Darwin’s injury time in Brazil

When the US football team lost to Belgium in the stadium in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, they could have consoled themselves with the reflection that Darwin didn’t altogether enjoy it either.   Bahia was the place where he first set foot on South American soil when HMS Beagle landed there in February 1832, but a knee injury (not believed to be football related) confined him mostly to the ship.  He had to wait until Botofogo Bay, near Rio de Janeiro, to make his first real expedition on land, but it was worth it:  the views were gorgeous, the forests glorious, and he delighted in their sublime solitude.  It was also at Rio that Darwin got his first letters from home – he had been away for four months.


Sugar Loaf, Rio, MS ADD 7983 5r, © Cambridge University Library

Sugar Loaf, Rio, MS ADD 7983 5r, © Cambridge University Library









Bahia was also Darwin’s last landfall in South America:  the Beagle was on a naval surveying expedition and the captain, worried about discrepancies in their earlier measurements of longitude off the coast of Brazil,  decided to recross the Atlantic in August 1836 when they should have been heading home.  Darwin was distraught:  “ I loathe, I abhor the sea, & all ships which sail on it” he wrote to his sister, “I little thought ever to have put my foot on a S. American coast again.— It has been almost painful to find how much, good enthusiasm has been evaporated during the last four years. I can now walk soberly through a Brazilian forest; not but what it is exquisitely beautiful, but now, instead of seeking for splendid contrasts; I compare the stately Mango trees with the Horse Chesnuts of England.”  Sentiments perhaps not shared by Roy Hodgson.


All of Darwin’s letters from the Beagle are available to read on this site.  Read more about the voyage and find links here and here, and see contemporary drawings from the voyage by the Beagle’s artist, Conrad Martens, together with extracts from Darwin’s letters, here.  High resolution images of Conrad Martens’ sketches and watercolours are also available through the Cambridge Digital Library.


Darwin, sex, and gender

We are very pleased to be able to feature four new student projects created using our ‘Darwin and Gender’ university teaching resources.  The resources were developed in collaboration with Prof. Sarah Richardson at Harvard who has used them for the past three years in her ‘Gender, Sex, and Evolution’ course, and bring together Darwin’s fascinating correspondence on the biology of sex and gender, and on the roles of males and females in humans and other animals.  Among other things, this year’s inventive set of projects explore why Darwin thought women were inherently moral, what influence his daughter Henrietta had on the composition of the Descent of Man, and the fuss over women’s smaller skull size.


So congratulations to Sarah Amanaullah, Miranda Morrison, Amalia Salcedo-Marx, and Vanessa Tan – we hope you enjoy their creative, entertaining, and thought-provoking work.  And thank you also to Myrna Perez Sheldon, a former colleague at the Darwin Correspondence Project who helped teach the course again this year.

Hockey night in…Shrewsbury?

Darwin playing Ice Hockey

Darwin playing Ice Hockey

This week, a bombshell rocked the world of winter sports – hockey is, apparently, not from Canada. What drew our attention to this revelation is a letter from Charles Darwin used as evidence for the game’s roots in England. With several Canadians working on the Darwin Correspondence project, we were intrigued by the notion that Darwin had been an early participant in a much-beloved sport.


The letter in question is to Darwin’s eldest son William, who was then about fourteen years old and away at school. It would have been a very late spring, because Darwin mentions hockey in reference to William’s younger brother George “sliding”: “Georgy has learnt to slide & enjoys it very much, & goes down by himself to the village-pond: but this day’s heavy snow will stop sliding & your skating. Have you got a pretty good pond to skate on? I used to be very fond of playing at Hocky on the ice in skates.” In 1840, Leigh Hunt included hockey in his description of a typical winter day: “as you approach the scene of action (pond or canal) you hear the dull grinding noise of the skaits to and fro, and see tumbles, and Banbury cake-men and blackguard boys playing “hockey,” and ladies standing shivering on the banks” (Leigh Hunt, The indicator and the companion (London: 1840) part 2, p. 19). By the middle of the nineteenth century hockey was a common enough occurrence in England to produce a rant in an article for London Society 3: 14 (1863) against the dangers of it being played on thin ice. Even Charles Kingsley, author of The water babies, referred to ice hockey in Madame How and Lady Why (1870).


