RECORD: Darwin, Francis. 1917. Rustic sounds and other studies in literature and natural history. London: John Murray. [Darwin family recollections only].

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned and OCRed by John van Wyhe, corrected by Sue Asscher 12.2007. RN1

[page 1]


Sounds are to me more reminiscent than sights; they bring back the sensations of childhood, and indeed all memories of my past life, in a way more touching and clear than what is seen. Wendell Holmes claims the sense of smell as most closely associated with memory; for me, as I say, it is that of hearing.

In this paper I shall wander in imagination through the different seasons in the home of my youth, and let the recalled rustic sounds lead where they will.

To children there is something impressive and almost sacred in the changes of the seasons, in the onset of winter, or the clear approach of spring. The first of these changes was heralded for me by the appearance of puddles frozen to a shining white; mysterious because the frost had drunk them dry in roofing them with ice, and especially delightful in the sharp crackling sound they gave when trodden on. This was the noise of the beginning of winter. Another winter memory is the humming whistle of the boys' feet as they slid on the village pond, a remembrance that recalls my envious admiration of their heavily nailed boots, giving them an advantage in pace and a more noble style of sliding.

[page] 2

Another familiar sound was the wicked groaning crack that ran round the solitary pond on which we skated, as it unwillingly settled down to bear us on its surface. It had a threat in it, and reminded us how helpless we were, that the pond-spirit was our master and had our lives in its grip.

Another winter note was the hooting of invisible owls, boldly calling to each other from one moonlit tree to another. In the spring there was the querulous sound of the lambs, staggering half fledged in the cold fields among the half-eaten turnips beside their dirty yellow mothers. Not the sheep of the Dresden shepherdess, but rather of the old man in As You Like It, who warns Rosalind that shepherding has its ugly side. Yet it had something prophetic of more genial days.

Fig. 1.

As the sap began to rise in the trees my thoughts lightly turned to the making of whistles. I was taught the mystery by a labourer in my father's employ and never departed from his method. The first thing was to cut a branch of some likely tree, a horse-chestnut for choice, severing it by an oblique cut, removing a ring of bark R and notching it at N. The bark had then to be removed in one piece so as to make the tube of the whistle. The first thing was to suck the bark and thoroughly wet it—a process I now believe to have been entirely useless. The bark was next hammered

[page] 3

all over with the haft of the knife, which was held by the blade. Then when the inner layer of the bark was well bruised, it could be removed in one piece. To effect this I was taught to hold it in my handkerchief, and after a twist or two, a delicious yielding was experienced and the bark slipped off. The shiny white stick which remained in the other hand had to be cut in half, shaved in a particular way and again fitted into its bark tube. Then came the exciting moment,—would the thing whistle? The joy was short lived, and the whistles soon dried and shrank and ceased to satisfy the artist. But it was always possible to make a new one.

Since the above description was written, there has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (February 22, 1917, p. 90) a notice of the poems of a Canadian writer1 from which the reviewer quotes the following beautiful lines:

"So in the shadow by the nimble flood,
He made her whistles of the willow wood,
Flutes of one note with mellow slender tone;
(A robin piping in the dark alone).
Lively the pleasure was the wand to bruise,
And notch the light rod for its lyric use,
Until the stem gave up its slender sheath,
And showed the white and glistening wood beneath.
And when the ground was covered with light chips,
Grey leaves and green, and twigs and tender slips,"...


1 Lundy's Land, and other Poems, by Duncan Campbell Scott, Toronto.

[page] 4

This could only have been written by one perfectly familiar with the art of whistle-making. But it seems to have been misunderstood by the reviewer, who says that he "once came upon one of these small Æolian harps in a wooded isle in the 'Land of Afternoon,'"...and decided "that it was a work of superstition by Indian hands." As an Æolian harp is a stringed instrument sounded by the wind, and a whistle belongs to the very distinct class of musical things sounded by human breath, I can only suppose that the reviewer has misunderstood the poem.

I cannot leave the Canadian poet without a reference to the beautiful line, ("A robin piping in the dark alone.") A Canadian robin must surely make a song like ours, who seems also to sing in parenthesis.

The other form of rustic pipe that pleased me was a sort of oboe made from a dandelion stalk by squeezing it at one end. It had a rough nasal note, which could be controlled by holes cut in the stalk and stopped with the fingers. This again was but brief satisfaction, for the two halves of the reed soon curled outwards and ceased to speak. In later life this curling outwards was made use of in my work in the physiology of plants. I like to remember that my primæval oboe gave me the idea.

The village boys made 'musics' by fixing strips of laurel leaf into a split stick, and blowing violently into them, which set the leaf vibrating and made a coarse scream, but this instrument we despised, and I think rightly, for it had none of the

[page] 5

pleasant tone of the whistle, nor was there any art in the making of it.

A primæval musical instrument called the 'Whit horn' I have seen in the possession of the late Mr. Taphouse, of Oxford. It is a conical tube of bark held together with thorns and sounded by means of a rough oboe-reed made of bark; there were no finger-holes, and is said to have yielded a harsh shriek on one note. It was, I think, played on May 1st, or else at Whitsuntide. It is to Mr. Taphouse that I owe my introduction to the pipe and tabor which form the subject of a paper in this volume. The pipe is shrill in its upper register, but this is no great fault in an instrument meant to be played out of doors: the same fault is to be found with the flageolet, and the penny whistle. But the last named instrument is reminiscent of a man playing outside a London public-house, and we know from the story of the perfidious Sergeant in The Wrong Box to what lengths it may lead us.1

The most truly rustic instrument (and here I mean an instrument of polite life—an orchestral instrument) is undoubtedly the oboe. The bassoon runs it hard, but has a touch of comedy and a stronger flavour of necromancy, while the oboe is quite good and simple in nature and is excessively in earnest; it seems to have in it the ghost of a sunburnt boy playing to himself under a tree, in a ragged shirt unbuttoned at the throat, a boy created by Velasquez. To


1 I have an antiquarian interest in the penny whistle as being a poor relation of the "recorder" of our forefathers.

[page] 6

hear an oboe actually played as a rustic instrument one must go to Brittany, where it accompanies the national bagpipe or 'biniou.' To a reed-instrument player it was painful to see the oboist bite a bit off his reed when the tone was not to his liking!

