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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Joseph Wolstenholme to William Erasmus Darwin   [27 March 1863?]1

Christ’s College,


My dear Darwin,

I am very much ashamed of myself for the enormous time I have allowed to go over before answering your letter of last October term.2 I was at the time grievously busy with preparing for my Senate House work,3 but can offer no satisfactory excuse for the time elapsed since the end of January, when my labors in that respect ceased. I am not quite confident that I know sufficiently the working now-a-days of the two large colleges to offer an opinion worth very much. When I was an undergraduate, I have no doubt that a moderately good man got better trained in Mathematics at ⁠⟨⁠John’s than⁠⟩⁠ at Trinity, while for the very best men there was then little to choose.4 The first men at any college are nearly sure to be well cared for by both the college & private tutors. I rather fancy that the lecturing at John’s now is much less conscientiously done than it was in my time, & I think that, in saying this, I am not merely judging from results though the last few years Triposes would certainly favor this opinion. There is however no doubt that the Math. Lecturing, & general management, at Trinity, has very greatly benefited by the great infusion of new blood into their staff the last few years. For Classical men, either moderately good, or first rate, I really think that we at Christ’s may fairly claim to make more of our men than any other college. Shilleto5 goes so far as to say, that on the average our men are a class higher than if they had gone elsewhere. And, though of course it shocks my modesty to say so, I think a good mathematician gets ⁠⟨⁠quite as⁠⟩⁠ well attended to here, in College lectures, as at any other place whatever, better, perhaps, than any but Caius.

I do not think there is anywhere any fear of damage to health by over-reading now-a-days. It is a tradition of past times altogether, & I am rather inclined to believe we have carried our reforms in that matter too far. Earnest students are far too rare, in any of the subjects we profess to teach, & the lovers of study for its own sake are extinct.

Trinity Hall has this year been blooming like an aloe, but I think the result rather accidental. They were the first to offer open scholarships, & their two men, who have certainly taken the two best degrees of the year, were their early harvest.6 On the whole, if a large college be preferred, I should certainly now incline to Trinity, & of the small, I do not think an⁠⟨⁠y⁠⟩⁠ ⁠⟨⁠o⁠⟩⁠ught to be preferred to ours, unless very dubiously Caius, though against ⁠⟨⁠the⁠⟩⁠ race of men Caius breeds I have myself a prejudice, perhaps unjustifiable.

I am just packing up to be off to the Lakes tomorrow morning for a fortnight.7 I wish you were with us again.8 We are rather a large party, [and] I think mean to invade Wastdale on Sunday or Monday.

I am, | My dear Darwin | Yours faithfully, | Joseph Wolstenholme


The date is conjectured by reference to Wolstenholme’s advice, which apparently concerned George Howard Darwin’s choice of a Cambridge college in the winter of 1862–3 (see n. 2, below), by his mention of the ‘time elapsed since the end of January’, and by his reference to the end of the Cambridge University term and his plans for the vacation (see n. 7, below); in 1863, the university’s Lent Term, which commenced in January, ended on Friday 27 March (Cambridge University calendar 1863).
William graduated with a BA from Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1862, taking mathematical honours. He had apparently written to Wolstenholme, who was assistant tutor at Christ’s College from 1852 to 1869 (DNB), to ask for advice on CD’s behalf regarding George Darwin’s choice of college at Cambridge University. George, who was seventeen years old, attended Clapham Grammar School in south-west London, where he had shown himself to be gifted in mathematics (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to T. H. Huxley, 18 December [1862]). In a letter to William of [18 November 1862], which is in DAR 219.1: 67, Emma Darwin reported: ‘G. to my surprize seems to wish to go to St John’s & there are such a number of scholarships that he is going to try for one & I should think he was likely enough to succeed’. In the event, George was not successful in obtaining a scholarship at St John’s in 1863, and remained at Clapham for an additional year (see letter to Edward Cresy, 13 May [1863]).
Wolstenholme probably refers to his preparing students for the written examinations of the Mathematical Tripos (final mathematical examination), which took place in the university’s Senate House, early in January. In addition, Wolstenholme was one of the examiners for the Mathematical Tripos in 1863 (Cambridge University calendar 1863).
Wolstenholme matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1846; he graduated BA in 1850 as third wrangler (that is, third in the Mathematical Tripos) (Alum. Cantab.).
Richard Shilleto was a well-known Greek scholar (Alum. Cantab.).
In 1863, the senior wrangler was Robert Romer, from Trinity Hall. The next highest placed student from Trinity Hall in the Mathematical Tripos was Bryan Walker, the ninth wrangler, who was also eighth in the Classical Tripos for 1863, a considerable achievement (Cambridge University calendar 1863).
This was probably a reading party organised between the Lent and Easter terms. In 1863, the Lent Term ended on 27 March, and the Easter Term began on 10 April (Cambridge University calendar 1863).
William had accompanied Wolstenholme on a reading party in the Lake District during May or June 1859 (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to W. E. Darwin, [5 May 1859] and n. 6).


Alum. Cantab.: Alumni Cantabrigienses. A biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900. Compiled by John Venn and J. A. Venn. 10 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1922–54.

Cambridge University calendar: The Cambridge University calendar. Cambridge: W. Page [and others]. 1796–1950.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.


Responds belatedly with advice about Cambridge colleges with particular reference to mathematics. Of the large ones Trinity stands out. Of the small ones Christ’s or possibly Caius.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Wolstenholme
William Erasmus Darwin
Sent from
Christ’s College, Cambridge
Source of text
DAR 181: 140
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4062F,” accessed on 10 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11