event that could have dammed Glen Roy, he instead had to explain why the sea had left no marine fossils on the sides of the glen and why it had not cut similar terraces on other hillsides across Scotland. He argued that the preservation of both fossils and old sea beaches should be considered the exception rather than the rule. For instance, Darwin pointed to a number of locations, ranging from his home county of Shropshire to the coasts of Scandinavia, where exposed deposits of undoubted marine origin had been found not to contain any marine shells, presumably because they had been dissolved by acidified rain. Likewise, he pointed out that durable terraces like the roads might have been formed only where a special combination of currents and tides were acting on a coastline of a particular geological composition.

Scarcely had Darwin’s Glen Roy paper appeared in print than the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz proposed an explanation for the roads that had not been considered by Lauder, MacCulloch, or Darwin. Agassiz was convinced that the earth had formerly experienced an ‘epoch of great cold’, and that glaciers had once been much more widespread across Europe. In 1840 he toured locations in Britain with many leading geologists, pointing out how many familiar phenomena could be reinterpreted with reference to the former action of glaciers. In the case of Glen Roy, Agassiz provided the missing component of the lake-beach theory of the formation of the parallel roads. A wall of ice extending across the foot of the valley could have dammed Glen Roy and formed a glacial lake like those seen in the present-day Alps.

In the hands of Agassiz and others in the succeeding decades, glacial theory prompted geologists to reappraise much more than the terraces at Glen Roy. Darwin was resistant to the glacial explanation for the parallel roads, even as he admitted the action of ice sheets elsewhere. On his last ever geological field trip, a return visit to North Wales in 1842, Darwin wrote that the signs of glacial action in the valley of Cwm Idwal could not have been more obvious ‘if it had still been filled by a glacier.’ Yet in letters written as late as 1861, Darwin continued to defend, albeit halfheartedly, the marine theory of the formation of the parallel roads (see sidebar to the right on the original Darwin Correspondence Project’s Darwin and Glen Roy page). Darwin was later to write, notoriously, in his autobiographical ‘Recollections’ that his paper on Glen Roy was a great failure: ‘and I am ashamed of it.’

Although Darwin eventually abandoned his original conclusions about Glen Roy, it is well worth trying to retrace Darwin’s footsteps there. To understand what led Darwin to ‘see’ what he saw in 1838 is to take a glimpse from the perspective of the young geologist when he was giving full expression to the theory of the earth that was his proudest product of the Beagle voyage.

Charles Darwin’s Home – Down House, Kent

The Home of Charles Darwin, Down House

The Home of Charles Darwin, Down House, by Anthonyeatworld. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

In 1842 Charles and Emma Darwin settled in the rural Kentish village of Downe. Down House (spelled differently from the village) was to remain their home for forty years, an occupation ending only with Emma’s death in 1896. (Charles died there in 1882.)

Darwin recorded in his autobiography that when they first found the house he ‘was pleased with the diversified appearance of the vegetation proper to a chalk district … and still more pleased with the extreme quietness and rusticity of the place’. At Down he hid away from visitors, even locating a mirror outside his study to warn him when someone was approaching.

Yet in this quiet place Darwin received communications and visitations from naturalists and men of science worldwide, weaving together his grand picture of nature that was expounded in The Origin of Species (1859) and later writings. Down House was also the site of his own experiments and observations; no problem was too trivial or too minute to be worthy of his patient elaboration. Dotted around the grounds of the house are the sites of these experiments, concerning worm burrowing and, in the hothouse, carnivorous plants and orchids.

The sandwalk, Darwin's thinking path.

The sandwalk, Darwin's thinking path, by Tedgrant. Image in Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Elsewhere in the gardens one can retrace Darwin’s steps along the peaceful Sand-walk, where he paced daily to mull over his information and formulate his arguments. Charles and Emma planted this avenue shortly after their arrival, choosing a variety of native trees and flowers. Its constant susceptibility to invasive species of weed proved an immediate and frustrating instance of natural selection in action.

The house itself offers glimpses of the sentimental Darwin; permitting his children to toboggan down the stairs on a tea-tray must surely have interrupted his peaceful contemplations. This was not a house but a home. Each room has been reconstructed as far as possible based on photographs taken in the 1870s; Darwin’s study is recreated as it would have been, complete with bucket in the corner for those moments when his mysterious illness overtook him.

Charles Darwin's study at Down House, restored with original furniture including his wheeled armchair and writing board.

Charles Darwin's study at Down House, restored with original furniture including his wheeled armchair and writing board, by Mario modesto. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

As a historian, I find myself slightly uncomfortable with the canonisation that inevitably accompanies the reconstruction of sites such as Down House. The English Heritage web site (9 March 2011) even refers to it as a ‘place of pilgrimage’. Such a construction of historic sites can result in unintentional bathos (here’s where the great man’s bottom sat), or more seriously in historic bias, creating the impression that only Darwin was the source of evolution by natural selection, and that his ideas came to him clear and perfect, the same in form as we know today.