From this digression, originating in the whistle cut from a horse-chestnut bough, I return to some less artificial sounds. I must say a word about the song of birds, but my knowledge of the subject is but small. The most obvious of spring-time sounds is the voice of the cuckoo. I confess to liking the muttering chuckle which, in an unscientific mood, I have supposed to mean that an egg has successfully been laid in a hedge-sparrow's nest. But the cuckoo's "word in a minor third" is always delightful. The bird is neither more nor less of a foreigner than a willow-wren, yet he has, in comparison to the wren's subdued chromatic warble, a song so self-assertive, and a tone so unlike our other birds, that one feels him an obvious exotic, a foreigner of so glorious and dashing a nature that one is grateful to him for singing among flat ploughed lands and monotonous hedges. I fancy the Welsh proverb, "Who would have thought the cuckoo would sing on the turf-heaps of the mountains," is a poetic reflexion of this thought.

Of the nightingale I have nothing to say, except to put on record a true remark of Sir Charles Stanford's, viz., that he sings in a syncopated rhythm. But, though I lived in a nightingale land, it is another bird that most clearly brings back to me the country of my boyhood, I mean the night-

[page] 7

jar. He has something of antique mystery which I do not find in the nightingale, as he purrs on his only note through the warm night. There is something unknown and primæval and vaguely threatening in his relentless simplicity. Can it be that I inherit from a stone-age ancestor both the fear and love of the bull-roarer?

Another bird that moves one in a very different way is the robin, of whom it is hard to say whether he has more of tears or smiles in his recitative. In comparison to the night-jar he seems like a civilised human soul who has quite modern sorrows, and has half forgotten them in quiet contentment with the autumn sunshine. The blackbird has a tinge of the robin's sentiment, but it is over-borne by the glory of his song as a whole, which is pure gold, like his beak.

The chaffinch is not an interesting person, and he is so numerous that one soon becomes weary of him and his song. Let us hope that he expresses his real nature in the building of his pretty nest rather than in song. This must, I think, often happen, and to take an example from human builders, it is not inconceivable that the architect of St. John's College Chapel, Cambridge, may have sung delightfully. But there are limits to one's faith, and personally I cannot imagine the desecrator of Pembroke College in the same injured town of Cambridge practising any art in a way that would please me.

To return to birds—the greenfinch is a pleasant singer, or perhaps a conversationalist. I am never tired of hearing him repeat the word "Squeese" as

[page] 8

he sits hidden in the heavy shade of the summer elms. His twinkling bell-note with its contented simplicity is also attractive. His cousin, the bunting, makes remarks not unlike those of the greenfinch; and he appears to address them by preference to the travellers on dusty high roads, where he passes much of his time sitting on telegraph wires. The anchorite yellow-hammer persistently declining cheese with his bread is always pleasant. Professor Newton used to say that the spring begins with the yellow-hammer's song. According to Blomefield's Calendar1 the average date in Cambridgeshire is February 16, but he has been known to sing on January 30—rather a wintry beginning for spring. I have never made up my mind as to what the kitty-wren says or sings. He is always in a desperate hurry to get through his piece, as if he were afraid of lagging behind the beat of some invisible conductor. In consequence of this there is a want of restraint, and a style that suggests a shy child gabbling a show bit of poetry. But I repent these words for I love the kitty-wren.

There are a multitude of other bird-sounds which are pleasant to hear as their turn comes round, for instance, the complaint of the wryneck, the "cuckoo's mate," who seems to me to be querulously expressing his dislike to my garden, which he tries year after year and deserts after a day or two.

I have never heard that contented bird the


1 A Naturalist's Calendar, by Leonard Blomefield (formerly Jenyns). Cambridge University Press, 1903.

[page] 9

quail, who should be a wholesome lesson to all wrynecks. I should like to hear him as Schubert has him:

"Sitzend im Grünen
      Mit Halmen umhüllt,"

and singing "Lobe Gott" all day in the rhythm with which the oboe praises God in the Pastoral Symphony.

Another bird, whom I take for a contented fellow, is the green woodpecker, for he goes through life laughing, but I am not quite sure that I should like his taste in jokes. He is always associated in my mind with a passage in a letter of my father's: "At last I fell fast asleep on the grass, and awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me; and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing, and it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw, and I did not care one penny how any of the beasts or birds had been formed."1

There are many noises rather than notes which are most pleasant to hear. The invisible industrious corncrake, whose persistent cry comes from nowhere and everywhere at once. The harsh warning of the jay who seems to say "Man! man!" as he skulks off when his wood is invaded. The rough noise of the ox-eye sharpening his little saw, and many others.

Then I must not forget the noise of birds in flocks, ranging from the familiar wrangle of sparrows noisily going to roost, to the mysterious sound of


1 Life and Letters, Vol. II., p. 114.


[page] 10

great flights of birds migrating at night, one of the most romantic of sounds, but to me untranslatable, since I do not know the language of these wanderers.

