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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin and Fatherhood

Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgwood in 1839 and over the next seventeen years the couple had ten children. It is often assumed that Darwin was an exceptional Victorian father. But how extraordinary was he? The Correspondence Project allows an unusually large number of letters sent by members of the Darwin family to be studied. However, in order to place Darwin’s experiences and beliefs about fatherhood in a wider historical context, we can read them alongside the letters, diaries and autobiographies written by fathers who were his friends and neighbours. 

Wealthy Victorian fathers are often imagined to be distant from their children. For many fathers this detachment was an unavoidable result of their employment, which required them to work long hours away from their family. Darwin was unusual in being able to pursue his research and writing from home. Although when he moved to Downe in 1842 he described this part of Kent as ‘extraordinarily rural & quiet’ (Darwin to his sister Catherine, [24 July 1842]), in the following decades many more railway lines were built to the area (Darwin to J. D. Hooker, 8 April [1856]). This meant that most of the middle-class men living around Darwin were commuting daily to work in the City, and some also had homes in London from where they could easily enjoy metropolitan social life. This meant that they (and often also their wives) left their children in the care of servants in the country. Darwin frequently expressed regrets that his ill health (e.g., Darwin to J. D. Hooker, 14 May [1861]) and family duties (Darwin to W. B. Tegetmeier, 19 November [1856]) made him unable to travel to many scientific meetings and social events in the capital. As a result, Darwin rarely spent a day without the company of Emma and at least some of his children.

Although Darwin was rarely absent from Down House, he and Emma, like all wealthy Victorian parents, employed servants to care for the everyday needs of their large family. For instance, when they had four children aged less than six years old in 1851, they employed eight servants including two nursery maids. Emma actively supervised and assisted with the daily childcare provided by the servants, but the children also made frequent ‘visits’ to see their father when he was working (Darwin to his wife Emma, [7-8 February 1845]). Although Darwin did not usually provide routine physical childcare, he – like many mothers and occasionally fathers in this period – noted details of the children’s development in diaries and letters. However, Darwin was unusual for the systematic interest he took in studying the children’s growth and expressions. His knowledge was supplemented by information that he sought from correspondents, but the notes he made while watching his own children grow up were the principal source of information for much of his understanding of human development, including his book of 1872, The expression of the emotions in man and animals of 1872.

While this detailed record of child development was extraordinary at the time, what was far more typical of mid-nineteenth-century fathers was Darwin’s intense involvement in his children’s care when they were unwell. If any of his children were ill, Darwin was unable to work. In 1860 his seventeen-year-old daughter Henrietta was seriously ill over many months and Darwin noted ‘I have done little of my regular work this summer; chiefly owing to incessant anxiety & movement on account of Etty.’ (Darwin to W. D. Fox, 18 October [1860]) Seven of the Darwin children lived to old age, but Darwin was profoundly and consistently concerned that ‘My poor constitution like everything else is transmitted by inheritance.’  (Darwin to W. D. Fox, 23 September [1859]). He believed that five of his children were afflicted by this chronic illness, and he was responsible for engaging local doctors, taking them to be seen by experts in London, and arranging visits to hydropathic spas or the seaside to strengthen their health. Although his interest in inheritance reached beyond its personal implications, such beliefs about the power of an inherited constitution were widely held by parents who did not have specialist scientific or medical interests. Darwin expressed enduring grief following the death of his oldest daughter, Annie, in 1851. Seven years later he was again profoundly, though more briefly, affected by the loss of his youngest son, Charles, about whose death he wrote ‘You may believe we are terribly anxious, but fear has almost driven away grief.’ (Darwin to W. D. Fox, 2 July [1858]). The death of a baby daughter only a few weeks after her birth in 1842 had a far more limited impact on Darwin. However, the intensity of grief that was expressed when an older child died was typical of fathers in this period, as Darwin’s attempts to comfort his friend Joseph Hooker on the death of his six-year-old daughter reveal (J. D. Hooker to Darwin, 16 September 1864).

