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Darwin Correspondence Project

Charles Thomas Whitley

Born in Liverpool in 1808, Charles Thomas Whitley, like Darwin, attended Shrewsbury School and then Cambridge University where they were clearly very close, exchanging letters during the summer holidays. Whitley was a mathematician, a subject that held very little interest for the young Darwin; what they had in common was a taste for long country walks, which in later years Darwin often mentioned nostalgically. Whitley encouraged a taste for art in Darwin, sharing his own collection of engravings and encouraging visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum (Autobiography p. 61). Whitley was also a fellow-member of the Glutton Club, a weekly dining club of friends who consumed rather unusual dinners at each of their rooms in rotation. The goal was to try “birds and beasts before unknown to the human palate” with menus including such delicacies as hawk and bittern. The evening usually ended with cards (LL 1: 170).

The correspondence between the two friends provides a good account of the excitement and chaos surrounding Darwin’s preparations for the Beagle voyage, with letters often having to catch up with Darwin as he raced between Shrewsbury, London, Cambridge, and Portsmouth in the months leading up to his departure. Although they wrote to oneanother fairly regularly in the early months, ultimately the two drifted apart as Darwin went off on his adventure and Whitley threw himself into the early days of a university career.

Having graduated B. A. in 1830 as Senior Wrangler from Cambridge (the student who achieves the top result in mathematics in a given year) and been elected a fellow of St. Johns, in 1833 he was appointed to the newly established University of Durham, where he stayed as reader in natural philosophy, also filling various administrative roles, until 1855. He had married his cousin Frances Whitley in 1836 (having to give up his St John’s fellowship as a result), a fact that did not escape Darwin’s notice when he in turn married a cousin two years later. In 1834 he published Outlines of a New Theory of Rotatory Motion, translated from the French of Poinsot, with explanatory Notes. According to one obituary, he was “somewhat of a martinet and every inch a ‘don’” ([Anon.] 1895 p. 606) – and indeed as he wrote to Darwin before the Beagle he made sure to give lots of advice before Darwin escaped 'from [his] advice & reproaches for a considerable period'. He was known to have good taste in English composition, so in addition to his scientific responsibilities he helped assess the sermon exercises of theology students. He was much in demand for his ability to converse easily on any subject, not to mention being a skillful whist player.

Whitley had been ordained deacon in 1835 and priest in 1836, and accordingly took on the role of vicar of Bedlington, Northumberland, in 1854, where he stayed until his death in 1895. This was a rapidly growing parish in a mining district, and he concerned himself there with the education of his parishioners, as well as pragmatic concerns like the supply of water to the area. He was made honorary D.D. of Durham in 1883. Towards the end of his life he also acted as chaplain to the Bishop of Newcastle.


Alum cantab.


[Anon.] 1895. Obituary. The Eagle 18: 606-608