I come now to human sounds. It was exciting to wake at 5 o'clock some morning in June, and to learn by the sound of scythes being whetted that the mowers had arrived, and that the hay harvest had actually begun. The field had been a great sea of tall grasses, pink with sorrel and white with dog-daisies, a sacred sea into which we might not enter. But now we could at least follow the mowers, and watch the growth of the tracks made by their shifting feet, and listen to the swish of the scythes as the swathes of fallen grass and flowers also grew in length. There was something military in their rhythm, and something relentless and machine-like in their persistence. But our admiration was mixed with pity from the time that one of them told us that after the first day's mowing he was too tired to sleep. In later years another sound was associated with haymaking, when in an Alpine meadow the group of resting peasants were heard hammering the blades of their little pre-Raphaelite scythes to flatten the dents made by stones hidden among the grass.

A well-remembered sound that came near the end of the harvest was the cry of "Stand fast!" which was heard at intervals warning the man in the cart, whose duty it was to arrange the pitched-up hay, that a move was to be made. Why it was necessary to shout the warning so that it could be heard a quarter of a mile away I cannot say. But its impressive effect depended

[page] 11

on its loud chant-like tone. This sound is connected with recollections of riding in the empty hay-cart, from the sea-green stack mysteriously growing in the corner of the field back to where hay waited to be carted. The inside of the hay-cart was enchantingly polished, and also full of hay-seed, which had a charm for me. The hay-making at Down was a leisurely affair, with many women gossiping as they gently turned the hay. There was, however, one man of whom we children were much afraid, a fierce red-eyed old labourer who acted as foreman, and did not hesitate to show that he thought us out of place in a hay-field.

One sound there was peculiar to Down,—I mean the sound of drawing water. In that dry chalky country we depended for drinking-water on a deep well from which it came up cold and pure in buckets. These were raised by a wire rope wound on a spindle turned by a heavy fly-wheel, and it was the monotonous song of the turning wheel that became so familiar to us. The well-house, gloomily placed among laurel bushes, had a sort of terrifying attraction for us, and I remember dropping pebbles and waiting—it seemed ages—for them to fall into the water below. We believed the well to be 365 feet deep, also that this was the height of the dome of St. Paul's—I have never tested the truth of either statement. The opening was roofed in by a pair of hinged flaps, or doors, and I especially liked the moment when the rising bucket crashed into the doors from below, throwing them open with a brutal and roystering air, which one forgave it as having made a long and dangerous journey

[page] 12

up from the distant water. But the best was when the empty bucket went down, and the fly-wheel spun round till its spokes were invisible. Then was the time to remember the death of a dog (called Dick) who was killed by jumping through the flying wheel. I envied my elder brothers who could actually remember Dick: to me he was only a tragic myth. I imagine that in hot dry weather more water was drawn, or else that being more constantly out of doors we heard more of it. It is at least certain that the sound of the well came to be associated with peaceful days and happy weather in that dear garden.

Another sound I like to recall is connected with the memory of my father. He daily took a certain number of turns round a little wood planted by himself, and christened the Sandwalk. As he paced round it he struck his heavy iron-shod walking-stick against the ground, and its rhythmical click became a familiar sound that spoke of his presence near us, and was associated with his constant sympathy in our pursuits. It is a sound that seems to me to have lasted all those years that stretch from misty childish days until his death. I am sure that all his children loved that sound.

February, 1912.

[page] 13




Francis Galton was born on February 16th, ninety-two years ago, and to-day we are met together to remember him—a word that seems to me more in tune with his nature than the more formal expression commemorate.

He disliked pomposity, but he seems to have loved little private ceremonials. For instance, when he opened the first notebook in preparation for his autobiographical Memories, he began page 1 with Falstaff's words: "Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying"—an inverted appeal to truth which no man ever stood less in need of. And again, at the foot of the very last page of his Memories is a drawing of Galtonia candicans, a little ceremony without words, a hieroglyphic glorification of the honour paid him in giving his name to this African plant.

Many persons, and even some reviewers, form their opinions of books by reading half-a-dozen passages at random. I have been more scientific in selecting the first and last pages, and from these I conclude that a simple and kindly commemora-


1 This, the first Galton Lecture, was delivered before the Eugenics Education Society, February 16th, 1914, and is, by permission, reprinted, with some changes, from the Eugenics Review, 1914.

[page] 152



George Howard, the fifth2 child of Charles and Emma Darwin, was born at Down, July 9th, 1845. Why he was christened3 George, I cannot say. It was one of the facts on which we founded a theory that our parents lost their presence of mind at the font, and gave us names for which there was neither the excuse of tradition nor of preference on their own part. His second name, however, commemorates his great-grandmother, Mary Howard, the first wife of Erasmus Darwin. It seems possible that George's ill-health and that of his father were inherited from the Howards. This, at any rate, was Francis Galton's view, who held that his own excellent health was a heritage from Erasmus Darwin's second wife. George's second name, Howard, has a certain appropriateness in his case, for he was the genealogist and herald of our family, and it is through Mary Howard that the Darwins can, by an excessively devious route, claim descent


1 Reprinted, with corrections (by the kind permission of the Syndics of the University Press), from Vol. V. of Sir G. Darwin's Scientific Papers. The biographical sketch of my brother is reproduced in a somewhat abbreviated version and does not contain Prof. E. W. Brown's contribution.

