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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin on childhood


Charles Darwin (age 6) and his sister Catherine
Charles Darwin (age 6) and his sister Catherine. An Autotype Photogravure by Walker & Cockerell of a chalk drawing by Ellen Sharples
CUL DAR 225: 137
Cambridge University Library

On his engagement to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, in 1838, Darwin wrote down his recollections of his early childhood. 

Life. Written August–– 1838

My earliest recollection, the date of which I can approximately tell, and which must have been before I four years old, was when sitting on Carolines knee in the dining room, whilst she was cutting an orange for me, a cow run by the window, which made me jump; so that I received a bad cut of which I bear the scar to this day. Of this scene I recollect the place where I sat & the cause of the fright, but not the cut itself.––& I think my memory is real, & not as often happens in similar cases, from hearing the thing so often repeated, one obtains so vivid an image, that it cannot be separated from memory, because I clearly remember which way the cow ran, which would not probably have been told me. My memory here is an obscure picture, in which from not recollecting any pain I am scarcely conscious of its reference to myself.–– 

1813 summer.–– When I was four year & a half old went the sea & staid there some weeks–– I remember many things, but with the exception of the maid servants (& these are not individualised) I recollect none of my family, who were there.–– I remember either myself or Catherine being naughty, & being shut up in a room & trying to break the windows.–– I have obscure picture of house before my eyes, & of a neighbouring small shop, where the owner gave me one fig, but which to my great joy turned out to be two:––this fig was given me that this man might kiss the maidservant:–– I remember a common walk to a kind of well, on the road to which was a cottage shaded with damascene trees, inhabited by old man, called a hermit, with white hair, used to give us damascenes–– I know not whether the damascenes, or the reverence & indistinct fear for this old man produced the greatest effect, on my memory.–– I remember, when going there crossing in the carriage a broad ford, & fear & astonishment of white foaming water has made vivid impression.–– I think memory of events commences abruptly, that is I remember these earliest things quite as clearly as others very much later in life, which were equally impressed on me.–– Some very early recollections are connected with fear, at Parkfields [1] with poor Betty Harvey I remember with horror her story of people being pushed into the canal by the towing rope, by going wrong side of the horse..–– I had greatest horror of this story.––keen instinct against death.–– Some other recollections are those of vanity, & what is odder a consciousness, as if instinctive, & contempt of myself that I was vain––namely thinking that people were admiring me in one instance for perseverance & another for boldness in climbing a low tree.–– My supposed admirer was old Peter Hailes the bricklayer, & the tree the Mountain Ash on the lawn.

All my recollections seem to be connected most closely with self.–– now Catherine seems to recollect scenes, where others were chief actors.–– When my mother died, I was 8 & ½ old.––& she one year less, yet she remember all particular & events of each day, whilst I scarcely recollect anything, except being sent for–– memory of going into her room, my Father meeting us crying afterwards. She remembers my mother crying, when she heard of my grandmother’s death.–– Also when at Parkfields, how Aunt Sarah & Kitty used to receive her–– & so with very many other cases [2]

Susan like me, only remember affairs personal–– It is sufficiently odd, this difference in subjects remembered. Catherine says she does not remember the impression made upon her by external things as scenery., but things which she reads she has excellent memory––ie for ideas. now her sympathy being ideal, it is part of her character, & shows how early her kind of memory was stamped. A vivid thought is repeated, a vivid impression forgotten.–– [3]

I recollect my mother’s gown & scarcely anything of her appearance. except one or two walks with her I have no distinct remembrance of any conversations, & those only of very trivial nature.–– I remember her saying “if she did ask me to do something, which I said she had, it was solely for my good.”.––

I remember oscurely the illumination after the Battle of Waterloo, & the militia exercising, about that period, in the field opposite our House.––[4]


1817. 8½ old went to Mr Cases school.–– I remember how very much I was afraid of meeting the dogs in Barker St & how at school I could not get up my courage to fight.–– I was very timid by nature. I remember I took great delight at school in fishing for newts in the quary pool.–– I had thus young formed a strong taste for collecting, chiefly seals, franks & but also pebbles & minerals,––one which was given me by some boy, decided this taste.–– I believe shortly after this or before I had smattered in botany, & certainly when at Mr Case’s school I was very fond of gardening, & invented some great falsehoods about being able to colour crocuses as I liked.–– At this time I felt strong friendships for some boys.–– It was soon after I began collecting stones, ie when 9 or 10 I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something about every pebble in front of the Hall door––it was my earliest––only geological aspiration at that time.–– I was in these days a very great story teller,––for the pure pleasure of exciting attention & surprise. I stole fruit & hid it for these same motives, & injured trees by barking them for similar ends.–– I scarcely ever went out walking without saying I had seen a pheasant or some strange bird, (natural History taste). these lies, when not detected, I presume excited my attention, as I recollect them vividly,.––not connected with shame, though some I do,––but as something which by having produced great effect on my mind, gave pleasure, like a tragedy.––

