Introduction to Darwin's March 1872 cheque 'to self'
This cheque was discovered at Christ's College in November 2006. For many years a framed photograph of Charles Darwin hung on the end of a book case in the Old Library. Also inside the frame, just below the photograph, a small rectangular opening in the mount displayed the signature 'Ch. Darwin'. Upon opening the signature was found to be the endorsement on the back of a cheque.
The cheque is from the Union Bank of London, made out by Darwin 'to self' for 100 pounds on 21 March 1872.
The cheque is stamped: 'Paid Mar. 22' A hole in the centre probably indicates Darwin put the cheque on his spits. The left edge of the cheque reveals perforations where a stub has been removed.
What was Darwin doing on 21 March 1872? We know from his 'Journal' or diary (DAR158.1-76) that he and his family left their rented London holiday house on that very day to return to their home in the village of Downe, Kent
'Feb. 13 to March 21. London, 9 Devonshire St. Portland Place (5 weeks)'.
According to the Calendar of his correspondence, Darwin acknowledged payment from his American publisher on the 16th. American editions of Darwin's new book, The descent of man, had been in print since 1871.
So how did the cheque end up inside the frame with the photograph Darwin gave to Dyster? Dyster's nephew, Dr Francis Henry Hill Guillemard (1852-1933), a geographer and travel writer, signed the exhibition guest book at Christ's with Francis Darwin on 11 June 1909. Perhaps Francis Darwin offered the cheque from his father's papers as an example of his signature. Darwin's papers had now become so precious that the cheque was preserved, and the signature not just cut out.
And so the photograph, and the cheque bearing Darwin's signature, were sealed behind glass in 1909. In 1934 the frame was given to Christ's College (probably after the death of Guillemard) where it has hung ever since.
Both the photograph and the cheque have now been conserved according to modern standards.
John van Wyhe
Reproduced with permission of Christ's College, Cambridge.