2 The third of those who survived childhood.

3 At Maer, the Staffordshire home of his mother.

[page] 153

from certain eminent people, e.g. John of Gaunt. This is shown in the pedigrees which George wrote out, and in the elaborate genealogical tree published in Professor's Pearson's Life of Francis Galton. George's parents had moved to Down in September 1842, and he was born to those quiet surroundings of which Charles Darwin wrote, "My life goes on like clock-work, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it." It would have been difficult to find a more retired place so near London. In 1842 a coach drive of some twenty miles was the only means of access to Down; and even now that railways have crept closer to it, it is singularly out of the world, with little to suggest the neighbourhood of London, unless it be the dull haze of smoke that sometimes clouds the sky. In 1842 such a village, communicating with the main lines of traffic only by stony tortuous lanes, may well have been enabled to retain something of its primitive character. Nor is it hard to believe in the smugglers and their strings of pack-horses making their way up from the lawless old villages of the Weald, of which the memory then still lingered.1

George retained throughout life his deep love for Down. For the lawn with its bright strip of flowers, and for the row of big lime trees that bordered it; for the two yew trees between which we children had our swing, and for many another characteristic which had become as dear and as familiar to him as a human face. He retained his youthful love of the "Sand-walk," a little wood far


1 Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I., p. 319.


[page] 154

enough from the house to have for us a romantic character of its own.

George loved the country round Down, and all its dry chalky valleys of ploughed land, with "shaws," i.e. broad straggling hedges on their crests, bordered by strips of flowery turf. The country is traversed by many foot-paths; these George knew well and used skilfully in our walks, in which he was generally the leader. His love for the house and the neighbourhood was, I think, entangled with his deepest feelings. In later years his children came with their parents to Down, and they vividly remember his excited happiness, and how he enjoyed showing them his ancient haunts.

In this retired region Charles Darwin's children led a singularly quiet life, practically without friends, and dependent on their brothers and sisters for companionship. George's earliest recollection was of drumming with his spoon and fork on the nursery table because dinner was late, while a barrel-organ played outside. Other memories were less personal; for instance, the firing of guns when Sebastopol was supposed to have been taken. His diary of 1852 shows a composite interest in current events and in the picturesqueness of Natural History: "The Duke is dead. Dodos are out of the world."

He perhaps carried rather far the good habit of re-reading one's favourite authors. He told his children that for a year or so he read through every day the story of Jack the Giant Killer, in a little chap-book with coloured pictures. He early showed

[page] 155

signs of the energy which marked his character in later life. I am glad to remember that I became his companion and willing slave. There was much playing at soldiers, and I have a clear remembrance of our marching with toy guns and knapsacks across the field to the Sand-walk. There we made our bivouac with gingerbread, and milk warmed (and generally smoked) over a "touch-wood" fire. I was a private while George was a sergeant, and it was part of my duty to stand sentry at the far end of the kitchen-garden until released by a bugle-call from the lawn. I have a vague remembrance of presenting my fixed bayonet at my father to ward off a kiss, which seemed to me inconsistent with my military duties. Our imaginary names and heights were written up on the wall of the cloak-room. George, with romantic exactitude, made a small foot rule of such a size that he could conscientiously record his height as 6 feet, and mine as slightly less, in accordance with my age and station.

Under my father's instruction George made spears with weighted heads, which he hurled with remarkable skill by means of an Australian throwing stick. I used to skulk behind the big lime trees on the lawn in the character of victim, and I still remember the look of the spear flying through the air with a certain venomous waggle. Indoors, too, we threw at each other wooden javelins, which we received on beautiful shields made by the village carpenter and decorated with coats of arms.

Heraldry was a serious pursuit of his for many

[page] 156

years, and the London Library copies of Guillim and Edmonson1 were generally at Down. He retained a love of the science through life, and his copy of Percy's Reliques is decorated with coats of arms admirably drawn and painted. In later life he showed a power of neat and accurate draughtsmanship, and some of the illustrations in his father's books, e.g. in Climbing Plants, are by his hand.

His early education was given by governesses, but the boys of the family used to ride twice or thrice a week to be instructed in Latin by Mr. Reed, the Rector of Hayes—the kindest of teachers. For myself, I chiefly remember the cake we used to have at 11 o'clock, and the occasional diversion of looking at the pictures in the great Dutch Bible. George must have impressed his parents with his solidity and self-reliance, since he was more than once allowed to undertake alone the 20-mile ride to the house of a relative at Hartfield in Sussex. For a boy of ten to bait his pony and order his luncheon at the Edenbridge inn was probably more alarming than the rest of the adventure. There is indeed a touch of David Copperfield in his recollections as preserved in family tradition. The waiter always said, "What will you have for lunch, Sir?" to which he replied, "What is there?" and the waiter said, "Eggs and bacon"; and though he hated bacon more than anything else in the world, he felt obliged to have it.


1 Guillim, John, A Display of Heraldry, 6th ed., folio 1724. Edmonson, J., A Complete Body of Heraldry, folio, 1780.

[page] 157

On August 16th, 1856, George was sent to school. Our elder brother, William, was at Rugby, and his parents felt his long absences from home such an evil that they fixed on the Clapham Grammar School for their younger sons. Besides its nearness to Down, Clapham had the merit of giving more mathematics and science than could then be found in public schools. It was kept by the Rev. Charles Pritchard,1 a man of strong character, and with a gift for teaching mathematics by which George undoubtedly profited. In, I think, 1861 Pritchard left Clapham and was succeeded by the Rev. Alfred Wrigley, a man of kindly mood but without the force or vigour of Pritchard. As a mathematical instructor I imagine Wrigley was a good drill-master rather than an inspiring teacher. Under him the place degenerated to some extent; it no longer sent so many boys to the Universities, and became more like a "crammer's" and less like a public school. My own recollections of George at Clapham are coloured by an abiding gratitude for his kindly protection of me as a shrinking and very unhappy "new boy" in 1860.

