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Darwin Correspondence Project

John Maurice Herbert


John Maurice Herbert
J.M. Herbert from The Red Dragon. The National Magazine of Wales. ed. Charles Wilkins. Vol. III January to June 1883. opp. p. 1.
Cambridge University Library

John Maurice Herbert was a close friend of Darwin’s at Cambridge University. He was affectionately called ‘Cherbury’ by Darwin, a reference to the seventeenth-century philosopher Edward Herbert, Baron Cherbury, who, like John Herbert, hailed from Montgomeryshire in Wales. Darwin must have used this nickname so consistently that when addressing a letter to Herbert in October 1828, he had to confess ‘I cannot recollect your Christian name, so I shall Christen you G’.

Herbert and Darwin had met through mutual acquaintances at Cambridge, but their friendship was established during a study tour in Barmouth over the long vacation of 1828. Darwin was being tutored in classics and mathematics, but preferred to pursue entomology. Herbert later recalled that in Barmouth Darwin ‘gave up his mathematical reading before he had mastered the first part of Algebra, having had a special quarrel with Surds and the Binomial Theorem’ (Life and letters 1: 171). Even before the study trip, Darwin was afraid that his enthusiam for entomology would ‘drive out of my poor noddle the mathematics’.

Herbert, in contrast to Darwin, was a very able mathematician, but claimed to be a poor observer. Nonetheless, he was recruited to assist Darwin in collecting beetles during their walks together. After leaving Barmouth, Darwin continued to regard Herbert as a willing assistant. Far from feeling exploited, Herbert not only collected beetles for Darwin, but also, in 1831, sent him an anonymous gift of a microscope. Darwin never forgot this kindness. ‘I can hardly call to mind any event in my life which surprised and gratified me more’, he told Herbert in 1872.

Darwin evidently asked Herbert to write to him during the Beagle voyage, and Herbert took the task to heart. He wrote long letters full of news, from gossip about mutual friends to the progress of the Reform Bill and the prospect of a Whig government. With this in mind, he gave Darwin the following collecting advice: ‘you I think are amongst a Tory Crew; just put one of them in Pickle as by the time you return home, he will be more valuable as a specimen for the Cabinet of the Antiquarian, than your Fungi & Coleoptera for that of the Naturalist’. ‘Hurrah for the honest Whigs’, Darwin responded, ‘I hope they will soon attack that monstrous stain on our boasted liberty, Colonial Slavery.

Anticipating his meeting with Darwin on the Beagle’s return, Herbert wrote ‘I am just what I was, the same mixture of absurdity, egotism, & imperturbability, (so long as the electricity is not too violently excited by stroking against the hair,) with a strong dash of the chiaro oscuro, producing however no effect. Darwin and Herbert spent Christmas 1836 together in Cambridge, indulging their shared enjoyment of music and practical jokes. They continued to see one another in London and in Down until Herbert embarked on a career as a county court judge in South Wales in 1847. After this they rarely met, but continued to correspond with affection until the end of Darwin’s life.


The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. Edited by Francis Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray. 1887–8.