I recollect when at Mr Cases, inventing a whole fabric to show how fond I was of speaking the truth!–– my invention is still so vivid in my mind, that I could almost fancy it was true did not memory of former shame tell me it was false.–– I have no particularly happy or unhappy recollections of this time or earlier periods of my life.––

I remember well a walk I took with boy named Ford across some fields to a farmhouse on Church Stretton Road.––

I do not remember any mental pursuits excepting those of collecting stones &c.––gardening, & about this time often going with my father in his carriage, telling him of my lessons, & seeing game & other wild birds, which was a great delight to me.–– I was born a naturalist.––

When I was 9 & ½ years old (July 1818) I went with Erasmus to see Liverpool.–– it has left no impression in my mind, except most trifling ones.––fear of the coach upsetting, a good dinner, & an extremely vague memory of ships.
In midsummer of this year I went to Dr. Butlers school.–– I well recollect the first going there, which oddly enough I cannot of going to Mr Cases, the first school of all.–– I remember the year 1818 well, not from having first gone to a Public school, but from writing those figures in my school book, accompanied with obscure thoughts, now fullfilled, whether I should recollect in future life that year.––
In September (1818) I was ill with the Scarlet Fever  I well remember the wretched feeling of being delirious.––
1819. July. (10 & ½ years old)  Went to sea at Plas Edwards & staid there three weeks, which now appears to me like three months.–– I remember a certain shady green road (where I saw a snake) & a waterfall with a degree of pleasure, which must be connected with the pleasure from scenery, though not directly recognized as such.–– The sandy plain before the house has left a strong impression, which is obscurely connected with indistinct remembrance of curious insects––probably a Cimex mottled with red––the Zygena.–– I was at that time very passionate, (when I swore like a trooper) & quarrelsome,––the former passion has I think nearly wholly, but slowly died away.–– When journeying there by stage Coach I remember a recruiting officer (I think I should know his face to this day) at tea time, asking the maid servant for toasted bread butter.–– I was convulsed with laughter, & thought it the quaintest & wittiest speech, that ever passed from the mouth of man.–– Such is wit at 10 & ½ years old.––

The memory now flashes across me, of the pleasure I had in the evening or on blowy day walking along the beach by myseelf, & seeing the gulls & cormorants wending their way home in a wild & irregular course.–– Such poetic pleasures, felt so keenly in after years,, I should not have expected so early, in life.––

1820 July. Went riding tour (on old Dobbin) with Erasmus to Pistol Rhyadwr.–– of this I recollect little.––an indistinct picture of the fall.––but I well remember my astonishment on hearing that fishes could jump up it.––


[1] The home of Sarah Wedgwood, the wife of Josiah Wedgwood I, and CD’s grandmother. After Sarah’s death in 1815, it remained the residence of Catherine (Kitty) and Sarah Elizabeth (Sarah) Wedgwood, CD’s aunts.

[2] The intended position of the passages ‘She remembers . . . her––’ and ‘& so with very many other cases’ is not entirely clear. The comment ‘& so with very many other cases’ is interlined in the main text and preceded by an asterisk, a device frequently used by CD to refer to an extra section of text to be interpolated. In this case the asterisk probably refers to the section ‘She remembers . . . her––’, which, although having no corresponding mark, is a later addition to the verso of the folio and evidently meant to be inserted at some point in the main text. The interlined ‘& so with very many other cases’ actually follows ‘yet she . . . day,’ (3.3––4) in the manuscript, but the passage has been transcribed in the order that appears most meaningful.

[3] The paragraph ‘Susan . . . . forgotten.––’ is on the verso of the folio. It has been transcribed in the position in the text that seems most appropriate.

[4] The paragraph ‘I remember . . . House.—’ is on the verso of the folio; both it and its point of intended insertion in the main text are marked ‘(a)’.

Source: DAR 91: 56–62. A modernised transcription was published by Francis Darwin in More Letters of Charles Darwin. A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters.  Volume 1. (London: John Murray, 1903)