George records in his diary that in 1863 he tried in vain for a Minor Scholarship at St. John's College, Cambridge, and again failed to get one at Trinity in 1864, though he became a Foundation Scholar in 1866. These facts suggested to me that his capacity as a mathematician was the result of slow growth. I accordingly applied to Lord


1 Afterwards Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. Born 1808, died 1893.

[page] 158

Moulton, who was kind enough to give me his impressions:

My memories of your brother during his undergraduate career correspond closely to your suggestion that his mathematical power developed somewhat slowly and late. Throughout most, if not the whole, of his undergraduate years he was in the same class as myself and Christie, the ex-Astronomer Royal, at Routh's.1 We all recognised him as one who was certain of being high in the Tripos, but he did not display any of that colossal power of work and taking infinite trouble that characterised him afterwards. On the contrary, he treated his work rather jauntily. At that time his health was excellent and he took his studies lightly, so that they did not interfere with his enjoyment of other things.2 I remember that as the time of the examination came near I used to tell him that he was unfairly handicapped in being in such robust health and such excellent spirits.

Even when he had taken his degree I do not think he realised his innate mathematical power....It has been a standing wonder to me that he developed the patience for making the laborious numerical calculations on which so much of his most original work was necessarily based. He certainly showed no tendency in that direction during his undergraduate years.


1 The late Mr. Routh was the most celebrated mathematical "Coach" of his day.

2 Compare Charles Darwin's words: "George has not slaved himself, which makes his success the more satisfactory" (More Letters of C. Darwin, Vol. II., p. 287).

[page] 159

Indeed, he told me more than once in later life that he detested arithmetic, and that these calculations were as tedious and painful to him as they would have been to any other man, but that he realised that they must be done, and that it was impossible to train anyone else to do them.

As a Freshman he 'kept' (i.e. lived) in A 6, the staircase at the N.W. corner of the New Court, afterwards moving to F 3 in the Old Court, pleasant rooms entered by a spiral staircase on the south side of the Great Gate. Below him, in the ground floor room, now used as the College offices, lived Mr. Colvill, who remained a faithful but rarely seen friend as long as George lived.

Lord Moulton, who, as we have seen, was a fellow pupil of George's at Routh's, was held even as a Freshman to be an assured Senior Wrangler, a prophecy that he easily made good. The second place was held by George, and was a much more glorious position than he had dared to hope for. In those days the examiners read out the list in the Senate House at an early hour, 8 a.m. I think. George remained in bed and sent me to bring the news. I remember charging out through the crowd the moment the magnificent "Darwin of Trinity" had followed the expected "Moulton of St. John's." I have a general impression of a cheerful crowd sitting on George's bed and literally almost smothering him with congratulations. He received the following characteristic letter from his father1:


1 Emma Darwin, A Century of Family Letters, 1915. Vol. II., p. 187.

[page] 160

DOWN, Jan. 24th [1868].           

My dear old fellow,

I am so pleased. I congratulate you with all my heart and soul. I always said from your early days that such energy, perseverance and talent as yours would be sure to succeed: but I never expected such brilliant success as this. Again and again I congratulate you. But you have made my hand tremble so I can hardly write. The telegram came here at eleven. We have written to W. and the boys.

God bless you, my dear old fellow—may your life so continue.

Your affectionate Father,


In those days the Tripos examination was held in the winter, and the successful candidates got their degrees early in the Lent Term. George records in his diary that he took his B.A. on January 25th, 1868; also that he won the second of the two Smith's Prizes—the first being the natural heritage of the Senior Wrangler. There is little to record in this year. He had a pleasant time in the summer, coaching Clement, the nephew of Sir Charles Bunbury, at his beautiful place Barton Hall in Suffolk. In the autumn he was elected a Fellow of Trinity, as he records, "with Galabin, young Niven, Clifford, [Sir Frederick] Pollock, and [Sir Sidney] Colvin." W. K. Clifford was the well-known brilliant mathematician who died comparatively early.

Chief among his Cambridge friends were the

[page] 161

brothers Arthur, Gerald, and Frank Balfour. The last-named was killed, aged 31, in a climbing accident in 1882 on the Aiguille Blanche near Courmayeur. He was remarkable both for his scientific work and for his striking and most lovable personality. George's affection for him never faded. His daughter remembers her father (not long before his death) saying with emotion, "I dreamed Frank Balfour was alive." I imagine that tennis was the means of bringing George into contact with Mr. Arthur Balfour. What began in this chance way grew into an enduring friendship, and George's diary shows how much kindness and hospitality he received from Mr. Balfour. George had also the advantage of knowing Lord Rayleigh at Cambridge, and retained his friendship through his life.

In the spring of 1869 he was in Paris for two months working at French. His teacher used to make him write original compositions, and George gained a reputation for humour by giving French versions of all the old Joe Millers and ancient stories he could remember.

It was his intention to make the Bar his profession,1 and in October 1869 we find him reading with Mr. Tatham, in 1870 and 1872 with the late Mr. Montague Crackenthorpe (then Cookson), and in November 1871 he was a pupil of Mr. W. G. Harrison. The most valued result of his legal work was the friendship of Mr. and Mrs. Crackenthorpe, which he retained throughout his


1 He was called in 1874 but did not practise.

[page] 162

life. During these years we find the first indications of the circumstances which forced him to give up a legal career—namely, his failing health and his growing inclination towards science.1 Thus in the summer of 1869, when we were all at Caerdeon in the Barmouth valley, he writes that he "fell ill," and again in the winter of 1871. His health deteriorated markedly during 1872 and 1873. In the former year he went to Malvern and to Homburg without deriving any advantage. I have an impression that he did not expect to survive these attacks, but I cannot say at what date he made this forecast of an early death. In January 1873 he visited Cannes, and "came back very ill." It was in the spring of this year that he first consulted Dr. (afterwards Sir Andrew) Clark, from whom he received the kindest care. George suffered from digestive troubles, sickness, and general discomfort and weakness. Dr. Clark's care probably did what was possible to make life more bearable, and as time went on his health gradually improved. In 1894 he consulted the late Dr. Eccles, and by means of the rest-cure, then something of a novelty, his weight increased from 9 stone to 9 stone 11 pounds. I gain the impression that this treatment produced a permanent improvement, although his health remained a serious handicap throughout his life.


