RECORD: Darwin, F. 1914. [Obituary of] William Erasmus Darwin. Christ's College Magazine 29: 16-23.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned by John van Wyhe, transcribed (single key) by AEL Data, corrections by van Wyhe 8.2009. RN1
WILLIAM ERASMUS DARWIN, 1839-1914
BY HIS BROTHER FRANCIS DARWIN
WILLIAM ERASMUS DARWIN, the eldest child of Charles Darwin, was born December 27, 1839, at 12 Upper Gower Street, where his father settled on his marriage with Emma Wedgwood. The house has now lost all individuality, being swallowed up in a block of buildings for the employés of Shoolbred. This Gower St. home had practically no good points with the exception of a small and smoky garden. I remember my mother speaking of the noisiness of the street, and how the passage of a rattling cab seemed in the night a matter of eternity. Charles Darwin's health soon began to fail in London and in 1842 he moved to Down which was to be his home for 40 years. He was attracted by the rusticity and peacefulness of the place, which gave no hint of London being within 20 miles. The house, which is at present occupied by a girl's school, has passed into the possession of Charles Galton Darwin (the elder son of the late Sir George Darwin) who has recently joined the College as Lecturer, but is at present censoring War correspondence on the Continent. Down is described and figured in the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin and need not be further considered. William Darwin kept to the end of his life a strong affection for the quiet solitary home of his youth. His early childhood had one point of distinction, for no sooner was William brought into the world than he was used by his father as scientific material; a minute diary was kept of the growth of the child's faculties, afterwards utilised in The Expression of the Emotions. But Charles Darwin was a
devoted father and the most tender-hearted of men, and when (for instance) accurate notes on the act of crying were needed, the man of science disappeared and became the gentlest of nurses. The diary in question was published in Mind 1877; in was once quoted at a Philosophical Society's Dinner by a well-known Cambridge Professor in proposing the health of the President, Sir George Darwin, of whose supposed development many surprising details were given, to an audience dissolved in laughter.
William Erasmus went to a preparatory school at Mitcham where he had for a schoolfellow his friend Mr Philip Norman, who is known, among other things, for his pleasant sketches of disappearing London. In after years William used to tell us about Mitcham, and I remember thinking as a child that it must have been a delightful place because stag-beetles were common there and were kept captive by the boys. Thence William went to Rugby to the House of one whom we usually heard described as "Bobby" Mayor, and who had the further distinction of being a brother of the late Professor J. E. B. Mayor. He was happy at Rugby but carried away a reminder of football in a weakened ankle which forced him to wear an iron support for many years. One of his schoolfellows was his cousin Ernest Wedgwood, who came up to Trinity a year before William entered at Christ's. Ernest was an able person but was never given to unnecessary labour and appeared in a position appropriate to his name, namely that of Wooden Spoon1. He is said to have felt injured in that he should have been put below
1 His father, Hensleigh Wedgwood, afterwards a Fellow of the College, was in a similar place in the first Classical Tripos (1824).
C. C. M.
his due position for such a reason: it is not recorded whether or no he was pleased to learn (from Percival Frost) that he had been raised, not lowered.
The following letter which has only recently come into my hands will interest Christ's men.
C. DARWIN TO W. E. DARWIN.
[Oct.] 15, ."
"MY DEAR WILLIAM,
You sent me a fine long letter, and we were uncommonly glad to hear that you were established. You had a precious hard day's work the first [day?]. You are over the rooms which my cousin. W. D. Fox, had and in which I have spent many a pleasant hour. I was in the old court, middle stair-case on right-hand on going into court, up one flight, right-hand door, and capital rooms they were. If you find you do not like your rooms you could change another year. I should like to know whether my old gyp Impey1 is still alive; if so please see him, and say that I enquired after him.
I shall go up to London for a day on Tuesday and will then consult my Bankers about your affairs. Did you pay for furniture? if not, ask whether the Cambridge tradesmen object to cheques on London Bankers: I should much like to know this as guide whether you had better open account with Union Bank, or whether have money placed at some Cambridge Bank. I wonder whether you could think of any one to ask this.
1 Impey was still alive.
I am very glad that you like King's—it used to be a great pleasure to me. You have to see the beautiful pictures in the Fitzwilliam. The backs of the Colleges (N.B. not Colledges as some people spell it) are indeed beautiful: I do not think there is anything in Oxford to equal them.
Remember to let me know in good time before you run short of money, and I do earnestly beg you keep accounts carefully, which as far as I am concerned shall be quite private…
William spent the Michaelmas Term in E6, and for the rest of his time kept in his father's room described in the above letter, now distinguished by a plaque and an inscription. He did not make many lasting friendships at Christ's. The chief of these was with the late Sefton Strickland, who became a friend to several of William's brothers and was often a guest at Down. Two of his surviving friends, Canon Burbidge, our former Fellow, and Mr Carr, now Fellow of St Catherine's have been so good as to give me their reminiscences.
Mr Carr, after referring to William's kindly disposition and his sense of humour, goes on: "He set an example of a wholesome life," and adds that "he won the esteem of his College and the affection of his set." Canon Burbidge speaks of his "taking life seriously as an undergraduate both in work and play." After referring to the affection with which he and william's other intimates regarded him he goes on: "I was coxswain of the Christ's First Boat at the time when he rowed stroke of it, and I remember
the zeal and efficiency which he showed on the river, maintaining the Boat in a creditable place."
