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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John William Salter   4 January [1867]1

8, B. Road | St. John’s Wood

Jan. 4/66

Dear Mr Darwin

The very kind way in which you have done this takes off the feeling with which one receives aid from many.2

Believe me, it has been 3 years long hard struggle before I thought of asking any help but what my hands & brain could give me— The latter has given way a little I fear, but I am better now.3

I feel sure I shall be able in some way to return yr. kindness

The accompg. pamphlets you will not care for perhaps—though one refers to the new formation.4

It is a source of great pleasure to me to find that all the improvements in classification made in England are adopted abroad— They dont lead us as a rule, but we them.

I have a letter from old Sedgwick still as lively as ever—and I shall have a little work to do for him in the arrangt. of his Museum soon.5

Could I have got my own English Botany finished, I believe I should have been tolerably independent of accidents. But the same cause that has made it necessary to write to you prevented me from completing & making it valuable—6

Should you have any neighbours who possess English Botany—or yourself care about it, I enclose a prospectus & also a jeu d’esprit of my sister’s on my hard fate, as she calls it—7 It is more amusing than my papers—

I must tell you fairly, that the further I examine with the aid of your new theory, the more facts appear to me to agree with it— There are still some very important exceptions that make me think there is another law beside it not recognized— I do not think that breaks in the geol. succession are sufficient to account for the sudden leaps in life among the old strata. e.g. from Cephalopoda to Fish.8

But I follow yr. direction & make notes occasionally of these, or rather I will, for three years have passed away since I could get time for this.

Of course everybody agrees about species thats settled—but why do Entomostraca univalve Mollusca, & amphibia begin with such high forms? I would add Fish, but I might run the risk of saying something outrè & you have always Huxley9 at command.

J W Salter

In Plants you have it all your own way. Cryptogamia—Coniferæ—Phanerogamia, Diœcia10


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from J. W. Salter, 31 December 1866 (Correspondence vol. 14). Salter wrote ‘1866’ in error.
No letter from CD has been found; however, Salter requested financial aid from CD in his letter of 31 December 1866 (Correspondence vol. 14). CD sent Salter £10 on 1 January 1867, listing the amount under ‘Charities’ in his account book (CD’s Classed account books (Down House MS)).
Salter had resigned his post as palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1863, and had since been employed as an independent palaeontologist at various local museums (see DNB, and n. 5, below). For Salter’s struggles with mental illness, see Secord 1985.
Salter may have enclosed his papers on Palaeozoic fossils from Pembrokeshire (Salter 1864, and Salter and Hicks 1865); Salter collected a distinct group of Palaeozoic fossils that led him to propose the new ‘Mænevian group’ as the lowest stratum of the Lingula flags (Salter and Hicks 1865, p. 477 n). The Menevian formation is now considered to be late middle Cambrian. No articles of Salter’s dated after 1861 have been found in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Salter had assisted Adam Sedgwick, Woodwardian Professor of geology at the University of Cambridge, in the 1840s; after Salter retired from the Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1863, Sedgwick employed him at times (see DNB and Secord 1985, pp. 62–3).
Early in his career, Salter was apprenticed to the naturalist and illustrator James de Carle Sowerby; Salter then assisted him with the early volumes of the five-volume Supplement to the English botany of the late Sir J. E. Smith and Mr. Sowerby (W. J. Hooker, Sowerby, [et al.] 1831–63; see Secord 1985). Salter was the proprietor of and contributed illustrations to volumes 4 and 5; the publication dates given on the title pages of volumes 4 and 5 are 1849 and 1863 respectively, but the parts of volume 5 were published from August 1863 to June 1865. A notice in the last part of volume 5 complains that hardly any of the original subscribers could be found, and that the sale of the current numbers did not even pay for paper or print, and speculates that this might be due to the success of the third edition of English botany (Syme ed. 1863–92), which contained the same engravings.
The enclosures have not been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL. For the present locations of Salter’s papers, see Secord 1985. Salter’s sister has not been identified.
For CD’s discussion of these topics, see his chapters ‘On the imperfection of the geological record’ and ‘On the geological succession of organic beings’ in Origin, pp. 279–345. For Salter’s efforts at reconciling CD’s theory with his religious beliefs, see Secord 1985, p. 68.
Thomas Henry Huxley.
Salter names some parts of the plant kingdom, ending with Dioecia, a class in the Linnaean system.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 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.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Salter, John William. 1864. On some new fossils from the Lingula-flags of Wales. [Read 23 March 1864.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 20: 233–41.


Thanks CD for his kindness and hopes one day to return it.

Finds more and more observations fall in with CD’s theory but still finds it difficult to account for the sudden leaps in the fossil record and to explain why some organisms first appear as such high forms.

Letter details

Letter no.
John William Salter
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
St John’s Wood
Source of text
DAR 177: 11
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4969,” accessed on 6 March 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15