skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

Arthur Mellersh

Arthur Mellersh was a midshipman (promoted to mate during the voyage) serving on the Beagle at the time when Darwin was travelling around the world. One account suggests an inauspicious start to their friendship; apparently Mellersh introduced himself saying ‘I’m Arthur Mellersh of Midhurst, and I have read Lord Byron, and I don’t care a damn for anyone!’ (Mellersh 1968 p. 72). Despite this notable beginning, Darwin and Mellersh seem to have got on well and remained in contact almost to the end of Darwin’s life.

Mellersh had a rather exciting and varied career. After his stint on the Beagle, Mellersh served for some time near Syria, and was commander on the HMS Rattler during the Burma Campaign in 1852, and in 1853 Darwin learned in a letter from Syms Covington that Mellersh had ‘greatly distinguished himself by hard fighting with some Chinese Pirates’. There was a detailed account of this engagement in the Nautical magazine and naval chronicle that year:

‘These pirates, however, have had a most signal thrashing from H. M. steam-ship Rattler … Commander Mellersh, we learn, for three successive nights, never knew what sleep was; and from continual action was hardly able to stand on his feet, which had swollen so much that he was unable to go on shore’ (Nautical magazine and naval chronicle (1853): 485-7).

Following this success he was promoted to captain.

A decade later Mellersh was fortunate enough to find himself in London at the same time as two other former shipmates, Bartholomew James Sulivan and John Clements Wickham. Darwin invited all three to come to Down for dinner and to stay overnight on 21 October 1862. The visit was not a success, however, as the excitement drove Darwin immediately into a bout of sickness that made him ‘very ill with violent shaking & vomiting till the early morning’.

This did not dissuade Mellersh from keeping up the acquaintance, and before he departed  for South America on his next voyage, he wrote to ask whether he could help Darwin by making any particular observations on fossils. He also enquired about some birds they had seen in Patagonia (Mellersh remembered them only as ‘those fine birds which are found in Patagonia something like a guinea fowl’) with the intention of introducing them to England. Mellersh returned to England in 1864 and promptly retired on recently improved retirement pay.

In an interesting twist of fate, Mellersh settled in Fernhurst, Sussex, on land belonging to the architect Anthony Salvin, whose son Osbert was a naturalist and regular correspondent with Darwin. Mellersh called Anthony Salvin’s buildings ‘the ugliest houses I ever saw’ but seems to have had a cordial relationship with Osbert.

In 1877 Mellersh acted as go-between arranging the gift of a bird’s nest intended for Darwin from a lawyer in Montevideo. He appeared in the correspondence several times after this as an invalid in Brighton.

Although they rarely saw each other in person after their youthful days at sea, Mellersh was part of a network of retired naval men from Darwin’s Beagle days who kept in regular contact, sharing news, to the end of Darwin’s life.

In this section: