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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin timeline


Diary entries


Darwin's Timeline

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.

      Frankenstein book cover
    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.

    University of Edinburgh


    What else happened in 1825 ?

    • Royal Charter granted to the Geological Society of London.

    • Cotton Mills Regulation Act establishes a maximum 12-hour day for children under 16.

    • Credit: Wikipedia Commons

      The first horse-drawn omnibuses are established in London.

    August 1831

    Darwin receives an offer of a lifetime

    Charles Darwin is invited to join HMS Beagle on a surveying voyage to South America.



    What else happened in 1831 ?

    • First meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

    • Credit: Cornell University Library

      New London Bridge is opened.

    • Queen Square riots in Bristol following the rejection of the second Reform Bill.

    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

    Darwin marries

    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’.

      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.

    Cover for On the origin of Species


    What else happened in 1859 ?

    • Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first woman doctor to be entered on the UK Medical Register.

      Elizabeth Blackwell Credit: US National Library of Medicine
    • The clock of the Palace of Westminster is operational and the bell becomes known as Big Ben.

      The 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.

    The Hornet & La Petit Lune


    What else happened in 1871 ?

    • The census in the United Kingdom is the first to record economic and mental status.

    • The Royal Albert Hall is opened by Queen Victoria.

      The Royal Albert Hall Credit: Derivative, original: Karen Roe
    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.

    Expression experiments


    What else happened in 1872 ?

    • The Ballot Act introduces secret ballots in United Kingdom elections.

    • The Licensing Act establishes licenses for public houses and limits drinking hours.

    • George Eliot publishes Middlemarch.

      Middlemarch Credit: © National Portrait Gallery London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
    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.

    Drosera & Dionaea


    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.

    Worm Gizzard & Book Spine


    What else happened in 1881 ?

    • The Natural History Museum is opened in London.

    • The first publication of the London Evening News.

    19 April 1882

    Darwin dies

    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.

    Darwins grave at Westminster Abbey