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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Downing   13 November 1873

Ashfield, | Fermoy. Co. Cork

Novr. 13th 1873.

My dear Sir—

I was much gratified by your letter which duly reached me as did also the papers.1

I am very pleased to know that you consider the letters in Bell’s Messenger were to the point.2

It is only a few days since my arrival at home from the North of England.

I delayed writing until I shd. be able to give you some particulars as to the appearance in print of the opinion in recognition of the benefits derivable by animals from altered conditions of life &c.

Enclosed you will find extracts relating thereto.3

Since I had the pleasure of seeing you I visited a gentleman in South of England who shewed me an immense amount of valuable & weighty Evidence as to the deterioration of Shorthorns from in and in breeding.4

With reference to another matter alluded to in our conversation— the Evils resulting from in and in breeding in the human subject; You may remember my quoting a case in which the entire issue, from a marriage of first cousins, five in number were all blind.

I have since made enquiry as to whether there was any such affection in the family of either parent— and I have been assured that there was not.

During my stay in England I met a great many breeders of 〈Sh〉orthorns and the thoughtful men among them expressed opinions favourable to my proposition as to the prudence of occasionally introducing fresh blood in a diluted form into closely in-bred stocks

Apologising for the length of this letter and hoping that your health is improving | I beg to remain | Dear Sir, | With much esteem, | Yours faithfully | John Downing.

T〈o〉 | Charles Darwin Esq | F R S. &c


Some Results of Close in and in breeding

Mr Bates5 bred his herd in and in for some years and many of them, consequently, became barren and the calves of those which bred were delicate—no less than twenty eight having been lost in one year solely from want of constitution.

He was then obliged to take a cross and the result was highly satisfactory.

Since cattle known as “pure” Booth6 and Bates became fashionable, the breeders of these strains made it a point not to take any new blood

For the past twenty years, therefore, a system of close in and in breeding has prevailed to an extraordinary extent.

The “pure” stocks at Warlaby7 (Booth) and at Wetherby8 (Bates) are, as a consequence, rapidly growing smaller in numbers and threaten to become extinct.

Weakness of constitution results from close in-breeding—so also does loss of flesh, and there is evidence that spinal disease as well as brain disease are also produced by it.

The late Mr. R. Booth9 had a bull named Sir Samuel who was very closely bred, having been got by Crown Prince (pure Booth) from his (Crown Prince’s) own dam. This bull was wanting in substance, light of flesh and of weak constitution, though Crown Prince was a first rate sire and the dam of Crown Prince was one of the best Cows in England in her day.

Mr. R. Booth thought that the bull Sir Samuel would prove a good sire as he was so well bred, and he accordingly used him freely. Mr. Booth had at this time a number of the best cows in existence, but their produce by Sir Samuel were inferior and his sons, as a rule, were bad getters.10

One of the latter I knew well as he served in Ireland for several years; his dam was by Crown Prince and was a grand cow.

The bulk of this bull’s calves from Booth blooded cows were very wretched and numbers of them died from brain affection. His produce from cows of entirely alien blood were fair, but by no means first rate.

When I was at Mr. Booths two years ago there was not an animal in the herd got by Sir Samuel save one cow and she was light fleshed and delicate looking.

The name of Sir Samuel does not appear directly in the pedigrees of any of the cattle at Warlaby save in that of the cow named. This I take as evidence that the get of Sir Samuel at Warlaby must have been inferior and that they were accordingly made away with—

None were sold to breed.

The late Mr. Barnes,11 a celebrated Irish breeder informed me that Sir Samuel (which he used) got him very inferior stock and that no son of Sir Samuel was a good sire

At the present time the heads of most Booth bulls and of very many Bates bulls are more like those of Steers than of bulls. They are greatly wanting in masculine character; and this fault in a bull is regarded by competent judges as a most serious one—it being considered that a bull with such must be a bad sire.

In the herd of Mr. Torr12 the bull Vanguard—bred by Mr Booth—was used to his own daughters which had beside a good deal of Booth blood through earlier sires in their pedigrees.

Vanguard was not very closely bred & was a grand bull.

The double cross proved, however, a great failure—& there is not an animal in Torr’s herd now which possesses it.

A neighbour of mine bought three heifers from Torr with the double cross of Vanguard and these as well as their produce were affected with spinal disease, and have disappeared.

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘Nothing in letter’ pencil
1.2 no … constitution. 1.3] scored red crayon
6.2 as well … by it. 6.3] double scored red crayon; ‘Bears on Blindness for cousins &c’13 blue crayon
10.1 wretched … affection. 10.2] scored blue crayon
15.1 At … character; 15.3] scored blue crayon
18.1 The double … it. 18.2] scored blue crayon
Top of enclosure: ‘M.S. on the evil effects of close interbreeding with Short-Horns by J. Downing of Ashfield Fermoy Cork—a great Breeder of Short Horns. He says that the Breeders of the great families of S. H carefully conceal their sterility & want of constitution.’ ink


CD’s letter has not been found, but see the letter to John Downing, 20 October [1873].
An anonymous letter headed ‘Shorthorn breeding and type maintenance’, signed ‘A friend to shorthorn progress’, appeared in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 31 March 1873, p. 6. An offprint, dated 4 April 1873 and signed ‘J. Downing’, is in DAR 198: 59. No other letters attributable to Downing have been found in the journal.
The extracts have not been found but there is a copy of Private catalogue of the Ashfield herd of pure-bred shorthorns, the property of John Downing (London: Vinton, 1872) in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. CD cited Downing for information on shorthorn cattle in Descent 2d ed., p. 255.
Downing visited CD on 24 October 1874 (see letter to G. H. Darwin, 24 [October 1873]).
Thomas Bates of Kirklevington.
John Booth of Killesby.
The Warlaby estate was near Northallerton, in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire.
The Wetherby Grange estate was north-east of Leeds, in West Yorkshire (Sinclair 1907, p. 295).
Richard Booth.
Sinclair 1907, p. 120, gives an account of Booth’s inbreeding of cattle.
Thomas Barnes of Westland, near Kells in Ireland.
William Torr of Aylesby, Lincolnshire.
See Variation 2: 79.


Is pleased that CD found the letters from Bell’s Weekly Messenger to the point.

Encloses extracts relating to benefits derived by animals from altered conditions of life.

Encloses notes on deterioration of short-horns from inbreeding. Breeders agree with him on benefits of introducing fresh blood into inbred stocks.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Downing
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 162: 241
Physical description
7pp †, encl 4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9140,” accessed on 21 July 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21