Scroll down to find out about key moments in Charles Darwin's life and to see what else was happening in Britain at the time. Click on an envelope to read the selected letters he exchanged during each time period.
- 12 February 1809
Darwin is born
- September 1818
Darwin joins Shrewsbury School
After the death of his mother in 1817, Charles Darwin joins Shrewsbury School as a boarder, with his older brother Erasmus.
What else happened in 1818 ?
The first blood transfusion using human blood is carried out by Dr James Blundell.
‘Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley is published.
- October 1825
Darwin begins at university
Charles Darwin begins studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He cannot stand the sight of blood, so in 1828 he leaves to join Christ’s College, Cambridge to study for a general degree that may lead to him becoming an Anglican clergyman. At both universities he proves to be more interested in natural history than in his regular studies.
- August 1831
Darwin receives an offer of a lifetime
Charles Darwin is invited to join HMS Beagle on a surveying voyage to South America.
- December 1831
Darwin joins the Beagle voyage
Charles Darwin joins Captain Fitzroy aboard HMS Beagle. The voyage lasts five years and takes him all around the world.
What else happened in 1832 ?
1832 Reform Act
The Act brought widespread reform to the electoral system in England and Wales. The Act gave seats in the House of Commons to new industrialised cities and removed them from rotten boroughs.
While it increased the number of voters from 400,000 to 650,000, most men and all women remained unable to vote.
- March 1833
Darwin encounters two new kinds of human society
Charles Darwin encounters slavery in Brazil and later meets the native people of Tierra del Fuego.
What else happened in 1833 ?
1833 Slavery Abolition Act
The UK Act was to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire (with initial exceptions of the territories held by the East India Company, Ceylon and St Helena).
The Act applied only to those under the age of six. Those older were forced to become apprentices until 1838, when enslaved men, women and children from the British Empire became free.
The Government paid out £20 million in compensation (roughly 40% of annual expenditure) for the loss of business assets.
- 29 January 1839
Charles Darwin marries Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin. They have ten children (three die in childhood) and remain devoted to each other. Emma and the children play important roles in collecting data, liaising with correspondents and illustrating and editing Darwin’s work.
What else happened in 1839 ?
World’s first electric telegraph comes into operation.
Newport rising: several thousand chartist sympathisers marched on Newport, Monmouthshire.
James Clark Ross sets out on Antarctic expedition with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
JMW Turner completes painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’.© National Portrait Gallery London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
- 24 November 1859
On the Origin of Species is published
Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It is immediately a best-seller but opinion on its argument for evolution is divided.
What else happened in 1859 ?
Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first woman doctor to be entered on the UK Medical Register.Credit: US National Library of Medicine
The clock of the Palace of Westminster is operational and the bell becomes known as Big Ben.Credit: 25kim
Charles Dickens publishes A Tale of Two Cities.
The first standard national post boxes are introduced by the General Post Office.
- February and March 1871
The Descent of Man is published
Darwin’s second book on evolutionary theory, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, focusses on human evolution and sexual selection. Its inclusion of human beings in the natural order leads to Darwin being widely satirised as an ape or monkey in the media.
- November 1872
The Expression of the Emotions is published
Darwin publishes The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. As part of his research he tests the ability to recognise facial expressions on his friends and family.
- July 1875
Insectivorous plants is published
Darwin publishes Insectivorous Plants sixteen years after making his first observations on these organisms. He is fascinated by their ability to digest food in a way that is similar to animals.
What else happened in 1875 ?
The Public Health Act is passed to improve poor urban living conditions.
Captain Matthew Webb is the first person to swim the English Channel.
- 1 May 1881
Darwin publishes his last book
The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Actions of Worms is published. Darwin has exchanged letters on the subject of worms since the 1830s, gathering information from his family and from correspondents worldwide.
What else happened in 1881 ?
The Natural History Museum is opened in London.
The first publication of the London Evening News.
- 19 April 1882
Following petitions from friends and colleagues, it is agreed that Darwin should receive a ceremonial funeral and be buried in Westminster Abbey, rather than in St Mary's churchyard at his home in Downe.