As an adult, Darwin generally preferred more sedentary activities, and although he enjoyed playing Billiards with his sons, he tended to leave more vigorous physical activity to the younger crowd. Finding gems like these, about the day to day activities of Darwin and his family, is one of the benefits of having access to such a complete archive of correspondence. The letters obviously provide important access to the formation of Darwin’s scientific thought, but they also enable us to snatch domestic glimpses into something as simple as a child’s favourite winter pastime.

Casting about: Darwin on worms

This week Darwin and earthworms featured in the news announcement that a citizen science project has been launched to map the distribution of earthworms across Britain (BBC Today programme, 26 May 2014). The general understanding of the role earthworms play in improving soils and providing nutrients for plants to flourish can be traced back to the last book Darwin wrote, snappily-titled The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations on their habits, which was published in 1881. Despite Darwin’s fears that a book on earthworms might prove a failure, it became a best seller.


Earthworms had not always been popular. In the late eighteenth-century they were regarded as pests, and were viewed with suspicion. They were first championed as the friend of gardeners and farmers by the naturalist Gilbert White, who pointed out in his Natural History of Selborne of 1789 (a book Darwin claimed had ‘much influence on my mind’ (letter to W. T. Preyer, 17 February [1870])) that without earthworms aerating the soil and producing casts (excrement) the earth would become cold, hard-bound, and sterile. White believed that a monograph on worms would open up a new field in natural history, and almost a century later Darwin argued that all fields had passed through the intestines of earthworms. Although his monograph was not published until 1881, he had long been interested in earthworms, and they were the subject of one of his earliest scientific papers presented to the Geological Society of London in 1837. He had been inspired by observations made by his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood of the uniform structure of the superficial layer of earth.


In the Victorian equivalent of crowd sourcing, CD called on family, friends, and scientific colleagues to help with his research over the next 44 years, as he went about calculating the volume of earth raised to the surface by earthworms (a stonking 161 tons per acre annually); exploring the disintegration of rocks by their digestive juices; discovering the depth to which they burrow; determining the altitudes to which they can be found; observing their feeding mechanisms and how they drag leaves into their burrows; and considering whether they might be intelligent. Finding the answers to these questions involved some unusual equipment and situations. His correspondence reveals the inventive methods he devised for studying the habits of earthworms, and the variety of strange things he persuaded people to do.


Worm activity at Stonehenge, Dar 162: 105, ©Cambridge University Library

Worm activity at Stonehenge, Dar 162: 105, ©Cambridge University Library 


Darwin concluded that worms had no sense of hearing when they failed to react not only to the shrill notes of a metal whistle and to being shouted at, but also to Francis Darwin playing the bassoon, and to Emma Darwin’s piano playing. From 1872, few members of the family were not involved. William, armed with a skewer and trowel, investigated traces of earthworm activity at Stonehenge, and Horace was later charged with making sure that 18 inch holes were dug at the foundations of the Roman antiquities at Chedworth and Cirencester to investigate whether worms possessed the power to lift a pavement. Leonard and George made calculations about larger castings on poorer soils, and Francis helped with calculations relating to the obliteration of ridges and furrows through the action of worms. Meanwhile Amy Ruck, Francis’s future wife, was in despair at not finding casts in Wales, not realising that this negative evidence was also valuable to Darwin. Thomas Henry Farrer, permanent secretary of the Board of Trade and husband of Darwin’s niece Katherine Euphemia Wedgwood, so entered into the spirit of things that he kept a worm journal. Darwin instructed another niece Lucy Wedgwood to probe worm holes to measure their angle relative to the surface of the ground. He suggested using knitting needles, but, perhaps thinking this too big a sacrifice, when Lucy reported her results she referred to having used a blunt wire. After a while, looking for earthworm casts became a habit; Francis noticed worm casts in fir woods near Zermatt, when on holiday in the Swiss Alps, and reported that his guide confirmed the existence of worms at that altitude.


