Family letters to William Erasmus Darwin, 1856-1897

Introduction by Christine Chua & John van Wyhe

We have transcribed a collection of 41 letters belonging to Darwin's eldest son William written by Emma Darwin and all of his siblings between 1856-1896. The last letter here from Emma (CUL-DAR210.6.144) in 1876 is very moving as it describes the aftermath of Amy Darwin's death. Letters from William's siblings show just how much they missed him when away from home and how they adored their eldest brother. The unpleasant incident in March 1859 with the Swiss governess Mrs Grut was described in dramatic detail in a letter from Henrietta (CUL-DAR210.6.41). At the end of the year, Emma expressed the feelings in the household over the sales of Origin of species: "It is a wonderful thing the whole edition selling off at once & Mudie taking 500 copies. Your father says he shall never think small beer of himself again & that candidly he does think it very well written." (CUL-DAR210.6.52). The literature on Darwin usually quotes from Darwin's expressions of displeasure with his writing style.

          William Darwin was born 27 December 1839 and lived nearly three years in Upper Gower Street, London, before the family moved to Down House in September 1842. William was unique in many ways, first, he is the only person photographed with Darwin, so far as the surviving photographs reveal. A comprehensive description of all known photographs of Darwin is was published by John van Wyhe in  Darwin: A Companion (2021) and an illustrated online version is: The Complete Photographs of Darwin in Darwin Online. On the passing of Darwin in 1882, William became head of the male line until his death in 1914.

          The letters Emma sent in this collection begin at the time William was at Christ's College, Cambridge. Francis Darwin (1848-1925), who penned William's obituary, describes:

"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" and in Darwin's innovative article 'A biographical sketch of an infant' of 1877.

  Francis included a letter from Darwin (15 October 1858), delightfully asking William to enquire after Impey, who was his gyp when he was at Christ's in the 1820s. William had "kept in his father's room" at Christ's College. (F. Darwin, 1914). Darwin himself wrote many letters to William. Letters from the parents often echo one another's reports. In these letters Darwin was addressed as 'Father' or 'Papa'. He was referred to simply as 'F' in letters after 1868.

Annotations and notes are largely taken from Christine Chua's transcription of Emma Darwin's diaries (CUL-DAR242) and Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion (2021). As most readers today will be interested in references to Charles Darwin in these letters, we have extracted them below for convenience. The transcribed letters can be found in CUL-DAR210.6

Below are copied all of the references to Charles Darwin in this collection, letters are from Emma unless otherwise stated.

[6 June 1856]

Georgy is at home very prosperous & bringing a very good report, especially of mathematics so all Papas botheration was not wasted.

Georgy went a ride by himself yesterday & the children went to fish for little monsters for Papa's vivarium out of the Cudham school pond.

[17 November 1857] 

Papa came home wonderfully well on Thursday. He is going to town today for 3 or 4 days.

[12 October 1858]

Papa admires Miss N. very much, which I do not she smiles too constantly & a smile is never a sweet one that is constant

[3 November 1858]

Your father came home very brisk & I hope he will go again in the course of the winter.

It is very pleasant for him having such an agreeable house with pleasant conversation to go to besides the good it does him. He was much pleased with Mr Savage the Editor of the Examiner.

[10 December 1858]

Your father however is not very well & I hope he will take a dose of Moor P. before the holidays.

[23 February 1859]

He [George] sends an account of the ex. one item is Velocipede 1/- which he says was not necessary, as Papa gave him some money to spend in necessaries.

Papa has been very well these few days, & working away & every day's work tells now.

[12 March 1859]

George came yesterday & you may imagine his devotion to the billiard table. Papa thinks he will play well.

[16 March 1859]

When Papa & Mama heard all about it they settled she shd go at once, so Papa wrote a letter telling her she shd have her 33 £ & nothing more. [See the rest of the account at CUL-DAR210.6.41]

[24 March 1859]

Papa has been expecting a lawyers letter from the Grut but I think we shall escape now.

I don't believe your father knows any thing about Sir F. Darwin's family.

[6 May 1859]

Papa is going to vote at Bromley today.

[31 May 1859, from GHD and ED]

Moor Park has done Papa a great deal of good.

Papa is getting on very slowly with his proof sheet & gets more and more down hearted about them every day; he says he doesn't think he shall quite have finished them by the end of July.

Your father & I think it will not be worth while your joining Aunt Cath. for a fortnight & you will have a most pleasant time with the Tutor at the lakes, Your father will write to you soon.

[24 October 1859]

Your father has been very uncomf & quite confined to the house with a furious inflamed ancle & foot & then it flew up into his face & swelled up his eyes so that he could hardly see. However Dr Smith says it is all right & he only hopes it may continue for a month & that it is likely to do him great good. He hopes it may diminish enough to allow him to walk out a little. At present he can only hobble. Miss Butler your father's friend of Moor Park is gone which is a great loss to us as she is very pleasant & lively & kind,…

I wish we had Miss Thorley for the walking sake & Lizzy, but Emily is the pleasantest of the two. We shall certainly stay a month longer & your father says he will stay till Xmas if it keeps on doing him good. His stomach is quite wonderful certainly.