He rowed in 1859 as No. 4, and in 1860 and 1861 as stroke in the College Boat. The blue silk night-cap which then distinguished the Christ's Boat from all others, was long preserved by him, and there is indeed a doubtful tradition that when he became bald he used it for the purpose to which it seems adapted.
He served in the University Volunteers, and was at the same time an officer in the Down Corps. This last fact was impressed on my boyish memory by the fact that his sword fell out of its sheath and broke 11 out of a pile of 12 dessert plates: these, which were bright green covered with embossed grapes, were much admired in their day, especially when combined with brilliant purple finger glasses.
The only College distinction he gained was a scholarship to which he was admitted June 13, 18591. He read for the Mathematical Tripos and was coached by one of the Fellows—Wolstenholme, who, according to my vague recollection, used to kick his shins under the table for fidgeting.
Towards the end of his third year, i.e. in the Long Vacation of 1861, he gave up the idea of going to the Bar, and it was arranged that he should become a partner in Grant and Maddison's Bank at Southampton, which was afterwards swallowed up in Lloyd's. Thus he went down without a degree, but as he had kept the required Terms he could enter for the examination of 1862. He must
1 This fact is not mentioned in the History of the College but he is marked as a scholar in the University Calendar.
have gone in for the Tripos with his mathematics in a rusty condition, otherwise he might perhaps have been higher than bracketed top of the "Apostles" where his name appears. His alarming Tutor, the great Gunson, was probably annoyed at this performance by a Scholar of the College.
I remember my brother in our summer holidays of 1861 preparing himself for his new position by working out absurd self-imposed problems in arithmetic so that he might not be absolutely shamed in addition and subtraction by his junior clerks. At Southampton he lived at first over the Bank, but afterwards moved out to a pleasant region on the upper border of the Common. I cannot fix the date at which he began to be useful in civic affairs, but ultimately he had a good deal to do with public business:—the County Council, the Waterworks, and especially Hartley University College, which was saved from extinction, on the condemnation of the old buildings by the Board of Education, largely by the efforts of William, Mr C. Montefiore, and Mr Spranger. Dr A. Hill, who is now at the head of the College, has spoken to me with generous warmth of my brother's services.
In 1877 he married Sara Sedgwick, the daughter of a New York lawyer and an English mother (Miss Ashburner). She made William completely happy and endeared herself to the whole of her new connexions. Their pleasant home at Basset soon became a favourite spot for those short holidays which my father's ill-health compelled him to take. Sara Darwin's sister was married to the well-known Professor Charles Norton, of Cambridge (Mass.), and his daughters, Miss Lily and Miss Sara Norton, found in William Darwin's house a home always ready for them,
and an affection such as few nieces receive. William lost his wife in 1902, and not long afterwards settled in London at 11 Egerton Place, next door to his brother Leonard. And here, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces were always welcome guests.
With the increased leisure of his London life came also greater social opportunities, and the charm of his transparently lovable nature brought him a pleasant body of friends. He remained young in spirit to the end of his life, and his delightful manner owed its quality to a flavour of what is best in youth. Before he gave up his Southampton home his leg was injured in a hunting accident and had to be amputated; to an active man this was a misfortune, but no one ever heard from him a word of complaint or despondence. He had many interests and read widely: art, science, history and biography. He was a keen amateur Geologist and took an interest in plants. He made some good observations on the pollination of Epipactis palustris as recorded by his father in the Fertilisation of Orchids, ed. ii, 1877, p. 99
One of his few appearances in public was at the dinner given by the University in honour of the Delegates to the Darwin Celebration in 1909, when he spoke on behalf of the Darwin family. It was I think by common consent held to be the speech of the evening. In his modest and respectful manner of referring to the distinguished guests and still more in the pathetic charm of his words about his father, his audience had revealed to them the essence of his nature in a way which no description can emulate.
He died rather suddenly in September of the present year at Sedbergh, where he was spending the summer
with the family of his brother George. He was buried at North Stoneham near Southampton, beside the grave of his wife.
CHRIST'S COLLEGE WORKING BOYS'
HOME CAMP, AUGUST 1914
ON a sleepy evening last August, a harmless cyclist riding along the road from Rye to Winchelsea fell off his bicycle under the impression that he had been ambushed by the German Army. The "army" which had suddenly appeared on both sides of the road soon resolved itself into a dozen or so barelegged and bareheaded boys, clad in every variety of shorts and "rugger" jerseys, amongst which the experienced eye could pick out the colours of Richmond, Blackheath, the Harlequins and wales.
The cyclist, having realised his mistake, rode away, and the "army," which was out for a walk after tea, continued its march until another opportunity for playing at soldiers presented itself.
Thus the war dominated our lives, even during the all too brief fortnight by the sea.
But camp is camp, whatever happens, and even though all Europe is ablaze there are always the sunny fields and the shining sea. Although the chief interest in life was how long Liège would hold out, yet we still played cricket and football with our old zeal, and many were the summer hours we spent bathing in the sea and basking on the warm shingle.
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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
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