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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Reginald Darwin   7 April 1879

Fern, | Buxton.

April 7 | 1879.

My dear Cousin

I am truly pleased that you have found interest in the old Book, & pray do not hurry to return it. I only hope that your son may also derive pleasure from it—1 The absurd verses about the Hare Hunt show us, at least, that our grandfather was not the first poet in the family! that his Brother John stammered, & that, beautiful as was his handwriting in his old age, (see his letter to my grandmother) he was, in his youth, sadly deficient both in his writing & in his spelling!—2

I cannot help you as to the Jockey story. I have often heard my Father tell it; but when it happened, & who the gentleman was, who owned the Horse that was to lose, I have no recollection—3 I do not know whether Dr D went to Edinburgh when Charles died: but I have this day found amongst my Fathers papers the scrap which I enclose. It is in my Father’s writing, & from it I should collect, as you probably will, that, knowing that his Father could never see his son again, Dr Duncan, or some loving friend, had the picture taken—4 I have no means of seeing the life of Sir H Rayburn.5 Dr Duncans vault, or burying place, when I saw it in 1840, was, like many others in Edinburgh & the neighbourhood before the “Anatomy Act”, an inclosure strongly railed in with Iron Rails, & the tablet to Charles was against the wall facing you—6 If you require an engraving of our Grandfather I may be able to help you, as I have the picture by Wright of Derby, mentioned in Miss Sewards life of Dr D. page 21, painted about 1770, when he would be under 40; & after waiting many years I have obtained the little engraving of the picture size 3 inches by 4—engraved by J. A. Wedgwood.7 I only know of two other copies—probably however you may have one.

I have also the picture by Rawlinson painted about 1800, & the engraving of it—8 I have but few articles which belonged to our Grandfather— the chair in which he always sat in his Library— His Library ladder, which shuts up into a plain pole, & which he invented— His Cheese Scoop, & Apple scoop, (made of Bone) which he always used—his silver repeater watch, & his two seals, one “E. D.” & the other, the one I have used for years with his adopted motto, & which motto I manage to avoid.9

Do you possess a small book printed for private circulation in 1859, “Sketch of the life of James Keir?”. It was sent me by the compiler, James Moilliet, & contains10

CD annotations

1.1 I am … from it— 1.2] crossed red crayon
1.4 that his … spelling!— 1.6] scored red crayon
2.1 I have … it;] scored red crayon
2.1 Father tell it;] underl red crayon
2.2 & who … was, 2.8] crossed red crayon
2.9 like … you— 2.11] crossed pencil
2.12 as … 40; 2.13] scored red crayon
2.13 1770,] underl red crayon
2.14 engraving … copies— 2.15] scored red crayon
3.1 I … Bone) 3.4] crossed red crayon
3.4 which he always … James Moilliet, 4.2] crossed pencil
4.1 Do … Keir?” 4.2] scored red crayon
Top of letter: ‘about | Father of Erasmus’11 pencil; ‘R. Darwinred crayon


CD had asked to keep Erasmus Darwin’s Commonplace book (Down House MS) until George Howard Darwin returned from Algiers (see letter to Reginald Darwin, 4 April 1879).
‘A new Song in praise of two young Hunters’ was written by Erasmus and John Darwin’s older brother, Robert Waring Darwin (1724–1816). John’s stammer may be indicated in the poem by his calling ‘war, war, war’ while Erasmus was calling ‘war dead’ (‘ware (beware) dead’, a hunting cry; King-Hele ed. 2003, p. 17). Reginald Darwin’s grandmother was Elizabeth Darwin, Erasmus Darwin’s second wife; CD’s grandmother was Mary Darwin, Erasmus’s first wife. The letter was probably among the loose letters sent by Reginald Darwin with the Commonplace book (see letter from Reginald Darwin, 29 March 1879).
The enclosure in Francis Sacheverel Darwin’s hand has not been found.
Andrew Duncan was Erasmus Darwin’s son Charles’s Edinburgh professor. Erasmus Darwin did travel to Edinburgh when he heard that Charles was dying (see letter to Reginald Darwin, 4 April 1879, n. 5). Duncan evidently had a portrait of Charles made, but this has not been found. Duncan himself recorded that he cut off a lock of Charles’s hair, and that this was set into a trinket for his watch chain as a memorial by Henry Raeburn, who was then apprenticed to a jeweller (Duncan 1824, pp. 11–12).
Charles Darwin (1758–78) was buried in the Duncan family vault in the Chapel of Ease, St Cuthbert’s Church (now Buccleuch Parish Church), Edinburgh (E. Darwin ed. 1780, p. iv and 135). The city was notorious for grave robbers who supplied cadavers to medical schools. In 1832, the Anatomy Act made it legal to use the unclaimed corpses of paupers for dissection in medical schools, instead of, as previously, the bodies of executed murderers (R. Richardson 2000, p. xv). The inscription on the memorial tablet to Charles Darwin was written by his father, Erasmus Darwin (Erasmus Darwin, p. 82). For the text on the tablet, see ‘Charles Darwin 1758–78’, (accessed 18 August 2017).
Joseph Wright of Derby painted a portrait of Erasmus Darwin around 1770; Anna Seward described it as a ‘contemplative portrait, of the most perfect resemblance’ (Seward 1804, p. 21). The engraving was probably made by John Allen Wedgwood.
The portrait by James Rawlinson was painted in 1802, shortly before Erasmus Darwin’s death (M. Keynes 1994, p. 78). The engraving was done by James Heath and published in 1804 (National Portrait Gallery, D34687).
Erasmus Darwin’s motto was ‘E conchis omnia’ (everything from shells); the motto used by his elder brothers was ‘Cave et aude’ (beware and dare). See King-Hele ed. 2003, pp. xiii–xvi.
The Sketch of the life of James Keir (Moilliet and Moilliet 1859) contained correspondence with Erasmus Darwin, who was a close friend of Keir. The book comprises a biography written by Keir’s daughter Amelia Moilliet and a selection of Keir’s correspondence edited by her grandson James Keir Moilliet.


Darwin, Erasmus, ed. 1780. Experiments establishing a criterion between mucaginous and purulent matter: and, an account of the retrograde motions of the absorbent vessels of animal bodies in some diseases. Lichfield: J. Jackson.

Duncan, Andrew. 1824. A tribute of regard to the memory of Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A. Edinburgh: P. Neill.

Erasmus Darwin. By Ernst Krause. Translated from the German by W. S. Dallas, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1879.

Keynes, Milo. 1994. Portraits of Dr Erasmus Darwin, F.R.S., by Joseph Wright, James Rawlinson and William Coffee. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 48: 69–84.

King-Hele, Desmond, ed. 2003. Charles Darwin’s ‘The Life of Erasmus Darwin’. First unabridged edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moilliet, Amelia and Moilliet, James Keir. 1859. Sketch of the life of James Keir, Esq., F.R.S., with a selection from his correspondence. London: privately published.

Richardson, Ruth. 2000. Death, dissection, and the destitute. 2d edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Seward, Anna. 1804. Memoirs of the life of Dr. Darwin. London: J. Johnson.


Is glad CD has found interest in "the old book" [Dr Erasmus Darwin’s commonplace book].

Discusses Erasmus Darwin and his belongings, which RD has inherited.

Owns a portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Letter details

Letter no.
Reginald Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 210.14: 21
Physical description
inc †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11980,” accessed on 19 May 2024,