RECORD: Darwin, C. R. [1930]. [Letter to Fegan, 1880, and recollections of Darwin]. In W. Y. Fullerton, J. W. C. Fegan: A tribute, The life of Mr. Fegan. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua, edited by John van Wyhe. 7.2019. RN1

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here. See Correspondence vol. 28.

Introduction by Christine Chua:

James William Condell Fegan (1852-1925) was an Evangelical worker among poor boys in South London. In 1872 he founded Fegan's Boys Homes in Deptford. In 1931 W. Y. Fullerton wrote J. W. C. Fegan: A tribute, The life of Mr. Fegan. In 1880 Fegan brought the boys to Downe for a holiday. They sang hymns for the Darwins and, much moved, Darwin gave each of the boys sixpence. The visit was also recorded in Emma Darwin's diary. Fegan wrote twice to Darwin to ask for use of the Reading Room which Darwin had established for the village.

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Meanwhile, his parents had removed from their home at New Cross to Downe in Kent, and their son spent all the time he could spare there in 1880, and with his widowed mother from 1881 to 1883.

During the first summer he took his boys there for a holiday, and so became the pioneer of camps for boys. Before the boys returned to London they visited the home of Charles Darwin, who lived near by, and sang hymns in front of the house. Mr. Darwin expressed his sympathy with the philanthropic work being done, and gave each of the boys sixpence, evoking ringing cheers as they departed.

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Services were also held in the district in a tent, and when it became too late for tent services, greatly daring, Mr. Fegan asked Mr. Darwin if he would lend him the Reading Room which he had established for the villagers, but which was very slightly frequented. It was, in fact, an old school-room which he rented from Sir John Lubbock (afterwards Lord Avebury) for £10 a year. He lent it with pleasure, and, emboldened by his first success, Fegan wrote again, asking if he might have it for a week's Mission, as it was so seldom used. He received the following answer from the great naturalist: -

"Dear Mr. Fegan,

"You ought not to have to write to me for permission to use the Reading Room. You have far more right to it than we have, for your services have done more for the village in a few months than all our efforts for many years. We have never been able to reclaim a drunkard, but through your services I do not know that there is a drunkard left in the village.

"Now may I have the pleasure of handing the Reading Room over to you? Perhaps, if we should want it some night for a special purpose, you will be good enough to let us use it.

"Yours sincerely,

Charles Darwin."

The transfer was made, and in that Reading Room, now called "The Gospel Room," services have been held continuously for half a century.

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Mr. Fegan has left the following memoranda on the subject, which may perhaps be given here.

"The services I held were attended sometimes by members of the Darwin family, and regularly by members of the household. Indeed, when I had a Mission in Downe, the Darwin family were considerate enough to alter their dinner hour so that their household might attend – but this was characteristic of all who served them. At the services, Parslow, the old family butler, whose name is mentioned both by Huxley and Wallace, was converted to God and brought into church membership, also Mrs. Sales, the housekeeper, was brought into the light, and others."

In Emma Darwin: a Century of Family Letters, 1792-1896, edited by her daughter, Mrs. Litchfield, there is a letter written to her daughter from Downe in February, 1881, in which there is a sentence and a footnote referring to the village blacksmith, a great character.

"Hurrah for Mr. Fegan! Mrs. Evans [her old housekeeper] attended a prayer meeting in which old M. made 'as nice a prayer as ever you heard in your life."

And then in footnote this: Old M. was a notable old drunkard, in the village of Downe, converted through Mr. Fegan, 1881."

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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

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