Darwin's student bills at Christ's College, Cambridge

An introduction by John van Wyhe

Record Books at Christ's College, CambridgeCharles Darwin's student bills have recently been discovered at Christ's College, Cambridge, where Darwin was a student from 1828-1831. Previously the only record of the presence of Darwin as a student at Christ's was an Admissions Book. Two further Admissions Books have been uncovered in recent years.

The six Record Books were discovered by the Honorary Keeper of the Archives and Fellow Commoner, Geoffrey Thorndike Martin and are reproduced online with the kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Christ's College.

The books reveal many intimate details from Darwin's time in Cambridge that were previously unknown such as the date he arrived in Cambridge, 26 January 1828, that he paid extra for vegetables with dinner and that he occupied one of the most expensive range of rooms for an undergraduate (see Darwin's restored rooms at Christ's College here). There is even a fragment of what may have been a medical certificate of illness or sick note for Darwin. (here) Because students like Darwin often paid local tradesmen by account, their individual bills were reported to the College. Hence the Books reveal Darwin's accounts not just his College but for the barber, grocer, tailor, laundress, chimney sweep and much more. His College bills amounted to £636.0.9½ (i.e. six hundred and thirty-six pounds, zero shillings and 9½ pence) over three years not including the £14 for his B.A. degree in 1831 and £12 for his M.A. in 1836.

Students' names are listed according to their seniority as members of the College, determined by when they were enrolled. Darwin was enrolled on 15 October 1827. Students are listed in the Record Books by surname. As Darwin followed his elder brother Erasmus Darwin to Christ's College, the Record Books at first refer to Charles Darwin as 'Darwin junior' and later 'C. Darwin' to distinguish him. A glossary of terms used in the Record Books is provided below.
Available here are images and transcriptions of the pages of the Record Books which mention or record Charles Darwin.

1822-1829 'Tutors' Accounts' (T.11.26) includes bills for apothecary, barber, bedmaker, shoeblacker, porter, library books, brazier, coal, cook, chimney sweep, scullion, grocer, glazier, hatter, smith, steward, laundress, tailor, private tuition, linen draper, woollen draper and painter.
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1830-1835 'Students Bills' (T.11.27) continues the records of T.11.26, although with printed columns, and also includes seamstress, bricklayer, carpenter and study or room rent.
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1827-1831 'Students Bills' (T.11.25) records Darwin's weekly commons or buttery (meals) account in College- and a fragment of a medical excuse note.
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1828-1831 'Study Rent' (T.9.5) records Darwin's quarterly room rent, usually 4 pounds.
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1828-1829 'Residents Book' (T.17.A) records weekly residence in College and terms kept. To earn a B.A. degree undergraduates were required to reside ten terms in Cambridge.
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1831-1836 'Lecturer's Book' (T.8.2) records degree fees, £14 for Darwin's B.A. in 1831 and £12 for his M.A. in 1836.
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1822-1829 'Tutors' Accounts' (T.11.26) and 1830-1835 'Students Bills' (T.11.27) record the payment of Darwin's Tutor's bills during his time at Christ's College. The accounts were quarterly although they were paid irregularly as follows:

Amount paid
Tutor, Date
£   s   d
  55.16.6 J. S. Apr. 22 1828 [J. S. = Joseph Shaw, Tutor]
106.5.0 J. S. July 1. 1828
  15.18.6 J. S. Nov. 21. 1828
  39.15.3 J. G. March 5. 1829 [J. G. = John Graham, Tutor]
  26.15.3 J. G. May 29. 1829
  58.5.7 J. G. July 1829
  70.18.7 J. G. March 8. 1830
  49.10.- June 4. 1830 [Edward John Ash, Tutor]
 [53.9.11] [Midsummer 1830]
122.5.9 May 1831
  33.12.6½ [June 1831]
  (This bill was disputed see Darwin to Caroline Darwin [31?] October [1831] in Correspondence , vol. 1, p. 177.

Darwin's father probably paid the bills by cheque to the College Tutor. Darwin's father also supplied Darwin with an allowance of £300 according to Janet Browne (Browne 1995, p. 90).

Kees Rookmaaker has arranged the quarterly bills in the following table, which makes Darwin's student finances over the years easier to assess.

£ s d

  3.8.6 1827 Christmas
55.16.9 1828 Lady Day
106.5.0 1828 Midsummer
15.18.6 1828 Michaelmas
39.15.3 1828 Christmas
26.15.3 1829 Lady Day
58.5.7 1829 Midsummer
15.5.7 1829 Michaelmas
55.13.0 1829 Christmas
49.9.2 1830 Lady Day
53.9.11 1830 Midsummer
13.17.4 1830 Michaelmas
63.16.5 1830 Christmas
44.12.0 1831 Lady Day
33.12.6 ½ 1831 Midsummer
£636.0.9½ Total

Compare a contemporary student bill from Trinity College, as printed in J. M. F. Wright's, Alma Mater, or, seven years at the University of Cambridge (1827), p. 112. Darwin's cousin, William Darwin Fox, was at Christ's just before Darwin and overlapped with him for a short time.