1 As a boy he had energetically collected Lepidoptera during the years 1858-61; the first vague indications of a leaning towards physical science may perhaps be found in his joining the Sicilian eclipse expedition, December, 1870-January, 1871. It appears from Nature, December 1, 1870, that George was told off to make sketches of the Corona.

[page] 163

Meanwhile he had determined on giving up the Bar, and settled in October 1873, when he was 28 years old, at Trinity in Nevile's Court next the Library (G 4). His diary continues to contain records of ill-health and of various holidays in search of improvement. Thus in 1873 we read, "Very bad during January. Went to Cannes and stayed till the end of April." Again in 1874, "February to July very ill." In spite of unwellness he began in 1872-3 to write on various subjects. He sent to Macmillan's Magazine1 an entertaining article, "Development in Dress," where the survivals in modern costume were recorded and discussed from the standpoint of evolution. In 1873 he wrote "On beneficial restriction to liberty of marriage,"2 a eugenic article for which he was attacked with gross unfairness and bitterness by the late St. George Mivart. He was defended by Huxley; and Charles Darwin formally ceased all intercourse with Mivart. We find mention of a "Globe Paper for the British Association" in 1873. And in the following year he read a contribution on "Probable Error" to the Mathematical Society3—on which he writes in his diary, "found it was old." Besides another paper in the Messenger of Mathematics, he reviewed "Whitney on Language,"4 and wrote a "Defence of Jevons" which I have not been able to trace. In 1875 he was at work on the


1 Macmillan's Magazine, 1872, Vol. XXVI., pp. 410-416.

2 Contemporary Review, 1873, Vol. XXII., pp. 412-426.

3 Not published.

4 Contemporary Review, 1874, Vol. XXIV., pp. 894-904.

[page] 164

"Flow of Pitch," on an "Equipotential Tracer," on slide rules, and sent a paper on "Cousin Marriages" to the Statistical Society.1 It is not my province to deal with these papers; they are enumerated here as showing his activity of mind and his varied interests,—features in his character which were notable throughout life.

The most interesting entry in his diary for 1875 is a "Paper on Equipotentials much approved by Sir W. Thomson." This is the first notice of an association of primary importance in George's scientific career. Then came his memoir, "On the influence of geological changes in the earth's axis of rotation." Lord Kelvin was one of the referees appointed by the Council of the Royal Society to report on this paper, which was published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1877.

In his diary, November 1878, George records, "Paper on tides ordered to be printed." This refers to his work, "On the bodily tides of viscous and semi-elastic spheroids, etc.," published in the Phil. Trans., in 1879. It was in regard to this paper that his father wrote to George on October 29th, 18782:

My dear old George,

I have been quite delighted with your letter and read it all with eagerness. You were very good to write it. All of us are delighted, for considering what a man Sir


1 Journal of the Statistical Society, 1875, Vol. XXXVIII., pt. 2, pp. 153-182, also pp. 183-184, and pp. 344-348.

2 Probably he heard informally at the end of October what was not formally determined till November.

[page] 165

William Thomson is, it is most grand that you should have staggered him so quickly, and that he should speak of your 'discovery, etc.'... Hurrah for the bowels of the earth and their viscosity, and for the moon and for the Heavenly bodies, and for my son George (F.R.S. very soon)....1

The bond of pupil and master between George Darwin and Lord Kelvin, originating in the years 1877-8, was to be a permanent one, and developed, not merely into scientific co-operation, but into a close friendship. Sir Joseph Larmor has recorded2 that George's "tribute to Lord Kelvin, to whom he dedicated Volume I of his Collected Papers3...gave lively pleasure to his master and colleague." His words were:

Early in my scientific career it was my good fortune to be brought into close personal relationship with Lord Kelvin. Many visits to Glasgow and to Largs have brought me to look up to him as my master, and I cannot find words to express how much I owe to his friendship and to his inspiration.

During these years there is evidence that he continued to enjoy the friendship of Lord Rayleigh and of Mr. Balfour. We find in his diary records


1 Emma Darwin, A Century of Family Letters, 1915, Vol. II., p. 233.

2 Nature, December 12, 1912.

3 It was in 1907 that the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press asked George to prepare a reprint of his scientific papers, which were published in five volumes. George was deeply gratified at an honour that placed him in the same class as Lord Kelvin, Stokes, Cayley, Adams, Clerk Maxwell, Lord Rayleigh, and other men of distinction.

[page] 166

of visits to Terling and to Whittingehame, or of luncheons at Mr. Balfour's house in Carlton Gardens, for which George's scientific committee work in London gave frequent opportunity. In the same way there are many records of visits to Francis Galton, with whom he was united alike by kinship and affection.

Few people indeed can have taken more pains to cultivate friendship than did George. This trait was the product of his affectionate and eminently sociable nature, and of his characteristic energy and activity. In earlier life he travelled a good deal in search of health,1 and in after years he attended numerous congresses as a representative of scientific bodies. He thus had unusual opportunities of making the acquaintance of men of other nationalities, and some of his warmest friendships were with foreigners. In passing through Paris he rarely failed to visit M. and Mme d'Estournelles and "the d'Abbadies." It was in Algiers in 1878 and 1879 that he cemented his friendship with the late J. F. MacLennan, author of Primitive Marriage; and in 1880 he was at Davos with the same friends. In 1881 he went to Madeira, where he received much kindness from the Blandy family—doubtless through the recommendation of Lady Kelvin.