By the 1870s, Darwin was also drawing on the work of other naturalists, and as his research gathered momentum he began to ask colleagues and correspondents around the world to make observations for him. Soon worm excrement was trusted to postal services, and Darwin acquired casts from India and Australia. His interest in earthworms never waned, but it was not until 1880 that he began to draw together the observations he had gathered to write a book on the subject. Darwin brought to the topic the sustained attention that characterised all his work, and by the end of the year admitted that ‘My whole soul is absorbed with worms just at present!’ (letter to W. T. Thiselton Dyer, 23 November [1880] (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)). In the end, however, as he told his son William, what he hoped his book would reveal is that ‘worms have much bigger souls than anyone wd suppose’ (letter to W. E. Darwin, 31 January [1881] (CUL DAR 210.6: 173)).


Who is this correspondent? Charlotte Papé

Charlotte Pape letter, DAR 174: 27

Who is this correspondent?


She wrote to Charles Darwin on 16 July 1875


Charlotte was literate and articulate; her use of English was idiomatic. She may not have been young in 1875: she wrote that ‘of course, like all women, I have had no scientific training, and know nothing except from random reading; neither could I attain any now’. She referred to friends and family, but made no specific reference to husband or children.


She had read works by Francis Galton and Darwin, and was unhappy with the opinion that female intellect was inferior to male:


The point which naturally has the greatest interest for me, about which I am most anxious to find out something certain, is, how far heredity is limited by sex in the human race, especially whether mental qualities are at all limited by it. I am well aware that your own, I think, provisional view is, that even mental qualities are thus limited; I myself know so comparatively many striking instances to the contrary, among my friends and my own family, that it seems highly improbable to me.


She wished to collect data to test her idea, and sought Darwin’s opinion on a table she had designed; but this enclosure is missing. For more on Darwin’s correspondence concerning gender, particularly with other women, see our Darwin and Gender content.


She wrote from Lark Hill House, Edgeley, Stockport, Cheshire, the home of John Hope Clarke, cotton broker and agent (1826-1905), his wife Mary Cheetham Clarke née Owen (1831/2-84), and their surviving children, four sons and two daughters. The parents were living there with their eldest son in both the 1871 and 1881 censuses; in 1871 the younger children were at the seaside in Lytham with their governess, Eliza Ann Younghusband (1850-1924). John Hope Clark and Mary Cheetham Owen had married on 19 February 1851 at St Thomas’s church, Ardwick, Lancashire.


There is nothing in the letter to tell us whether Charlotte is on a visit to Lark Hill House, or was perhaps employed there; but she presumably expected to stay long enough to receive a reply.


She was the same Charlotte Papé who wrote on 9 June 1879 from 12 Nordstrasse, Leipzig, to Helen Taylor, a tireless worker for women’s suffrage and step-daughter of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who was himself an advocate of women’s rights. In the letter Papé, who described herself as a great admirer of J. S. Mill, explained that she wished to write an article to be published in a German women’s journal about Mill on the anniversary of his death (he died 7 May 1873). The letter is in the Women’s Library archive collection at the London School of Economics (Mill-Taylor/8/26 ff. 56-7).


The editors of a German reference work (Stephan Meder et al., eds. 2010. Die Rechtsstellung der Frau um 1900: Eine kommentierte Quellensammlung. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, pp. 668–74) reckoned that the writer of the two letters mentioned above was the same person as Charlotte Pape, who delivered a lecture in Gotha in 1875; it was published as ‘Die Rechte der Mutter über ihre Kinder’ in a journal called Neue Bahnen (1876, 9-12). This was the mouthpiece of the Allgemeine deutsche Frauenverein, founded by Louise Otto after the first women’s conference in Leipzig in 1865.


So who was our letter writer? Where did she live, how old was she, who were her friends and family? Surely a woman with the audacity to seek advice from Charles Darwin does not deserve to be completely invisible!

Correspondent of the Month: Joseph Simms (1833–1920)

The American doctor and author of works on physiognomy Joseph Simms wrote to Darwin on 14 September 1874, while he was staying in London. He enclosed a copy of his book Nature’s revelations of character (Simms 1873). He hoped ‘it may prove sufficiently interesting’ that Darwin could ‘say a word in its favour for print’. The book contained the following portrait of Darwin to illustrate ‘Observativeness Large’, the ‘quality or disposition to look closely and with rigid care at every object’.