The itemized quarterly bills added together give the following totals:

  15.3.0 Barber
  12.1.6 Bedmaker
    1.7.0 Bookseller
    0.8.6 Carpenter
  57.11.0 Chamber
    0.4.0 Chimney sweep
  28.0.1 Coals
  78.0.0 Cook
    5.11.0 Eve Joiner
    4.12.6 Glazier
  39.17.0 Grocer
  12.19.6 Laundress
  20.11.0 Library
    8.5.0 Painter
  16.19.9 ½ Porter
    1.13.6 Scullion
    0.1.6 Seamstress
    5.3.6 Shoeblacker
  15.12.6 Shoemaker
    0.8.6 Smith
125.16.7 Steward
  35.11.6 Taylor
  37.10.0 Tuition
  40.5.6 Woolen draper [one entry in 1828]

[Note: since Darwin's student bills were launched online numerous journalists have claimed that Darwin spent more on shoes than books. This statement is incorrect. The sums in the above table clearly reveal this, i.e. ' 1.7.0 Bookseller' and '20.11.0 Library' vs. '15.12.6 Shoemaker'.]

The fifteen quarters break down as follows: 1827 (1 quarter), 1828 (4 quarters), 1829 (4 quarters), 1830 (4 quarters) and 1831 (2 quarters).

The Record Books at Christ's College are nevertheless not the complete picture of Darwin's finances at Cambridge. Darwin kept a horse in Cambridge although no records have been found for stables. Darwin's father gave him £200 to settle debts in Cambridge in 1831, any debts paid with this sum do not appear to be recorded at Christ's College. Similarly Darwin's gyp (college servant similar to a valet) does not appear on the bills, which indicates that the gyp was paid by the College and not the student.

The academic year, then as now, was divided into three terms. Michaelmas: October – December; Lent: January – March; and Easter: April - July. An ordinary Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree, which Darwin was pursuing (and not a degree in divinity as often erroneously claimed) required three and a third years (or ten terms) residence in Cambridge and the successful completion of two examinations, except for noblemen who simply 'proceeded' to their degree after the required residence. Students were required to spend each night in their college rooms or in lodgings if living outside college, as a means of accurately recording their required residence. An 'exeat' from the College Tutor could be acquired to allow for temporary leave. The dates of Darwin's full terms are listed below followed by the dates he entered or left Cambridge as revealed by the Record Books at Christ's:

Michaelmas Term: 10 October - 16 December [Darwin's name added to the Admissions Books 15 Oct. 1827]

Lent Term: 13 January - 29 March ["in 26 Jan" T.11.25 “in 14 March-out 15 March-in 17 March” T.11.25]
Easter Term: 16 April - 4 July 1828
Michaelmas Term: 10 October - 16 December ["in 31 Oct", in commons: "1 Nov" T.11.25]

Lent Term: 13 January - 10 April [in "Feb 24", in commons: 25 Feb T.11.25]
Easter Term: 29 April - 10 July ["out June 8" T.11.25]
Michaelmas Term: 10 October - 16 December [in “Oct 12” T.11.25]

Lent Term: 13 January - 2 April [“in Jan 1” T.11.25]
Easter Term: 21 April - 9 July [“out June 3” T.11.25]
Michaelmas Term: 10 October - 16 December [“in Oct 7” T.11.25]

Lent Term: 13 January - 25 March
Easter Term: 13 April - 8 July ["B A April 25th" [sic] T.11.25 “out June 16” T.11.25]

Darwin's term dates and other details can be found in the following extracts from The Cambridge University Calendar:

The Cambridge University Calendar for the year 1828. Image
The Cambridge University Calendar for the year 1829. Image
The Cambridge University Calendar for the year 1830. Image
The Cambridge University Calendar for the year 1831. Image
The Cambridge University Calendar for the year 1832. Image

Glossary of terms used in the Record Books

Apoth.y = apothecary.
Bedm.r = bed maker, a college domestic servant.
Brazier = portable heater.
Buttery = the part of the College which issued certain kinds of provisions, especially liquors, bread and butter and other foodstuff served cold. The word does not derive from butter but, like butler, derives from bottle.
Caution money = a deposit paid by an undergraduate to the Tutor against possible future debts.
Chamb: chamber, meaning Darwin's rooms.
Com: Wine / Comb. W. = combination wine.
Commons = College meals in Hall, eaten at a common table with others.
Ds = Dominus, the title of a student who had obtained the B.A. degree. Students with an M.A. obtained the title Mr.
Eve Joiner = unidentified.
L.D.; Ly. Day; L. Day = Lady Day = 25 March, feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first of the four traditional English quarter days.
Laund: = laundress.
L. Drap. = linen draper.
Mich.s = Michaelmas, 29 September, feast of Saint Michael.
Mids.r = Midsummer Day, 24 June.
W. Drap. = woollen draper.
Porter = College employees who watched the gates, recording entrance of students at night and took letters to and from the post office.
Scull = scullion, kitchen servant.
Sempsst = sempstress = seamstress.
Shoebl.r = shoeblacker, a servant who cleaned and polished shoes.
Shoem.r = shoemaker.
Steward = a college servant who oversaw household management.
Tuitn. = tuition.
Ded.s = deductions.
N.Sums = unidentified.

To learn more about Darwin's time in Cambridge see the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 1 and Darwin in Cambridge which is based on new research including the Record Books and other discoveries relating to Darwin's time in Cambridge (click here) and visit the Christ's College website here to learn about Darwin's restored student rooms, new statue, Darwin garden, exhibition in the Old Library and Darwin Portico.


John van Wyhe

March 2009


With thanks to Geoffrey Martin, Kees Rookmaaker, Kelvin Bowkett, Candace Guite and Colin Higgins and the Master and Fellows of Christ's College, Cambridge.


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