We have seen that George was elected a Fellow of Trinity in October 1868, and that five years


1 Thus in 1872 he was in Homburg, 1873 in Cannes, 1874 in Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Malta, 1876 in Italy and Sicily

[page] 167

later (October 1873) he began his second lease of a Cambridge existence. There is at first little to record: he held at this time no official position, and when his Fellowship expired he continued to live in College, busy with his research work, and laying down the earlier tiers of the monumental series of papers which he gave to the world. This soon led to his being proposed (in November 1877) for the Royal Society, and elected in June 1879. The principal event in this stage of his Cambridge life was his election in 1883 as Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy.1 His predecessor in the Chair was Professor Challis, who had held office since 1836, and is now chiefly remembered in connection with Adams and the planet Neptune. The professorship is not necessarily connected with the Observatory, and practical astronomy formed no part of George's duties. His lectures being on advanced mathematics usually attracted but few students; in the Long Vacation, however, when he habitually gave one of his courses, there was often a fairly large class.


1 The voting at University elections is in theory strictly confidential, but in practice this is unfortunately not always the case. George records in his diary the names of the five who voted for him and of the four who supported another candidate. None of the electors are now living. The election occurred in January, and in June he had the great pleasure and honour of being re-elected to a Trinity Fellowship. His daughter, Madame Raverat, writes: "Once, when I was walking with my father on the road to Madingley village, he told me how he had walked there on the first Sunday he ever was at Cambridge with two or three other freshmen; and how, when they were about opposite the old chalk pit, one of them betted him £20 that he (my father) would never be a professor of Cambridge University: 'and' said my father, with great indignation, 'he never paid me.'"

[page] 168

George's relations with his class have been sympathetically treated by Professor E. W. Brown,1 than whom no one can speak with more authority, since he was one of my brother's favourite pupils.

In the late '70's George began to be appointed to various University Boards and Syndicates. Thus from 1878-82 he was on the Museums and Lecture Rooms Syndicate. In 1879 he was placed on the Observatory Syndicate, of which he became an official member in 1883 on his election to the Plumian Professorship. In the same way he was on the Special Board for Mathematics. He was a member of the Financial Board from 1900-1 to 1903-4, and on the Council of the Senate in 1905-6 and 1908-9. But he never became a professional syndic—one of those virtuous persons who spend their lives in University affairs. In his obituary of George (Nature, December 12, 1912), Sir Joseph Larmor writes:

In the affairs of the University, of which he was an ornament, Sir George Darwin made a substantial mark, though it cannot be said that he possessed the patience in discussion that is sometimes a necessary condition to taking a share in its administration. But his wide acquaintance and friendships among the statesmen and men of affairs of the time, dating often from undergraduate days, gave him openings for usefulness on a wider plane. Thus, at a time when residents were bewailing even more than usual the inadequacy of the


1 In the second part of the Preface to the fifth volume of Sir G. H. Darwin's Scientific Papers, 1916.

[page] 169

resources of the University for the great expansion which the scientific progress of the age demanded, it was largely on his initiative that, by a departure from all precedent, an unofficial body was constituted in 1899 under the name of the Cambridge University Association, to promote the further endowment of the University by interesting its graduates throughout the Empire in its progress and its more pressing needs. This important body, which was organised under the strong lead of the late Duke of Devonshire, then Chancellor, comprises as active members most of the public men who owe allegiance to Cambridge, and has already by its interest and help powerfully stimulated the expansion of the University into new fields of national work, though it has not yet achieved financial support on anything like the scale to which American seats of learning are accustomed.

The Master of Christ's writes:

May 31st, 1915.           

My impression is that George did not take very much interest in the petty details which are so beloved by a certain type of University authority. 'Comma hunting' and such things were not to his taste, and at meetings he was often rather distrait, but when anything of real importance came up he was of extraordinary use. He was especially good at drafting letters, and over anything that he thought promoted the advancement of the University along the right lines he would take endless trouble—writing and re-writing reports and letters till he got them to his taste. The


[page] 170

sort of movements which interested him most were those which connected Cambridge with the outside world. He was especially interested in the Appointments Board. A good many of us constantly sought his advice, and nearly always took it: but, as I say, I do not think he cared much about the 'parish pump,' and was usually worried at long meetings.

Professor Newall has also been good enough to give me his impressions:

His weight in the committees on which I have had personal experience of his influence seems to me to have depended in large measure on his realising very clearly the distinction between the importance of ends to be aimed at and the difficulty of harmonising the personal characteristics of the men who might be involved in the work needed to attain the ends. The ends he always took seriously—the crotchets he often took humorously, to the great easement of many situations that are liable to arise on a committee. I can imagine that to those who had corns his direct progress may at times have seemed unsympathetic and hasty. He was ready to take much trouble in formulating statements of business with great precision—a result doubtless of his early legal experiences. I recall how he would say, "If a thing has to be done, the minute should if possible make some individual responsible for doing it." He would ask, "Who is going to do the work? If a man has to take the responsibility, we must do what we can to help him, and not hamper him by unnecessary restrictions and criticisms." His helpfulness

[page] 171

came from his quickness in seizing the important point and his readiness to take endless trouble in the important work of looking into details before and after the meetings. The amount of work that he did in response to the requirements of various Committees was very great, and it was curious to realise in how many cases he seemed to have diffidence as to the value of his contributions.

But on the whole, the work which, he was able to carry out, in addition to professional duties and research, was in matters of general importance unconnected with the University. To these we shall return.