But even so … it’s undeniably something very special to come here, to see the home and gardens that produced some of the most enduring science, history and even myth of our times. Here you can catch a glimpse of the oft-forgotten cast of women, children, servants, visitors et al who are all a part of the ‘Darwin’ story. Highly recommended.

Further information:

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton University Press, 2003).

Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Ilkley’s only claim to scientific note (but it is a notable claim) is that Charles Darwin stayed here in 1859 at the time On the Origin of Species was first published.

Wells House front 1

Figure 1. Wells House. The building is approached via Brodrick Drive off Wells Road. The single story building on the right originally housed the treatment rooms.

Darwin came to Ilkley on the 4th October 1859 to undergo hydropathy (“the water-cure”) at the prestigious Wells House Hydropathic Establishment which had opened three years earlier. Ilkley’s reputation as a hydropathic centre was established by Dr William MacLeod at the Ben Rhydding Hydro, which opened in 1844. The Ben Rhydding establishment fell into disuse after the Second World War and was demolished in the 1950’s. Wells House, however, survives as a building, although it is now given over to luxury apartments. Access to the interior is solely the prerogative of the residents, but the handsome exterior can be viewed at close quarters when its overall design by Yorkshire’s foremost architect of the day, Cuthbert Brodrick, can be readily appreciated. Wells House can be found, fittingly, at the top of Wells Road (LS29 9SP) From there the energetic visitor can walk up to the old bath-house, White Wells, on Ilkley Moor.

White Wells in winter frost

Figure 2. White Wells in winter frost. Wells House stands below, now surrounded by mature trees - and houses.

White Wells was constructed in the first half of the seventeenth century close to a spring issuing from the hillside. Ilkley owes its development to this so-called ‘spaw’, and it has since become something of an icon for the town and its residents. Although the water issuing from the drinking fountain had no dissolved minerals, it gained a reputation for purity and softness that allowed it to ‘reach the utmost and finest limits of the circulation’. The plunge-bath depended for its efficacy on the coldness of the water which was consistently around 4°C, summer and winter. After ten minutes immersion and a brisk rub-down by the bath-attendant, the bather experienced a feeling of health-giving warmth accompanied, no doubt, by a sense of relief at surviving the icy shock to the system. However, Darwin and the other guests at Wells House are unlikely to have availed themselves of these rustic amenities. Wells House was equipped with a splendid suite of treatment rooms and baths (situated at basement level beneath the eastern terrace of the hotel), under the supervision of the resident physician, Dr Edmund Smith, a man who, according to Darwin; ‘cared very much for the fee and very little for the patient’. For much of his stay Darwin was in reality an out-patient, living in rented accommodation adjacent to the hotel.

Wells Terrace (now Hillside Court)

Figure 3. Wells Terrace (now Hillside Court). The building originally comprised three houses, two west-facing at the front and a third, north-facing, house (North View) that was occupied by Darwin and his family.

Darwin was joined by Emma and the children on the 17th October and the family took up residence in one of the three houses that made up Wells Terrace. The building, which was constructed in 1857, also survives as apartments and can be found at the junction of Crossbeck Road and Wells Road (LS29 9TF). For many local residents the association with Darwin is secondary to their own ‘origins’, the building having been used for many years as Ilkley’s Maternity Hospital – ‘St. Winifred’s’. The broadcaster and writer, Alan Titchmarsh, was born here in 1949, although the Blue Plaque on the building recalls the Darwin connection and not the birth-place of this latter-day celebrity. Darwin and Emma occupied the north-facing house on Crossbeck Road; perhaps its northerly aspect made it particularly dismal. Certainly their daughter Henrietta described their stay in Ilkley as; ‘a time of frozen misery’, but this comment might not be solely attributable to the prevailing climatic conditions. The family left Ilkley on November 24th , the day of the official publication of the Origin. Darwin returned to Wells House, finally leaving for London on December 7th, a stay of just under nine weeks.

Darwin memorial

Figure 4. The bas-relief memorial to Darwin at the foot of Darwin Gardens / Millenium Green

Across Wells Road from Wells Terrace is Ilkley’s most tangible acknowledgement of the Darwin connection – ‘Darwin Gardens’. The ‘Gardens’ are something of a misnomer in that they comprise an open area of grass enclosed by shrubs and trees, and were created in 2000 as the town’s Millennium Project. However, visitors with accompanying children will find the paved maze an enjoyable distraction from tracing the great man’s footsteps. There is a car-park at the top of Wells Road immediately below Darwin Gardens (turn right after the cattle-grid) which would serve as a useful starting point for an exploration of Darwin’s Ilkley.