In addition to his fears for his children’s health, Darwin’s other principal concern as a father was to ensure that his sons received an education that would ensure that they grew up to be independent professional men. Middle-class fathers in the 1850s and 1860s were aware that entry to the professions was becoming determined by qualifications and entry examinations. This made their choice of private school increasingly paramount. The costs of sending sons to boarding schools, followed often by Oxford or Cambridge, and then establishing them in a profession were a substantial drain on family finances. Darwin wrote about the ‘awesome state of indecision’ (Darwin to W. D. Fox, 10 October [1850]) as he and Emma tried to choose suitable schools and careers for their sons. All of the children began their education at home. They were taught principally by a governess, as well as by their mother who oversaw their religious training. The boys were then sent to a tutor at a preparatory school for a couple of terms, before attending a boarding school from around the age of eleven. After he had just sent his eldest son William to Rugby School in 1852, Darwin admitted that ‘No one can more truly despise the old stereotyped stupid classical education than I do, but yet I have not had courage to break through the trammels.’ (Darwin to W. D. Fox, 7 March [1852]). A more modern and scientific education was chosen for the younger boys, who all boarded at Clapham School. Darwin’s daughters received almost all of their education in the home, although he noted in 1862 that his fifteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth was to board at school in Kensington ‘at her own wish’ (Darwin to his son William, 30 [October 1862]). Darwin frequently discussed the schooling of children in letters to friends, and the choices that he and Emma made were deliberately conventional.

In the Darwin family intellectual pursuits were not limited to the schoolroom. The pleasure of learning and of discovery bound the family together. Darwin encouraged his children to develop their own hobbies and he enjoyed their enthusiasms: in collecting stamps, beetles or domesticated animals; in botany, geology or heraldry; in drawing, literature or mathematics. As they grew to adulthood, he often sought his children’s advice on matters about which he believed them to be knowledgeable, so that the three eldest – William, George and, above all, Henrietta – contributed significantly to his research and writing. Science was not the only pastime that Darwin enjoyed with his children. Croquet and especially billiards were favourite family games, and in 1859 he ended a letter to his oldest son with the exclamation ‘I wish to Heaven you were here for a game of Billiards’. (Darwin to his son William, 7 July [1859]). Whole family outings were relatively rare and holidays at the seaside were often necessitated by ill health rather than pleasure. It was sharing his sons’ and daughters’ company, conversation and laughter at home that Darwin prized. He often wrote to his oldest children or relatives about his younger sons’ latest comical sayings and small adventures (Darwin to his son William, [30 October 1858]). In one letter in 1856, he explained his paternal feelings explicitly to a friend: ‘My children, thank God, are all well, and one gets, as one grows older, to care more for them than for anything in this world.’ (Darwin to Syms Covington, 9 March 1856) In the late nineteenth century, children from wealthy families usually remained single until at least their late-twenties, and none of Darwin’s children married before the age of twenty-six. This meant that in old age Darwin and Emma continued to share Down House with several children, as well as a young grandson for the final six years of Darwin’s life. The close relationships that developed with many of his adult children were highly prized by Darwin. 

So, how exceptional was Darwin as a father? In most respects the concerns and beliefs that Darwin expressed about fatherhood were ones that were very typical of men from similar backgrounds in the mid-Victorian period. He frequently discussed his own, and other people’s, children in letters to friends and relatives. He sought to ensure that his children would be successful when measured according to conventional norms of professional middle-class behaviour. The importance that Darwin attached to his paternal responsibilities and the enjoyment that he gained from his relationships with each of his sons and daughters were typical. However, the characteristic that made Darwin unusual when compared to his neighbours and friends was the nature of his work. As a gentleman scientist who worked from home and was frequently not well enough to go to public events, his life was centred on his home and family to an exceptional extent. His wife, children and servants thus contributed to his research and writing, and the practical and intellectual consequences of his scientific work were central to the relationships that he formed with his children.

About this article

We are grateful to Dr Siân Pooley who wrote this article for us, for permission to make it available. 

Siân was Mark Kaplanoff Research Fellow in History at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Her PhD on parenthood and child-rearing in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England was completed at the University of Cambridge in 2009. We are grateful for Siân’s permission to use her research.