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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Lydia Ernestine Becker   13 January 1869

Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage | 232 Brunswick St | Manchester

Jany 13. 1869

My dear Sir

I am just enjoying the long deferred pleasure of studying your book on animals and plants under domestication and I hope you will not think it wrong in me before I come to the object of my note to say with what pleasure and wonder I endeavour to follow the facts and reasonings there unfolded. Especially the chapter on Pangenesis, which seems like a revelation.1 The power of imagination which can thus realise the Unseen seems akin to inspiration— Though you only announce it as a provisional hypothesis to connect hitherto unexplained facts, the key fits the puzzle so beautifully that I cannot help supposing it to be the right one—and nothing but the presentation to my mind of a more probable theory could detach it from the firm hold it has taken of yours   If I might venture a prophecy I would say that the hypothesis of Pangenesis is likely to have at least as great a result in giving value and coherence to scientific thought and investigation as the earlier one with which your name is connected.

But of course I should not have intruded on your attention to offer an opinion on your book which I fear you may think presumptuous— It is with reference to a passage p. 154—vol 2—on parrots under domestication that I write to you—2 When you wrote it I think you could hardly have been aware of what you may probably have heard now—the existence of a colony of parrots naturalised at Northrepps Hall near Cromer—the residence of the Dowager Lady Buxton—3 I dare say you know all I am going to relate   if so, my apology must be the supposition that you might prefer the chance of hearing more than once of an interesting fact to the possibility of never hearing it at all.

At the last meeting of the British Association a party of the members were entertained at Northrepps Hall.4 On entering the grounds, a beautiful sight presented itself— The garden was surrounded with lofty trees whose branches were all alive with great white cockatoos—green parrots and gray—flying about like pigeons. At the entrance was a large elm tree bearing a signboard, on which was inscribed “Parrot’s nest and a ladder was placed for the convenience of any enterprising member of the B.A. who might be inclined to take a peep at the erection a large heap of twigs like an enormous rook’s nest, but resting on a thick branch— We were informed that a young brood had just tenanted the nest and it had been hoped they would be obliging enough to remain till the scientific visitors came to see them but they had perversely flown the day before— I saw what I suppose to be this young brood nursing in a large cage—six baby-parrots all in a row with their little red tails sprouting nicely—

We were told that the birds had been domesticated there for thirty years, that they breed freely and were perfectly naturalised—but they have the shelter of a conservatory provided for winter— They are at perfect liberty, and sometimes fly miles away—but when they do this, they frequently get shot— Many have been destroyed in this way—

I saw an old green parrot who I was told was the original progenitor in the colony—and had the honour of carrying her about on my hand— The birds were tamer than ordinary pigeons— they would fly down for food—perch on one’s hand, and allow themselves to be carried about without any symptoms of alarm—

Mr. Charles Buxton M.P—read a very interesting paper giving an account of their history and habits.5 I did not take notes, so I cannot give you many particulars but doubtless he would be most willing to afford you full information respecting them—

He said that in the middle of the day the cockatoos retired to roost in the trees, and then the whole colony was invisible— he said it was very wonderful how such large white birds could contrive to hide so completely among the branches of English fruit trees, that not a feather could be seen.

They had come out for the evening by the time we got there and the sight was one of the most charming I have ever seen— But it makes one sigh to see these glorious tropical birds so thoroughly at home in our lands, and to reflect that but for the barbarous an inhuman practice of shooting every lovely feathered stranger that puts in an appearance among us we might hope to see our parks and woods decked with these gorgeous creatures as our gardens and conservatories are with tropical plants.—

We were told that the liberty in which these birds lived did not destroy their imitative faculties—many of them learned to talk—

Again apologising if I have troubled you with a needless communication

Believe me to be | Yours very truly | Lydia E. Becker

Charles Darwin Esq.


Becker refers to Variation and to the chapter on CD’s hypothesis of pangenesis (Variation 2: 357–404).
In Variation 2: 155, CD had discussed the difficulty of breeding parrots in captivity.
In 1868, the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held at Norwich from 19 to 26 August.
Buxton’s paper, ‘Acclimatization of parrots at Northrepps Hall, Norfolk’, was published in Annals and Magazine of Natural History (Buxton 1868). In Variation 2d ed., 2: 138, CD cited Buxton on parrots breeding. He also referred to Buxton’s paper in Descent 1: 76, 2: 109.


Buxton, Charles. 1868. Acclimatization of parrots at Northrepps Hall, Norfolk. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 4th ser. 2: 381–6.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Variation 2d ed.: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1875.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Praises Variation and Pangenesis.

Reports observations on parrots and cockatoos.

Letter details

Letter no.
Lydia Ernestine Becker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 160: 105, 116
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6551,” accessed on 14 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17