The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 51 of 188


The earliest letters to which I have access are those written by my father when an undergraduate at Cambridge.

The history of his life, as told in his correspondence, must therefore begin with this period.

Chapter 1.IV. Cambridge Life.

[My father’s Cambridge life comprises the time between the Lent Term, 1828, when he came up as a Freshman, and the end of the May Term, 1831, when he took his degree and left the University.

It appears from the College books, that my father “admissus est pensionarius minor sub Magistro Shaw” on October 15, 1827. He did not come into residence till the Lent Term, 1828, so that, although he passed his examination in due season, he was unable to take his degree at the usual time,–the beginning of the Lent Term, 1831. In such a case a man usually took his degree before Ash-Wednesday, when he was called “Baccalaureus ad Diem Cinerum,” and ranked with the B.A.’s of the year. My father’s name, however, occurs in the list of Bachelors “ad Baptistam,” or those admitted between Ash-Wednesday and St. John Baptist’s Day (June 24th); (“On Tuesday last Charles Darwin, of Christ’s College, was admitted B.A.”–“Cambridge Chronicle”, Friday, April 29, 1831.) he therefore took rank among the Bachelors of 1832.

He “kept” for a term or two in lodgings, over Bacon the tobacconist’s; not, however, over the shop in the Market Place, now so well known to Cambridge men, but in Sidney Street. For the rest of his time he had pleasant rooms on the south side of the first court of Christ’s. (The rooms are on the first floor, on the west side of the middle staircase. A medallion (given by my brother) has recently been let into the wall of the sitting-room.)

What determined the choice of this college for his brother Erasmus and himself I have no means of knowing. Erasmus the elder, their grandfather, had been at St. John’s, and this college might have been reasonably selected for them, being connected with Shrewsbury School. But the life of an under-graduate at St. John’s seems, in those days, to have been a troubled one, if I may judge from the fact that a relative of mine migrated thence to Christ’s to escape the harassing discipline of the place. A story told by Mr. Herbert illustrates the same state of things:–

“In the beginning of the October Term of 1830, an incident occurred which was attended with somewhat disagreeable, though ludicrous consequences to myself. Darwin asked me to take a long walk with him in the Fens, to search for some natural objects he was desirous of having. After a very long, fatiguing day’s work, we dined together, late in the evening, at his rooms in Christ’s College; and as soon as our dinner was over we threw ourselves into easy chairs and fell sound asleep. I was first to awake, about three in the morning, when, having looked at my watch, and knowing the strict rule of St. John’s, which required men in statu pupillari to come into college before midnight, I rushed homeward at the utmost speed, in fear of the consequences, but hoping that the Dean would accept the excuse as sufficient when I told him the real facts. He, however, was inexorable, and refused to receive my explanations, or any evidence I could bring; and although during my undergraduateship I had never been reported for coming late into College, now, when I was a hard-working B.A., and had five or six pupils, he sentenced me to confinement to the College walls for the rest of the term. Darwin’s indignation knew no bounds, and the stupid injustice and tyranny of the Dean raised not only a perfect ferment among my friends, but was the subject of expostulation from some of the leading members of the University.”

My father seems to have found no difficulty in living at peace with all men in and out of office at Lady Margaret’s other foundation. The impression of a contemporary of my father’s is that Christ’s in their day was a pleasant, fairly quiet college, with some tendency towards “horsiness”; many of the men made a custom of going to Newmarket during the races, though betting was not a regular practice. In this they were by no means discouraged by the Senior Tutor, Mr. Shaw, who was himself generally to be seen on the Heath on these occasions. There was a somewhat high proportion of Fellow-Commoners,–eight or nine, to sixty or seventy Pensioners, and this would indicate that it was not an unpleasant college for men with money to spend and with no great love of strict discipline.

The way in which the service was conducted in chapel shows that the Dean, at least, was not over zealous. I have heard my father tell how at evening chapel the Dean used to read alternate verses of the Psalms, without making even a pretence of waiting for the congregation to take their share. And when the Lesson was a lengthy one, he would rise and go on with the Canticles after the scholar had read fifteen or twenty verses.

It is curious that my father often spoke of his Cambridge life as if it had been so much time wasted, forgetting that, although the set studies of the place were barren enough for him, he yet gained in the highest degree the best advantages of a University life–the contact with men and an opportunity for his mind to grow vigorously. It is true that he valued at its highest the advantages which he gained from associating with Professor Henslow and some others, but he seemed to consider this as a chance outcome of his life at Cambridge, not an advantage for which Alma Mater could claim any credit. One of my father’s Cambridge friends was the late Mr. J.M. Herbert, County Court Judge for South Wales, from whom I was fortunate enough to obtain some notes which help us to gain an idea of how my father impressed his contemporaries. Mr. Herbert writes: “I think it was in the spring of 1828 that I first met Darwin, either at my cousin Whitley’s rooms in St. John’s, or at the rooms of some other of his old Shrewsbury schoolfellows, with many of whom I was on terms of great intimacy. But it certainly was in the summer of that year that our acquaintance ripened into intimacy, when we happened to be together at Barmouth, for the Long Vacation, reading with private tutors,–he with Batterton of St. John’s, his Classical and Mathematical Tutor, and I with Yate of St. John’s.”

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