RECORD: Darwin, George. 5.1882. [Recollections of Charles Darwin]. CUL-DAR112.B9-B23 (Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed from the manuscript by John van Wyhe 11.2005; checked against the manuscript by Kees Rookmaaker 12.2005. RN5
NOTE: Pages 20-23 were written on white/yellow paper in pencil. Originally [now invalid] numbered 12, 13, 14, 15. Pages 9-19 written in blue pencil. See addenda: [Recollections of George Darwin.] CUL-DAR112.B24-B29
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Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin.
I George Darwin am going to try to write down my recollections of my father. As what I write will refer almost entirely to what I saw of him myself I cannot avoid giving it somewhat of an autobiographical turn.
My earliest recollection of my father is at Malvern in 1849 and as I was at the time less than 4 years old, these remembrances are very shadowy. At that time he was, I believe, going through a course of water cure after one of his severe illnesses, but I do not remember this & have only heard it since.
We had a nice house on the Worcester Road several hundred yards from the Abbey Church, on the slope of the hill. The sloping garden ran down to the road and there was a little fountain half way between the house and the gate on the carriage drive.
All that I can really remember of my father at this time is that I went with him and my mother once day to a toy-bazaar in the town, & that they bought me a little jingling organ which made a twanging with wires stretched inside. I remember that with a passion for realism I had it mounted on a stick & tied round me with a piece of string to imitate an organ grinder & that I broke it open to examine the inside. I have also vague recollections that my father used to take longish walks over the hills — probably after his baths.
After this my recollections are without date & refer generally to life at Down when I was very small. It must be the years '50, '51, '52 of which I think. I fancy our unconscious education must have been going on from the very first for I have an entry in a diary I wrote in 1852 "Dodos are out of the world." He used to show us picture books, especially one delightful one full of engravings of S. American life (I have not seen it for many years) and tell us what the pictures meant. I think my entry about Dodos must have had reference to a picture I drew of a Dodo, copied out of a book of animals.
In those early days he was working at cirripedes or barnacles & we children regarded this as the natural occupation of a head of family, for I or one of the others when one day at High Elms of Sir John Lubbock asked "Where he did his barnacles." He always worked on a slab in the window of the room that in later years was the smoking room & sat on a curious swiveled stool with these large castors, which had been made at Shrewsbury for his father.
We regarded him at that time with a sort of familiar awe; — this may be illustrated by a story he used to tell with relish in later years of how Leonard when about 3 was sitting on his knee & having nothing particular to say remarked "well you old ass!", after which he was tremendously alarmed at what he had said. This is however by the way & I remember his study was a sort of sacred palace not be be invaded in the morning without some really urgent cause, such as the absolute necessity for a piece of string or a footstule. We always were received with the utmost kindness, & it was only in the extreme case of 3 or 4 interruptions in half an hour that we were cautioned "you really mustn't come again." The cutting of fingers was one of the urgent causes for which we went there to fetch sticking plaster. I always felt this a very serious affair & Henrietta when in that predicament
used to wait until he had gone out for his walk & then purloin the plaster. The reason why this was so serious a matter was two fold, first that his sympathy was so strong with us when we hurt ourselves, & next that he had a morbid horror of the sight or even the word of blood. This last I don't think we understood at that time, but we felt that a cut was a seriously alarming circumstance. Why the plaster was not kept elsewhere I do not know, but it was not.
However hard my father was at work we certainly never restrained ourselves in our romps about the house, & I shd certainly have thought that the howls and screams must have been a great annoyance; but we were never stopped. There was one fearfully noisy game which invaded the whole house called "roundabouts" & we generally played at this when there was a house full of cousins. It was a modified hide & seek & necessitated yells from all the players to tell where the demon of the game was. As an example of the case of our fooling with my father I may mention that a game which Henrietta & I enjoyed much was to sit together in his microscope chair with a walking stick. The drawing room then was the bow-windowed room afterwards the dining room & the dining room was later the billiard-room & lastly Frank's room.
It was the this time very delightful, but I now regret, that we were given the S. American stirrups & the spurs for the rocking horse, the Patagonian bone spearhead to tie to sticks & throw about the garden. (They were not lost but were given ultimately to Sir John Lubbock), and his Gauchos bolas were lost by similar treatment. A little later he taught William & me how to make the Australian [like] throwingstick & spear, & he attained such skill that I remember once throwing this spear over 80 yards, when I was certainly not 12 years old. (Quite lately I tried again & even after a few days trial cdn't do more than 55 yds). Then there was a boomerang — altho' of English manufacture — which he gave us. I remember his throwing it once in a high wind & it came back far behind him & went through a cucumber frame, which as he said was the only thing which had ever made the gloomy gardiner Brooks laugh outright.