Joseph Simms & ‘Observativeness Large’ – Charles Darwin, Nature’s revelations of character, 1873, CUL 8300.c.57, © Cambridge University Library

Joseph Simms & ‘Observativeness Large’ – Charles Darwin, Nature’s revelations of character, 1873, CUL 8300.c.57, © Cambridge University Library


No reply to the letter has been found, and Darwin was not sufficiently flattered to include the title in any of his published work. Simms also made the strange request of a drawing of Darwin’s right foot:


If you will favour me you can plant the foot on white paper lightly while sitting and with pencil draw an outline close round the entire foot. It matters not whether with stocking or not. Better without stocking.


If you grant this unusual request please give your height while standing in stockings.

(Letter from Joseph Simms, 14 September 1874)


The foot could tell the physiognomist quite a lot about the owner’s character. For instance, those with ‘arched or cat-shaped’ feet were liable to concealativeness, the inclination to hide or withhold the knowledge of things or thoughts. While flat feet were indicative of small secretiveness (Simms 1873, p. 154). A ‘broad foot’ indicated ‘demolitiousness the inclination to destroy: the propensity to mar, deface, or destroy’ (Simms 1873, p. 166).


Feet from Darwin caricature ‘Natural selection’, Vanity Fair, 30 September 1871

Unfortunately, we do not know what Darwin’s feet were like. The only known clear depictions of his feet are with shoes on in a photograph of him seated in wicker chair at Down, and in a Vanity Fair caricature, which is probably not a reliable source.


Part image: Charles Darwin, 1878, Leonard Darwin, Dar 225:1, ©Cambridge University Library


According to an American Cyclopedia entry, as a child Simms had been ‘unconsciously drawn to the practice of noting facial and corporeal peculiarities, systematically comparing them with known mental characteristics, and educing certain assured rules and formulae’ (‘Biographical sketch’, 1897). He started lecturing in major cities of the US and Canada on physiognomy in 1854. In 1866 he sought training in anatomy from John William Draper, founder of the University of New York medical school and author of the conflict thesis of science and religion.  He graduated as a medical doctor in 1871 from the Eclectic Medical College of New York.


Joseph Simms from ‘Biographical sketch’, 1897, CUL Pam.5.89.100

However, he soon returned to physiognomy, embarking on a three-year lecture tour of Britain in 1872, including 52 lectures in London alone. As well as Europe, he later toured Australasia, Africa and Asia before retiring in 1884, having made a considerable fortune (New York Times, 13 April 1920). Simms himself, of course, was ‘a man of mark, being six feet high, of splendid proportions, and fittingly endowed by nature for the arduous physical and intellectual labours of his well-spent life’ (‘Biographical sketch’, 1897).


Later versions of his physiognomy textbook appeared as the hugely popular Physiognomy Illustrated, which was in its tenth edition by 1891. The work saw degeneration in the fact that American faces were becoming less different and people were ‘nearly as indistinguishable as sheep’ (Burrows 2008, p. 11).


In 1912, Simms was involved in a minor scandal when he was arrested in Central Park for carrying a revolver without a permit. He had pointed the gun at a five year old boy after the boy had picked up rice that Simms and his wife fed to the squirrels. He received a suspended sentence because he could prove the gun, a relic from the Mexican war, was never loaded or discharged.


When Simms died in 1920, his widow carried out his request of donating his body to medical science. The body was sent to George Sumner Huntington’s laboratory at Columbia University, where Edward Anthony Spitzka removed the brain. Spitzka was prosector of the American Anthropometric Society and he had studied the brains of many well-known men. He weighed it, concluding only that given ‘Dr. Simms was nearly 87 years old, the weight was above normal’ (New York Times, 13 April 1920).


