Tuesday 24 March 2009

Darwin’s University Days

by Kathryn Hadley

Six record books of the bills paid by Charles Darwin during his time as a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge, were published online, yesterday, at The Complete Work Of Charles Darwin Online. The bills were recently discovered by the Honorary Keeper of the Archives and Fellow Commoner, Professor Geoffrey Thorndike Martin, and provide a unique insight into Darwin’s expenditure as a student, from 1828 to 1831, filling in previous gaps in knowledge about this period of his life.

The record books state, for example, the exact date of Darwin’s arrival at the university on January 26th, 1828, as well as the date of his enrollment at Christ’s College on October 15th, 1827. At the time, students did not pay for many things in cash. Instead, they paid local tradesmen by account and the individual bills were then reported to the college, which charged the students on a quarterly basis. Over the course of the three years, Darwin’s bills amounted to £636.0.9½ (six hundred and thirty-six pounds, zero shillings and 91/2 pence). In addition, he spent £14 on his BA degree in 1831 and a further £12, in 1836, to collect his MA following his return from his Beagle voyage. Darwin allegedly spent very little of his time at Cambridge studying, instead preferring to shoot, ride, collect insects and socialise and his bills reveal very scarce expenditure on books.

He paid extra, however, in order to be served vegetables with his meals and also employed a bed-maker, shoe-polisher and someone to bring in the coal for his fire! The books also include Darwin’s accounts for the barber, grocer, tailor, chimney-sweep, apothecary, porter, and laundress, for example. Darwin allegedly later recalled his student years as ‘the most joyful of my happy life’.

In the words of Dr John van Wyhe, Director of The Complete Work Of Charles Darwin Online:
‘Before this we didn't really know very much about Darwin's daily life at
Cambridge at all. It had been assumed that there were no significant traces of
his time here left to discover, which meant that we were ironically short of
information about one of the most formative parts of his life. Now, in his 200th
anniversary year, we have found a real treasure-trove right in the middle of

The record books are available on the website of The Complete Works Of Charles Darwin Online: http://darwin-online.org.uk/

For further information on the conflict between supporters of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Creationists, read Thomas Dixon’s article published in our February issue America's Difficulty with Darwin
Published in 1982, Roy Porter’s article also provides a fascinating insight into his view of Darwin’s genius at the time The Descent of Genius: Charles Darwin's Brilliant Career

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