RECORD: Vaughan, John. 1893. Boyhood of Charles Darwin. Boys Own Paper (8 April): 445-446. Transcribed by Christine Chua, edited by John van Wyhe (Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed from the Darwin Online images by Christine Chua, corrections by John van Wyhe 8.2019. RN1


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CHARLES DARWIN, whose name has become so famous, did not shine among his schoolfellows as a lad of exceptional brilliancy. And the fact may perhaps, encourage some desponding reader. The curriculum at Shrewsbury school, where Darwin was educated from the age of nine to sixteen, was mainly classical; and scientific pursuits were even discouraged.

On one occasion the future naturalist was publicly rebuked by Dr. Butler, the head-master, for wasting his time on such a useless study as chemistry! Indeed, it seems that by his father and his masters alike.

Darwin was regarded as a very ordinary boy; and once, to his deep mortification, his father said to him, "You care nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all the family." A few years were to show how utterly they were mistaken!

His taste for natural history was well developed at an early age. He tried to find out the names of plants and made collections of various objects. His love for dogs amounted to a passion: and once he tells us when he had beaten a puppy. The deed haunted him for days. His humanity was always remarkable. He would never take more than a single egg out of a bird's nest; and would first kill with salt and water the worms he was about to use in fishing.

His skill at throwing was great, and once he killed a hare with a marble; years afterwards, he threw stone at a crossbeak, and to his deep sorrow, killed it. He never mentioned the fact for years and then explained that he would never have thrown at it, if he had not thought that his old power was gone.

In the latter part of his school days he became passionately fond of shooting. His excitement at shooting his first snipe was so great that he could scarcely reload his gun, he tells us, from the trembling of his hands.

His devotion to sport may be gathered from the following sentence: "Upon my word, it is only about a fortnight to the 'First', then if there is a bliss on earth that is it." And yet as quite a young man at Cambridge, he determined to give it up. Like Sir Walter Scott, he could not tolerate the thought of inflicting pain. His decision, as told by his friend Mr. Herbert, came about thus: "he had had two days shooting at his friend's Mr. Owen of Woodhouse; and on the second day when going over some of the ground they had beaten on the day before, he picked up a bird not quite dead, but lingering from a shot it had received on the previous day; and it made and left such a painful impression on his mind, that he could not, he said, reconcile it to his conscience to continue to derive pleasure from a sport which inflicted such cruel suffering."

As an instance of the way in which wild things trusted him, may he mentioned the fact that one day at Down three young squirrels ran up his back and legs while their mother barked at them in agony from a tree.

But while as a boy at Shrewsbury his scholarship was not remarkable, his love of reading was always great. We have seen how he studied chemistry, which earned for him the nickname of "Gas." He would sit for hours, generally in an old window in the thick walls of the school, reading the historical plays of Shakespeare.

Over and over again he went through a copy of the "Wonders of the World," a book which first gave him the desire to travel, which was afterwards fulfilled in the ever memorable voyage of the Beagle. Gilbert White's "History of Selborne" was eagerly devoured, and he could not understand why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist. He even delighted in poetry, and read Thomson's "Seasons," as well as the recently published poems of Byron and Scott.

On leaving school he derived much pleasure from poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and twice read the "Excursion" through; while on the excursions during the voyage of the Beagle a copy of Milton was his inseparable companion. It is a most curious fact that in after years he entirely lost his love of poetry, and found even

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Shakespeare so intolerably dull that it nauseated him. His taste for art, which at Cambridge led him to spend hours at the Fitzwilliam Museum in looking over old prints, also deserted him; and he once confessed that he could see absolutely nothing in the exquisite Turners which hung in Mr. Ruskin's bed-room. In music too, which formerly delighted him, he ceased to find any pleasure. But for natural science; his devotion never for a moment waned.

As a child he had collected plants and minerals; as a boy at Shrewsbury he had worked at chemistry, and found his recreation in shooting and bird-nesting; at Edinburgh he had learnt the art of stuffing birds; at Cambridge his chief pleasure and pursuit was collecting beetles; and from the time of his joining the Beagle his entire life was dedicated to his beloved science.

Of Darwin's life at Down, where he resided for forty years, there are no stirring incidents to record. "My life," he said, "goes on like clockwork, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it." His health was wretched, the result of five years' martyrdom of almost continuous sea-sickness when on board the Beagle. He always suffered more or less; at times he was altogether incapacitated for work, and could never enjoy the relaxation of society. His chief recreation he found in novels, of which he says in his autobiography, "a surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily- against which a law ought to be passed!''And yet, in spite of his life-long struggle with the weariness and strain of sickness, he managed to accomplish an amount of work which even for the strongest man would have been amazing.

In Darwin's case it was little short of miraculous. The "Origin of Species" alone involved work sufficient for a lifetime. Most men in his position would have given up the struggle in despair, and resigned themselves to the existence of a valetudinarian. But not so Darwin. With a splendid courage and an indomitable perseverance, he succeeded, by utilising every moment not rendered void by sickness, and by a methodical habit of work, first leant, as he used to say, on board the Beagle, in revolutionising science, and in becoming the foremost of living naturalists.

The story of his life should be read by all. It is charmingly told by his son in a comparatively short compass, in the volume edition of his life just issued by John Murray. And, regarded simply as an example the life of Charles Darwin is one of permanent value. It is a noble example of a great mind rising superior to physical infirmities, and in spite of chronic sickness, accomplishing work, both in bulk and value, unequalled in the history of scientific literature. It should be a source of new life and fresh energy to numbers of lesser men who are handicapped in the struggle for existence by feeble health. It should bid them take heart and go forward. It should save them from giving way to indolence and despair. And one secret of Darwin's success – we are speaking simply of the amount of work that he got through – was his respect for time. He used to say that he learnt on the Beagle what he considered the golden rule for saving time, namely, taking care of the minutes, and no man ever took better care of the minutes.

His son tells us that he never wasted even a few spare moments from thinking that it was not worth while to set to work. The same eager desire not to lose time was seen in all his methods of working. His frequent attacks of sickness emphasised for him the priceless value of time. He was a conspicuous example of the truth of Dante's words that –

Who knows most, him loss of time most grieves.

In this respect we may all learn a lesson from the life of Darwin, and gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.


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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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