Darwin’s attitude to physiognomy in the 1870s can be inferred from the introduction to Expression:


MANY works have been written on Expression, but a greater number on Physiognomy,—that is, on the recognition of character through the study of the permanent form of the features. With this latter subject I am not here concerned. The older treatises, which I have consulted, have been of little or no service to me. (Expression, p. 1)


Darwin was happy to use the word ‘physiognomy’ to denote facial features or the outward appearance of plants and animals. However, as to the science of determining character or personal qualities from the features or form of the body, he wrote at the end of Expression: ‘Whatever amount of truth the so-called science of physiognomy may contain, appears to depend, as Haller long ago remarked, on different persons bringing into frequent use different facial muscles, according to their dispositions; the development of these muscles being perhaps thus increased, and the lines or furrows on the face, due to their habitual contraction, being thus rendered deeper and more conspicuous.’ (Expression, p. 366)



‘A biographical sketch of Joseph Simms M.D.’, reprinted from The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. VII. New York: James T. White and Co., 1897. CUL Classmark: Pam.5.89.100


‘Body of lecturer given to science, Dr Spitzka removes brain of Dr Simms, seventy years a student of physiognomy ’, New York Times, 13 April 1920.


Burrows, Stuart. 2008.  A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1839–1945. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.


Darwin, Charles. 1872. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.


Simms, Joseph. 1873. Nature’s revelations of character, or, the mental, moral and volitive dispositions of mankind, as manifested in the human form and countenance. London: Printed for the author.


Simms, Joseph. 1891. Physiognomy illustrated; or, Nature’s revelations of character. A description of the mental, moral, and volitive dispositions of mankind, as manifested in the human form and countenance. New York: Murray Hill.


Correspondent of the Month:

This is the first in a new series, taking a closer look at some of the hundreds of fascinating people who exchanged letters with Darwin.

Even boils can be romantic

To celebrate Valentine’s Day we were very pleased to be asked to join in BBC Radio 3′s The Verb, to talk about how Darwin signed off his letters (no kisses).  You can hear two of Darwin’s letters to his wife, Emma, on the programme.   After giving her an update on his health, he ends the first letter: “My own dear wife, I cannot possibly say how beyo[u]nd all value your sympathy & affection is to me”, signing off as “Your poor old Husband” (he was 38).  In the second, a graphic description of his boils and a discussion of gardening are interspersed with deeply touching declarations of his love, and it ends “My dearest, I kiss you from my heart”.


Eloquent writing was something Darwin learned young, and was a skill that stood him in good stead.   The letters sent back to family and friends during his five-year voyage with HMS Beagle are alive with affection and longing: he regularly sends his love to his father and sisters, and ends a letter to one of his student friends “God bless you … may you always be happy & prosperous is my most cordial wish”.


If you’ve listened to the programme, the other letters mentioned are:


But if you browse through Darwin’s letters you will find those last two are unusual.  It was his deft manipulation of language in correspondence with so many different people, most of whom he never met, that enabled Darwin to build up such a large network of collaborators, and without them he could never have achieved the things he did. Darwin’s style was generally warm and engaging, and his most common way of ending letters to family and his many friends is “Yours affectionately” (or “Yrs affly” for short).


Yrs affly, and a happy Valentine’s Day,

The editors


The Verb airs on BBC Three at 10:00pm Friday 14 February 2014





We’ll need a considerably bigger bookshelf

Cover of volume 21 of The Correspondence of Charles DarwinThe letters Darwin wrote and received in 1873 – all 558 of them – are now available in volume 21 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin.


We are delighted to announce that our latest volume was published on 23 January 2014. So what was Darwin doing in 1873?


‘I do not think any discovery ever gave me more pleasure than proving a true act of digestion in Drosera.’

In 1873, Darwin continued work on insectivorous plants, concentrating on ‘the most wonderful plant in the world’, Drosera (the sundew), and its digestive processes.  His exhaustive experiments were documented in  Insectivorous plants, published in 1875. Investigating the sundew’s sensitivity, Darwin found that the glandular hairs on the leaves  responded to slight pressure and minute quantities of fluid. Material dropped in the centre caused the outermost tentacles to bend inward, so that the plant closed like a fist. Darwin was fascinated by this transmission of ‘motor impulse’, which seemed analogous to muscular contraction in animals.


