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Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Maw   1 June 1865

Benthall Hall. | nr. Broseley.

June 1st. 1865

Dear Sir

I have to day come across a very remarkable case of animal monstrosity with the particulars of which you will I think be interested

On the 3rd. or 4th. of May 1863 a sow belonging to Mr. Wood of the Star Hotel Shiffnal1 brought forth a litter of eleven pigs all of which were well formed excepting the 2nd. born which is formed in several points like an Elephant. It has a distinct proboscis depending from the nose. Ears & mouth shaped exactly like an elephants & in one or two other respects deviating from the usual formation of a young pig. it is supposed to have been brought forth alive tho’ never seen alive as the mother overlaid it— There was an interval of two or three hours between its birth & the birth of the succeeding nine healthy pigs all of which were delivered in the usual rapid succession.

The Mother has had previous & subsequent litters all of which have been healthy & well formed.

The history of the gestation of the litter to which this pig belonged is very remarkable & I have been very careful in sifting & ascertaining the probable correctness of the following facts.

In July 1863, the Sow was put to the Boar & one or two days afterwards (I cannot clearly ascertain the exact interval) Some Elephants belonging to Edmund’s menagerie2 were quartered at the Star Hotel   one of these had a peculiar antipathy to pigs & on going up the hotel yard endeavoured to reach the sow with its trunk. The ostler tells me the pig appeared quite terror striken & to this is attributed the singular malformations in its young—3 The young pig has been preserved in spirits & is now in possession of a chemist in the town— I believe it has not yet been seen by any one who would be likely to appreciate its scientific importance. The present owner wants £2 for it & if you think it is of sufficient importance to place in one of the London museums I shall be very happy to purchase it for this purpose & present it to the museum of the R C of Surgeons4 or wherever you think it will be better located. It seems a pity it should be left in the obscurity of a small country town. I am not acquainted with Professor Owen5 or would have written to him on the subject of placing the pig in the museum of the College of Surgeons

One point I am quite certain of; that it is not a made up specimen nor do I see any reason to doubt the fact of the Elephants visit soon after the sow received the boar, however we may view its possible connection with the monstrosity—

I have recently been investigating some deposits in N Wales which underlie the Boulder clay drift that I fully expect will prove to be of Tertiary age.—6 They consist of white black or variegated sands alternating with Curious white clay & various colored Pipe clays & Earthy lignite— The general series is very much like many of the tertiary beds of Dorsetshire

The little remnants are preserved in pockets in the mountain limestone of Flintshire & Carnarvonshire & belong to a formation that must once have had a wide distribution in N Wales. I have observed it over a distance of 30 miles from East to West— I hope next week to make a careful examination of the district & shall try & find some organic remains.7

If you think the monstrous pig will be acceptable at one of the London museums will you kindly favor me with a line by an early post that I may secure it.

I am Dr Sir | very truly your’s | Geo Maw

C Darwin Esq.


John Wood was the proprietor of the Star Hotel, Market Place, Shiffnal, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire (Post Office directory of Gloucestershire, with Bath, Bristol, Herefordshire, and Shropshire 1863).
James ‘Barney’ Edmonds, who married a niece of George Wombwell, took over the running of Wombwell’s Windsor Castle Menagerie, one of three Wombwell menageries; the name was changed to Edmonds’ Menagerie in the 1860s after the death of Wombwell’s widow (see Turner 1995, pp. 42, 136–7).
The ancient belief in the effect of maternal imagination on the development of the foetus was well established by the early eighteenth century, when it was used to account for a wide variety of malformations (Todd 1995, pp. 47–52). In the nineteenth century, the work of Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire began a new era in the study of monstrous development, bringing it more in line with the general study of embryogenesis (D. Wilson 1993, p. 173). For more on popular belief in the effect of maternal imagination, see Huet 1993, D. Wilson 1993, and Todd 1995; for the scientific debate on the significance of monsters in an evolutionary context, see E. Richards 1994.
Maw refers to the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Richard Owen was the curator of the Hunterian Museum from 1836 to 1856. Although Owen no longer held the post, he would still have been a useful person to consult on the subject of specimens in his capacity as superintendent of the natural history collections at the British Museum (see Rupke 1994, pp. 30–1).
The results of Maw’s investigation were published in Maw 1865a. He concluded that, in the absence of fossil evidence, the deposits underlying the boulder-clay drift of North Wales were probably restricted to the Cretaceous or Tertiary periods (ibid., p. 202). He encouraged other investigators to examine the deposits in order to find organic remains that would clarify their true geological age (ibid., p. 204). Prior to 1863 the correspondence between CD and Maw mostly concerned botanical and zoological subjects (see Correspondence vols. 9 and 10). In 1863, Maw wrote to CD about his interest in the drift deposits of the Severn Gorge near his home (see Correspondence vol. 11, letter from George Maw, 25 April 1863). He was elected a member of the Geological Society of London, with CD as one of the nominating members, in February 1864 (see Correspondence vol. 11, letter to the Geological Society of London, [c. 28 December 1863] and n. 1).
In a brief report summarising Maw 1865a given at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in September 1865, Maw referred to these deposits as a ‘widely distributed series of unfossiliferous deposits’ and stated that they closely resembled ‘some of the Tertiary deposits in the south of England’ (Maw 1865b, p. 68).


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Huet, Marie-Hélène. 1993. Monstrous imagination. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press.

Post Office directory of Gloucestershire, with Bath, Bristol, Herefordshire, and Shropshire: Post Office directory of Gloucestershire, with Bath, Bristol, Herefordshire, and Shropshire. Post Office directory of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, and the City of Bristol. Post Office directory of Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire, with the City of Bristol. London: Kelly & Co. 1856–79.

Richards, Evelleen. 1994. A political anatomy of monsters, hopeful and otherwise. Teratogeny, transcendentalism, and evolutionary theorizing. Isis 85: 377–411.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. 1994. Richard Owen, Victorian naturalist. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.

Todd, Dennis. 1995. Imagining monsters. Miscreations of the self in eighteenth-century England. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, John M. 1995. Victorian arena. The performers. A dictionary of British circus biography. Volume one. Formby, England: Lingdales Press.

Wilson, Dudley. 1993. Signs and portents. Monstrous births from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. London and New York: Routledge.


Reports a monstrous pig that looks like an elephant. It was born of a pregnant sow which had been frightened by a circus elephant. He offers the monster, which died at birth, to any London museum.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Maw
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Benthall Hall
Source of text
DAR 171: 100
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4847,” accessed on 24 February 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13