In 1884 he became engaged to Miss Maud Du Puy of Philadelphia. She came of an old Huguenot stock, descending from Dr. John Du Puy, who was born in France in 1679, and settled in New York in 1713. They were married on July 22nd, 1884, and this event happily coloured the remainder of George's life. As time went on, and existence became fuller and busier, she was able by her never-failing devotion to shield him from fatigue and anxiety. In this way he was helped and protected in the various semi-public functions in which he took a principal part. Nor was her help valued only on these occasions, for indeed the comfort and happiness of every day was in her charge. There is a charming letter1 from George's mother, dated April 15th, 1884:

Maud had to put on her wedding-dress in order to say at the Custom-house in America


1 Emma Darwin, A Century of Family Letters. Privately printed, 1904, Vol. II., p. 350.

[page] 172

that she had worn it, so we asked her to come down and show it to us. She came down with great simplicity and quietness...only really pleased at its being admired and at looking pretty herself, which was strikingly the case. She was a little shy at coming in, and sent in Mrs. Jebb to ask George to come out and see it first and bring her in. It was handsome and simple. I like seeing George so frivolous, so deeply interested in which diamond trinket should be my present, and in her new Paris morning dress, in which he felt quite unfit to walk with her.

Later, probably in June, George's mother wrote1 to Miss Du Puy, "Your visit here was a great happiness to me, as something in you (I don't know what) made me feel sure you would always be sweet and kind to George when he is ill and uncomfortable." These simple and touching words may be taken as a true forecast of his happy married life.

In March 1885 George acquired by purchase the house Newnham Grange,2 which remained his home to the end of his life. It stands at the southern end of the 'Backs,' within a few yards of the river where it bends eastward in flowing from the upper to the lower of the two Newnham water-mills. I remember forebodings as to dampness,


1 Emma Darwin, A Century of Family Letters, 1915, Vol. II., p. 266.

2 At that time it was known simply as Newnham, but as this is the name of the College, and was also in use for a growing region of houses, the Darwins christened it Newnham Grange. The name Newnham is now officially applied to the region extending from Silver Street Bridge to the Barton Road.

[page] 173

but they proved wrong—even the cellars being remarkably dry. The house is built of faded yellowish bricks, with old tiles on the roof, and has a pleasant home-like air. It was formerly the house of the Beales family,1 one of the old merchant stocks of Cambridge. This fact accounts for the great barn-like granaries which occupied much of the plot near the high road. These buildings were in part pulled down, thus making room for a lawn tennis court, while what was not demolished made a gallery looking on the court, as well as play-room for the children. At the eastern end of the property a cottage and part of the granaries were converted into a small house of an attractively individual character, for which I think tenants have hitherto been easily found among personal friends. One of the most pleasant features of the Grange was the flower-garden and rockery on the other side of the river, reached by a wooden bridge and called "the Little Island."2 The house is conveniently close to the town, yet has a most pleasant outlook,


1 The following account of Newnham Grange is taken from C. H. Cooper's Memorials of Cambridge, 1866, Vol. III., p. 262 (note): "The site of the hermitage was leased by the Corporation to Oliver Grene, 20 September, 31 Eliz. [1589]. It was in 1790 leased for a long term to Patrick Beales, from whom it came to his brother, S. P. Beales, Esq., who erected thereon a substantial mansion and mercantile premises now occupied by his son, Patrick Beales, Esq., alderman, who purchased the reversion from the Corporation in 1839." Silver Street was formerly known as Little Bridges Street, and the bridges which gave it this name were in charge of a hermit, hence the above reference to the hermitage.

2 This was to distinguish it from the "Big Island," both being leased from the town. Later George acquired in the same way the small oblong kitchen garden on the river bank, and bought the freehold of the Lammas land on the opposite bank of the river.

[page] 174

to the north over the Backs while there is the river and the Fen to the south. The children had a den or house in the branches of a large copper beech tree overhanging the river. They were allowed to use the boat, which was known as the Griffin, from the family crest with which it was adorned. None of them were drowned, though accidents were not unknown; in one of these an eminent lady and well-known writer, who was inveigled on to the river by the children, had to wade to shore near Silver Street bridge owing to the boat running aground.

The Darwins had five children, of whom one died an infant: of the others, Charles Galton Darwin has inherited much of his father's mathematical ability, and has been elected to a Mathematical Lectureship at Christ's College. He is now in the Army, and employed in research work in France. The younger son, William, has a commission in the 18th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and is now working with his brother. George's elder daughter is married to Monsieur Jacques Raverat. Her skill as an artist has perhaps its hereditary root in her father's draughtsmanship. The younger daughter, Margaret, is married to Mr. Geoffrey Keynes.

George's relations with his family were most happy. His diary never fails to record the dates on which the children came home, or the black days which took them to school. There are constantly recurring entries in his diary of visits to the boys at Marlborough or Winchester, or of the journeys to arrange for the schooling of the girls in England

[page] 175

or abroad. The parents took pains that their children should have opportunities of learning conversational French and German.

George's characteristic energy showed itself not only in these ways but also in devising bicycling expeditions and informal picnics for the whole family, to the Fleam Dyke, to Whittlesford, or other pleasant spots near home; and these excursions he enjoyed as much as anyone of the party. As he always wished to have his children with him, one or more generally accompanied him and his wife when they attended congresses or other scientific gatherings abroad.

His house was the scene of many Christmas dinners, the first of which I find any record being in 1886. These meetings were often made an occasion for plays acted by the children; of these the most celebrated was a Cambridge version of Romeo and Juliet, in which the hero and heroine were scions of the rival factions of Trinity and St. John's.

Games and Pastimes.

As an undergraduate George played tennis—not the modern out-door game, but that regal pursuit which is sometimes known as the game of kings and otherwise as the king of games. When George came up as an undergraduate there were two tennis courts in Cambridge, one in the East Road, the other being the ancient one that gave its name to Tennis Court Road, and was pulled down to make room for the new buildings of

This document has been accessed 27046 times

Return to homepage

Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

File last updated 2 July, 2012