‘I could give 2 scientific secretaries work to do’

As well as working on insectivorous plants, Darwin was preparing to publish two more books in the near future, Cross and self fertilisation (1876), and Forms of flowers (1877). When he jokingly mentioned his need for staff, his son Francis proposed that he give up his medical career and become Darwin’s secretary. This was a useful move for Francis, who collaborated with his father in his botanical work, and later became university lecturer and then reader in botany at Cambridge University.


‘Did I ever boast to you on the success, as judged by the lowest standard of sale, of my Expression Book— 9000 copies have now been printed off, & most of them sold!’

Expression of the emotions in man and animals had been published in November 1872, and responses continued to flood in. Reviews remarked on the popular nature of the book. Full of observations of infants and anecdotes of zoo animals and family pets, it was judged attractive and entertaining. However, a highly critical review appeared anonymously in the Edinburgh Review in April. Darwin asked one of his Scottish correspondents, George Cupples, who the author might be, adding: ‘I hope that this explosion of wrath & contempt has done the poor gentleman, whoever he may be, some good, but I felt it rather hard after wading through so much abuse not to find myself one whit the wiser on any point; for I knew my own ignorance before hand.’


‘If you could have heard what was said, or could have read what was, as I believe, our inmost thoughts, you would know that we all feel towards you, as we should to an honoured & much loved brother.’

Darwin wrote this to Thomas Henry Huxley, in the hope that he would accept a gift from his friends of £2100. Huxley was overworked and in poor health, and in financial trouble because of a law suit. Darwin, though not in the best of health himself,  organised the subscription and with some trepidation informed Huxley of his friends’ actions. Fortunately, Huxley was delighted and accepted, and was able to take a long holiday in Europe.


‘Steadiness; great curiosity about facts, and their meaning;  some love of the new and marvellous’

Darwin was invited to reflect on his own character when his cousin Francis Galton, who was interested in the inheritance of mental traits, sent him a questionnaire. As well as mentioning the traits listed above, Darwin revealingly declared, ‘Special talents, none, except for business, as evinced by keeping accounts, being regular in correspondence, and investing money very well; very methodical in my habits.’ Francis added to his father’s virtues: ‘sober, honest & industrious’.


Read the introduction to the volume here.


See inside the volume on the Cambridge University Press website.


Mystery solved!

Royal Crescent, Bath

Royal Crescent, Bath

Thanks to everyone who offered ideas for our mystery correspondent, who sent a letter to Charles Darwin from 81 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin on 9 March 1875! We’re thrilled to say that we now have a definite result.


Glenn Branch suggested Isabella Harriet Wolfe (1813-95), who was living in at 19 Upper Leeson Street from about 1850 until 1877. Isabella and her sister Charlotte (1815-95) were the only surviving children of William Standish Wolfe (1774-1869) of Baronrath, county Kildare, and his wife Jane. The death announcement of Jane, wife of William S. Wolfe, in Freeman’s Journal 8 April 1846, probably refers to her. This identification seems relatively unlikely: Isabella’s mother died when Isabella was 33, nearly thirty years before the letter was written and doesn’t fit well with the letter writer saying, “not long ago I was startled by an exclamation of surprise fr. my mother . . . I was nearly fifty when this seemingly forgotten tendency once more appeared.”


That side track was disappointing. So what did we try next?


If the writer were a woman, then the initial ‘A’ could be for ‘Anne’: a search on the internet produced Gould Anne Ruxton who married Charles Wolfe (1825-66; a third cousin of the Isabella and Charlotte Wolfe mentioned above) in 1849 and who died in 1885 aged 61. But the signature was not legible enough to be conclusive, so we looked for more evidence.


The Wolfe family is included in Burke’s Landed Gentry of Ireland 1899, which shows that Charles Wolfe was British chaplain at Havre. The Ruxtons are listed, too: Gould’s parents were Henry Upton Ruxton of Ardee and Isabella Carlisle, the daughter of James Carlile of Craddoxtown.


