The recovery of time past: Darwin at Barmouth on the eve of the Beagle

An introduction by Peter Lucas

Thirty-five years after his geological tour with Adam Sedgwick in August 1831, Darwin described how from Capel Curig he 'went in a straight line by compass and map across the mountains to Barmouth … to see some Cambridge friends who were reading there' (Autobiography, pp. 70-71). From Sedgwick’s geological notes, and from Darwin's own (CUL-DAR5.B5-B14), his movements can be followed from 5 August (Shrewsbury to Llangollen) to 11 August (the Penrhyn slate quarry at Bethesda). Thereafter much is obscure until he reaches Shrewsbury 'late yesterday evening', as he told John Stevens Henslow on 30 August (Correspondence , vol. 1, p. 131). It is clear that he parted from Sedgwick by 20 August and his notes show that his route to Barmouth took him through 'Festineog' and 'Drus Ardidy' (DAR5.B13). These extracts from the Journal of the Lowe brothers retrieve that time in Darwin’s life from his arrival at Barmouth from Ffestiniog on the evening of 23 August until his departure for Shrewsbury from The Cross Foxes (now The Brigands Inn) on the morning of 29 August.

After their parting outside the Inn above the Dyfi on 29 August 1831, Robert Lowe and Darwin did not meet again until 15 January 1871 when T. H. Huxley and Lowe, now Chancellor of the Exchequer in Gladstone's first administration, were in a group which went over to Down House from High Elms.  Huxley felt, he told Patchett Martin in 1893, that he was escorting Lowe on a pilgrimage. In his years aboard HMS Rattlesnake he had visited Lowe in his house at Nelson's Bay above the Pacific, "I have met with many of the best men of my time since - but I have never listened to better talk than at that table".

Quite a lot happens on the Saturday, 27 August 1831 (the political discussion after breakfast was most likely about parliamentary reform, on which Robert, not yet 20, had in May crossed swords with Gladstone in the Oxford Union).  The day on which the Beagle invitation reaches Shrewsbury (Correspondence , vol. 1, p. 131) is also an important day in Robert's life. He had first met his future wife and her sisters only on 6 August and he first goes off on his own to see them on three of Darwin's four full days at Barmouth, on the last of which, the Saturday, he writes the poem, Llanaber Churchyard, which driving past forty years later he recites to his Cabinet colleague, the First Lord of the Admiralty, George Goschen (garbled account in Martin 1893: 2: 399).  For all these feminine distractions, his 'early hero-worship' of Darwin (Patchett Martin's description to Huxley) comes from these same few days.

The young Darwin is sometimes seen as quite an ordinary fellow - Steven Jay Gould's 'no one thought him dull, but no one marked him as brilliant either' - until the Beagle wrought its transformation. The most compelling evidence to the contrary comes from Darwin's breakfast companion on the Monday (29 August 1831), the day of his return home to find the Beagle invitation.

The notes which in the journal appear on otherwise empty verso pages are placed at the bottom of each day's entry.

Peter Lucas

Lowe, Robert. 'Journal kept by H. P. Lowe & R Lowe during 3 months of the summer 1831. at Barmouth. North Wales. Forsitan haec olim meminisse juvabit.' [Nottinghamshire Record Office] Text NRO-DD.SK.218.1


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