[7 November 1859]

We are all rather dismal your father keeps so very unwell with boils & can't stir a step without great pain, & Etty has fallen back again. I expect that we shall go in a fortnight to Shrewsbury.

[30 November to 4 December 1859]   

It is very long since I have written to you but I hope your father has behaved better.

Your father has sent the 2nd edition to be printed & I suppose we shall be having those blessed proof sheets again as soon as we return home. It is a wonderful thing the whole edition selling off at once & Mudie taking 500 copies. Your father says he shall never think small beer of himself again & that candidly he does think it very well written.

Your father is wonderfully well, but hates all his fellow creatures to a great degree

[27 January 1860]

Your father comes home today & we are very jolly with no governess, only Mr Norman comes to teach them every afternoon which they like very much.

[16 February 1860]

You must find your way from Croydon as wonderful to say your father & I are going to Lunch with the John Lubbocks tomorrow.

[July 1860]

George came on Monday but had a dull visit with yr father & I so much up with Etty.

[18 September 1861]

We are going today to Westerham to hunt Linums if your father is well enough as he has been poorlyish lately.

[7 October 1861]

Mr Sowerby keeps Papa very hard at work drawing orchids & I am afraid he will be knocked up as he has to watch every stroke

Your father is deeply interested in all your news & we rejoice to hear that you will find coming away easy when once you are well entered.

[24 October 1861, from HED]

The poor rifle match had a horrid rainy day. Parslow won 3d prize & Town 1st

The boys came home very wet, papa said.

[10 November 1861]

Papa is quite poorly today which is provoking for the boys. His Primula paper is sent off & his Orchises have all gone wrong just lately.

[17 November 1861]

Your father says he wrote such a very dull note that I will try a codicil to it.

Your father has been in bed one day & I another this week from cold. He is not very well yet & my 3 brothers come tomorrow from St Leonards where they have been staying a few days, so I hope he will be better tomorrow. He wrote to a Lady Dorothy Nevill near Petersfield about orchids & she writes him the most cordial invite: to come & see them & take whatever he likes.

Your father goes to Town on Wed & shall read his Primula paper at the Linnæan if he is pretty well.

[27 November 1861]

It was very pleasant Papa having that little sight of you in London.

He came home all the better for his trip & his paper met great honour at the Linnæan all the great Botanists being there & Bentham & Hooker speaking on the subject.

[11 December 1861, from HED]

Papa has got Mr Sowerby here to finish up his tiresome orchids, there is bad news about a cabinet for George, he says it is such a rare thing for a second hand one to be on sale, & can't hear of one anywhere. Papa hasn't been very well lately, but Mamma much better

[July 1863?, from HED]

I am so glad Papa is going to Malvern — I think very likely it will set up Skimp too—

[September to October 1863, from HED]

The boys are staying all Tuesday evening which is very jolly. They spend the most of their day in eating pears & walnuts listening to Trollop tales of old countries wh. is a capital book. It is wonderful how much of their company Papa stands — I think it shows his head must be much stronger. He had escaped sickness these 4 nights now & had good days between.

[2 January 1864, from HED]

It is 5 nights since Papa has had sickness now & his days have been much better too. He has walked as far as the hothouse twice. He also reads more to himself, & I think he is getting to be able to sit up more.

[16 March 1864]

If your mid-styled has the stigma pretty near the same height with the anther Papa wd be very glad if you wd measure it- as the one he sent you was not a very middling one, but approached the long-styled. He is very much obliged to you for all your trouble.

He is pretty bad this morning, after a wretched sleepless night- but his cold makes him feel more weak & uncomfortable.

There is a Bromley ball here on the 31st but I spose you are not very likely to be here & I think it is equally unlikely I shall get a chap- if Papa is no better I don't feel as if I had much heart to go.

[14-17 May 1864]

Papa cares very much more about seeing the Rhamnus very much than the Menganthes— it flowers in May & Papa must see a male & female flower off a different bush. It is because there is an American one which is Dimorphic. [see CUL-DAR210.118 for the rest of the letter]

[13 September 1876]

He [Francis] has asked his father to send proof sheets to him to copy & he has taken down F's autobiography to make a copy of it─ which will be work without much thought.

F. is distracting his mind with schemes about building an additional room so that Frank may be made comfortable.

F. has borne it wonderfully & I am quite well─

F. prevented George going down─ Mrs R. said she wished nobody to go that did not strongly wish it for their own sakes; but I found Franks did want one brother as he wd not be there himself & so Horace is gone ─ Eras was feeling it much


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