Thom’s Irish Almanac showed a Mrs Wolfe living in Dublin in the 1870’s, although not at 81 Upper Leeson Street. From 1867 to 1873 she was living at 30 Waterloo Road (off Upper Leeson Street) with Mrs Isabella Offley, who died in November 1873 aged 74. So was Mrs Isabella Offley previously Mrs Isabella Ruxton? It seemed possible, and all the information so far was tantalisingly appropriate: a comfortable family background; life on the continent; the writer aged about 50 in 1875; and her mother maybe alive until shortly before.


Gould had an older sister, Isabella, who married George Abraham Grierson, a barrister, in 1846: they were the parents of George Abraham Grierson, an expert on the languages of the Indian subcontinent, who has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There is also the marriage of Julia, daughter of John Offley, gentleman, and Charles Cannon. An unusual surname . . . and George Abraham Grierson was a witness at the wedding.


When Isabella Offley died she was described as the wife of John Henry Offley. Someone of that name was listed in the census returns for England in 1851, 1861 and 1871; each time he was described as married but his wife was not with him. He was educated at Cambridge and had a private income. In the 1881 census there was a wife called Harriet, but they only married in 1875. We called in reinforcements, and asked the Offley Family Society for help. One of their members came up with a marriage in Florence (not too far from the Baths of Lucca, mentioned in the letter to Darwin) in January 1829 between John Henry Offley and Isabella Buxton. Too much of a coincidence! All this suggested that Isabella Ruxton travelled on the continent with two small daughters and while in Italy married a wealthy Englishman. Was Julia Cannon née Offley their daughter? She died in 1915, aged 84, in Dublin and appeared in the surviving Irish censuses for 1901 and 1911, giving her place of birth as Berne in Switzerland.


John Henry Offley was born in London in 1804; his parents were John and Julia Maria, and he had a sister who was also called Julia Maria. He died in Bath in 1883 with property worth £164, 500 (about £8m in today’s money). It seemed worth £6 to order a copy of his will. While we waited for it to arrive, we filled in some background on some of the relevant players, but the will was to prove the decisive piece of evidence. It bequeathed two thousand pounds to Gould Anne Wolfe of 81 Upper Leeson Street Dublin, the widow of the late Reverend Charles Wolfe of Feighcullen Glebe, Kildare. The will went on to confirm that Isabella had been John Henry Offley’s first wife, and that Julia Cannon was their daughter. And although everything we needed was laid out tidily in the will, we never would have looked at John Henry Offley without having gone through all the other steps! It is always important for us to be able to place Darwin’s correspondents in their social and geographical relationships, in order to be able to have a clear picture of the correspondence as a whole.


We were very surprised just how much we were able to find out about a woman who spent all of her life outside the United Kingdom.  But we are left so curious . . . Why did Isabella Ruxton take her daughters off to Europe? What was the relationship between John Henry Offley, his wife, their daughter, and his step-daughters? In the 1891 census Harriet Offley, John Henry Offley’s widow, was living in Royal Crescent, Bath. Isabella Grierson was staying with her daughters, Constantia, Charlotte and Julia Maria, in Park Street, less than half a mile away. Did they meet?

Can you help?

Which Wolfe?

Which Wolfe?

We’re trying to find this correspondent – are you able to help?


The letter was written to Charles Darwin on 9 March 1875 from 81 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin. The correspondent says that they have just finished reading Descent. They write about their personal experience of pain, living in the country, collecting insects, a “long residence on the continent”, the Baths of Lucca, dogs, servants (including a French one), a thoroughbred mare, and once owning a water-spaniel that understood Italian. They were opposed to vivisection unless perhaps the animals were anaesthetised, and have just read Greg’s Enigmas of Life. The writer is not young – “not long ago” they were “nearly fifty” and their mother (presumably about seventy) had remarked on a trick of behaviour that copied the writer’s great-grandmother (their mother’s paternal grandmother, that is), who died before the writer was born. They also talk of a distant cousin with the same habit, whose grandfather married the writer’s great-grandmother’s sister. I think this means they were second cousins once removed. I can’t imagine that we will identify the second cousin (whether once removed or otherwise) but surely we can pin down the correspondent? We do have a guess, but we don’t want to influence you. Do send us a message if you have any suggestions!

Which Wolfe?

Which Wolfe?