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Darwin Correspondence Project

To W. D. Fox   27 March [1855]

Down Farnborough Kent

March 27th.

My dear Fox

Your offer is most kind & generous. It will really save me a great expence, as I shd. have had to build places for the varieties of Fowls, not to mention the cost of the different breeds themselves; & the care would have been extremely irksome to me.

As I want to compare the young only, when there are several varieties, I shall not want, I am extremely glad to say, your precious varieties of the White China, the Khoutom(?) or Call Duck; the others wd. really be of very great value to me, viz Spanish, Game, Cochin China, Dorking & Sebright Bantam: also wild & Aylesbury Duck. How on earth can you get the young wild Duck? With respect to age: all shd. be of the same age; but the exact age, in which the character of the young, as the Downy feathers are best developed, I shd. be much obliged if you wd. aid me in settling: I said a week at hazard: N.B. The ducklings must be seven days, as I have had a note this morning from Mitchell1 of Zoolog. Soc to say that he will send me a seven day Penguin Duck.2

The way I shall kill other young things will be to put them under tumbler glass with tea-spoon of ether or Chloroform, the glass being pressed down on some yielding surface & leave them for an hour or two (young have such power of revivication (I have thus killed moths & butterflies). The best way wd be to send them, as you procure them, in paste-board chip-box by Post on which you cd write, & just tie up with string; & you will really make me happier by allowing me to keep an account of Postage &c. Upon my word I can hardly believe that anyone would be so goodnatured as to take such trouble & do such a very disagreeable thing as kill Babies; & I am very sure I do not know one soul who except yourself would do so.

I am going to ask one thing more. shd old Hens of any above Poultry (not Duck) die or become so old as to be useless, I wish you wd. send her to me per Rail addressed to “C. Darwin, care of Mr Acton, Post Office Bromley Kent”. Will you keep this address? as shortest way for parcels. But I do not care so much for this, as I could buy the old Birds dead at Bayleys3 to make skeletons.—

I shd. have written at once even if I had not heard from you, to beg you not to take trouble about Pigeons, for Yarrell has persuaded me to attempt it & I am now fitting up a place, & have written to Bayley about prices &c &c.— Sometime (when you are better) I shd like very much to hear a little about your “Little Call Duck”.4 Why so called? & whence you got it? & what it is like? Also about the Khoulom(?) grey lag goose. I was so ignorant I did not even know there were 3 vars. of Dorking Fowl, nor how do they differ? It is an evil to me that Mr. Dixon is such an excommunicated wretch.5

I forget whether I ever told you what the objects of my present work is,—it is to view all facts that I can master (eheu, eheu, how ignorant I find I am) in Nat. History, (as on geograph. distribution, palæontology, classification Hybridism, domestic animals & plants &c &c &c) to see how far they favour or are opposed to the notion that wild species are mutable or immutable: I mean with my utmost power to give all arguments & facts on both sides. I have a number of people helping me in every way, & giving me most valuable assistance; but I often doubt whether the subject will not quite overpower me.—

So much for the quasi business part of my letter.— I am very very sorry to hear so indifferent account of your health: with your large family6 your life is very precious, & I am sure with all your activity & goodness it ought to be a happy one, or as happy as can reasonably be expected with all the cares of futurity on one. One cannot expect the present to be like the old Crux Major days7 at the foot of those noble willow stumps, the memory of which I revere. I now find my little entomology, which I wholly owe to you, comes in very useful.— I am very glad to hear that you have given yourself a rest from Sunday duties. How much illness you have had in your life!

Farewell my dear Fox. I assure you I thank you heartily for your proffered assistance | Your affectionate friend | C. Darwin

I will not forget about your wish for two Boys:8 it is not likely that I shd ever hear of such a thing; but sometime odd chances turn up.—


David William Mitchell was the first full-time secretary of the Zoological Society of London (1847–59).
The penguin duck walked in an upright position, ‘in feeble imitation of a penguin’ (E. S. Dixon 1848, p. 126). CD recorded in his Questions & experiments notebook, p. 20 (Notebooks), under ‘Zoological Soc’: ‘Young Chinese or Penguin Duck in very young state for skeleton——’.
As described by Edmund Saul Dixon, the ‘Call duck’ was a race of white ducks, imported from Holland, characterised by their ‘incessant loquacity’ and often used as decoys for sporting purposes (E. S. Dixon 1848, p. 125). CD marked the passage in his copy of E. S. Dixon 1848, now in the Darwin Library–CUL.
It is not known why CD considered Dixon an ‘excommunicated wretch’, nor why he subsequently referred to him as ‘Mr. Dixon of Poultry notoriety’ (see letter to W. D. Fox, 31 July [1855]). It is possible that whatever prompted CD’s reaction also explains why Dixon published under a pseudonym from 1854 onwards (see letter to Edward Blyth, 4 August 1855, n.7).
By 1855, Fox’s family had increased to eleven children.
A reference to CD’s and Fox’s time as undergraduates at Cambridge University and their enthusiasm for entomology. For CD’s memories of collecting Panagæus crux major, see letter to W. D. Fox, 7 March [1852], n. 11.
Fox had earlier had two young boys living with the household, but both had died (see letter to W. D. Fox, 17 July [1853]).


Dixon, Edmund Saul. 1848. Ornamental and domestic poultry: their history and management. London: Office of the “Gardeners’ Chronicle”.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.


Thanks WDF for his offer of assistance in collecting varieties of poultry. Describes his needs. He will raise his own pigeons.

Often doubts whether, despite all help, the problem of species will not overpower him.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
William Darwin Fox
Sent from
Source of text
Christ’s College Library, Cambridge (MS 53 Fox 88)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1656,” accessed on 29 January 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5