My father showed a wisdom in his treatment of us, which I have often seen neglected by other fathers towards their sons, for he never tried to make us take an interest in science. Attempts of this kind often end in causing repugnance, and as one may feel sure that the would be — and indeed was — pleased when we took an interest in science, this course on his part showed not only wisdom but control. When however we freely exhibited any wish to learn, there was no amount of trouble which he would not take, & the result was of course far more powerful than if it had been at his urging. For example, I remember his getting & explaining diagrams of a steam engine to me, & when I was about 8 or 9 I used to read with him every day for some time Ms Marcet's conversations on optics, & we did several little experiments with lenses. He was quite as keen as or keen in his interest than I was, for although of course most of it was known to him, yet there were parts with which he was not acquainted. But it was not merely in science that he
encouraged & helped us, for when I was about 10 I was taken with a furious interest in heraldry. Edmonston & Gwillim were got for me, & when I was pouring over them all day & incessantly drawing coats of arms, I never had the least feeling that I was doing anything sill, as I shd have done if he had ever made even a slightly disparaging remark in joke. He thought that anything that a boy really takes to & sticks to of his own free will was good. Later I have often heard him quote the saying of an old man in one of Trollope's novels "It's dogged as does it."1 The picture of him is peculiarly vivid to me; I was at home from school for a few days at Michaelmas 1856 & was so eager over my heraldry that I got up at seven to begin painting. I was sitting at the drawing room window (now the dining room) & he passed down the gravel walk on his early morning walk & paused at the window & smiled at me leaning on his stick. I suppose I remember it from a shadowy doubt crossing my mind that he was laughing at my work, although I am sure there was no meaning of the kind. After his death I found in a cupboard in the study a coat of arms painted by me wrapped up in paper & endorsed "My arms emblazoned by George aet. 10 3/4.
There is but one occasion that I remember in which I did not exactly meet with encouragement, & although it relates
to a time long after this, yet as it illustrates one of his peculiarities, I will put in here. When I was about sixteen I got hold of his old Spanish grammar & began learning Spanish. I remember well his laughing at me & saying I should not make much of that. Afterwards when I had learnt to read easy Spanish, he was very strong in approbation .Now the preliminary ridicule & subsequent praise arose, I think, from the fact that to him the learning of languages was a matter of the very greatest difficulty, and he much overestimated this difficulty to others. He used to say that when he went to Cambridge after two years at Edinburgh he had so completely forgotten Greek that he had to begin on the alphabet again. Although for forty years he was reading German & had made real attempts to master it yet to the end he had no real knowledge of the language & it was often a marvel to us how he made it out as well as he did. When in S. America he had spoken much Spanish, but I know
that he had forgotten almost every word of it. Sometimes when sitting in the drawing room and noon before going out for his walk he used to rise from his chair when he felt that he really must be starting and say "Vamonos pues" (Let's be off then). That and "Carramba" were the extent of his Spanish, at least in later years. It was this which made him speak with enthusiastic admiration of the somewhat second rate English talked by some foreigners when they came to see him.
I think this arose from a peculiarity in his sort of memory, which he often said was very bad, but which undoubtedly was excellent in the most vital point. He always seemed to remember the substance of anything he heard or read, & I think I am not exaggerating when I say he never remembered the exact words. I don't think he ever remembered the numbers of houses in a street & always had written memoranda of addresses. The quaint sayings of little children, which he enjoyed especially, were scarcely ever repeated by him with exact verbal correctness. His memory was of things not words, & for statements in books unread for years it was sometimes wonderful. But he always mistrusted his own memory.
When I was about 12 & Frank was 10 we used to collect insects, I butterflies & moths & he beetles. My father used to take an interest in our captures but much more in Frank's than in mine, because it was the collections of beetles with which he began scientific work. We often used to go out with him on his mid-day walk, generally down the hill to the Cudham Lodge Woods "The big woods", & do a little collecting as we walked. He seemed to know nearly all the beetles & was immensely interested when any of the rarer sort were found. He described his old feeling on making a good catch as quite rapturous. At Cambridge he said that he used to go down to the empty barges lying in the river & found a magnificent field in the old rubbish lying on the bottoms. Amongst his Cambridge expeditions I remember his speaking of going down to the fens, then near Cambridge, with a sporting sort of guide who went by the name of Marco Polo, because he carried a leaping pole with a flat board fastened at the bottom for leaping the ditches. I fancy these expeditions were more for the purpose of shooting snipe than of collecting insects.
I was once the unconscious means of making a discovery in natural history, the meaning of which has never yet been unraveled. When I was about 8 or 9 I was one day in August or September in the "Sandwalk" (so-called because at one time the path had been covered with red sand), & as my father paced round the walk I waited by the old ash tree at the end. On his coming round I told him that their was a humble bee's nest in the tree. This he declared to be impossible, but I stuck to it that there was, & that the bees were going & coming from it. Accordingly we walked there and presently a bee came & buzzed about & went away, and then another and another. That there was no nest was obvious but in fact excited his curiosity & he determined to investigate it. I am not going to give all the details which are no doubt somewhere in his m.s. notes, but it may now suffice to say that the bees were all males of Bombus Hortorum expelled from their nests & that the ash-tree was a sort of house of call for them. They had a high road along the hedge running to the
kitchen garden with a number of similar houses of call. To discover this required many weeks as the bees flew too fast to follow. My father enlisted all of us children on the work & we used to be arranged in a line and pass the word when a bee was coming, & at the end of the line pursue the bee as far as possible. This we enjoyed immensely & so did he. He invented an ingenious way of tracing the bees, for he tied a flour-dredger to the end of a stick & just as the bee was buzzing at the house of call he gave it a good dredging. We could see the bee much further when he was whitened all over. We were placed at intervals along the hedge & passed the word that a bee was coming. We traced the bees over a line of 300 yds or so, & then they disappeared like lightening over the corner of the kitchen garden wall. The most remarkable fact is that they had almost the same houses of call in three successive years, although the individuals were necessarily different. They always seemed very busy & went straight on their way, but what they were doing remains obscure to this day.
In more early years after his return from Malvern in 1851 (1849), he used to continue the watercure at home, & he erected a douche which was shaped something like a very diminutive church & stood close to the well. About noon every day he used to take a douche even in the coldest weather. I remember well one bitter cold day with the snow covering everything waiting about outside until he had finished & that he came out almost blue with cold & we trotted away at a good brisk pace over the snow to the sandwalk. Everyday he used at that time to walk at noon in the sandwalk, & this custom was kept up to the last with slight variations until the end of his life. He always took five turns around the walk, so that the whole walk was about a mile. Close to the corner, by the [ark]-tree, there were 5 good sized flints & as he passed there each time he used to kick one of the flints aside to count the turns. We were frequently playing all morning in the sandwalk, but I do not think often accompanied him as he walked round.
His health was very bad then and scarcely any guests ever came to stay, but I remember Admiral Sir James Sulivan coming once & how he talked about the Falkland islands, & again on a second visit how he told us about the bombardment of [1 word illeg] in the Crimean war. My uncles, aunts & ncousins used to come however from time to time.
The only houses we ever visited at were those of relations. There were two at which I think he liked visiting, namely the Hermitage near Wokey (my uncle Harry's) then in a very wild country & it was a great pity that we had no wild heaths within easy reach of Down.
In '53 we went to the Hermitage & visited the camp of monoeuvres at Chobham. He must have been stronger at that time, because I remember we were out nearly all day on 3 days watching the sham-fights. I remember we were charged by the 13th Light Dragoons & all had to run hard to get out of the way.
At Hartfield, which I thought then the most delightful place in the world, he used to take longish walks over the forest, generally alone. Once however, when we were alltogether, he found a grand raid of the slavemaking ants on the black slaves going on, & we stayed a long time watching the fight.
It was a curious thing that altho' when walking alone he was very apt to be in a brown study, yet he always saw all sorts of curious things which escaped the eyes of others.
In the days when he was continuing watercure at Down, he used to take long walks of 3 or 4 miles before breakfast, starting frequently in the dark.
I have heard him say that sometimes in the dusk of the morning in the woods he would walk very slowly, just quietly putting down his foot & then waiting before the next step — a habit he said which he practiced in the tropical forests of Brazil. In this way he used to see many interesting things in animal life; once he watched a vixen playing with her cubs at only a few feet distance, for some time (A keeper took him to see them over a hedge). This shows that the habit which I know best of being a brown study & looking at the ground in front of him was by no means universal.
Between 1856 & 1859 (I was at school at the time) he was breeding & observing pigeons. A good large aviary was erected on a patch of ground near the well, & near where the douche stood. Everyday there used to be an inspection of the pigeons before starting for a walk — not I take it merely as a man looks at his horses in a stable, but a scientific observation of the young pigeons the progeny of some of the many crosses which he was carrying out. After the Origin of Species was brought out, the avaiary was abolished but the principal wooden pigeon house was erected as a sort of elevated summer house above the tool-house at the near end of the kitchen gardens. From there we had a fine view of the sunset. This old pigeon house became all overgrown with a splendid mass of ivy
& the woodwork became very rotten. During the last few years it was hardly safe to go up into it. During a gale in the spring of 1882 it was bodily blown over, & it has been left lying on its side, for the sake of preserving the magnificent clump if ivy, which entirely hides the wood.
The correspondence testifies to the immense deal of work which he carried out on the subject of pigeons. I remember that from time to time there was a pigeon fancying party; the guests struck me as being rather a queer set.
I said above that he never went out to dinner but this is not quite true, for he sometimes went to Sir John Lubbock, & sometimes to Lord Stanhope. At Chevening I think they sometimes stayed the night, as it was an awkward drive back. Once when there he met old Mrs. Grote & she with singularly bad manners catechised him about his health; on his answering, I should think very unwillingly, she burst out "Why drat the man, he's not as bad as I am." (This was when we called on her from Haredene in 1873? 1871).
Continued in CUL-DAR112.B24-B29
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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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