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Darwin Correspondence Project

'An Appeal' against animal cruelty

The four-page pamphlet transcribed below and entitled 'An Appeal', was composed jointly by Emma and Charles Darwin (see letter from Emma Darwin to W. D. Fox, [29 September 1863]). The pamphlet, which protested against the cruelty of steel vermin-traps, was privately printed in July, and Emma organised the distribution of the pamphlet in August and September 1863 (see letter from G. B. Sowerby Jr to Emma Darwin, 22 July 1863 and n. 1, and letters from Emma Darwin to W. D. Fox, [6–27 September 1863], 29 September [1863], and 8 December [1863]). Emma sent a copy to the Bromley Record, which published the pamphlet on 1 September 1863, `in the hope that it may have the desired effect of diminishing cruelty' (Bromley Record, 1 September 1863, p. 168). In addition, a version of the pamphlet was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle on 29 August 1863, pp. 821–2, under the title `Vermin and traps' (Letter no. 4282). The wording of the letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle is almost identical to the wording of the pamphlet, but the letter did not include the woodcut of the steel vermin-trap, and was signed 'C. D.'

The Darwins’ 'Appeal' appears to have been inspired by a series of letters published in the London daily newspaper the Morning Star in 1862 (see Animal World, 1 January 1870, p. 75, 1 February 1872, p. 66). The letters, sent by the writer and historian William Howitt, drew attention to the scale of trapping on a game-preserving estate in North Wales, and stressed the infrequency with which the traps were visited and the hours of suffering that trapped animals experienced. Howitt focused on the injuries inflicted by the traps, and the large variety of mammals and birds trapped by them, including 'vermin' – rabbits, hawks, jays, crows, stoats, weasels, martens, polecats, foxes, and cats – and accidental victims such as pheasants and dogs. Howitt"s letters, and other campaign literature, made the gamekeeper the embodiment of cruelty. In common with the Darwins’ 'Appeal', the humane-trap campaigners assumed that the gentlemen employing the keepers were unwitting participants in animal torture, whose finer sensibilities would revolt against the practice if they were confronted with the evidence (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Annual Report, 1864, p. 32; Animal World, 1 February 1872, p. 66, 1 April 1872, pp. 99–100, 1 April 1874, p. 56).

Charles and Emma distributed the 'Appeal' to their own acquaintances, and to 'a good many persons Squires Ladies & MPs' (see letter from Emma Darwin to W. D. Fox, [6–27 September 1863], and letter from Emma Darwin to J. D. Hooker, [7 December 1863]). Although none of the replies to the circular have survived, it is clear that Emma had more success with the campaign than she expected (see the letter from Emma Darwin to William Erasmus Darwin, [2 September 1863] (DAR 219.1: 77), and Correspondence vol. 11, letter to W. D. Fox, [29 September 1863]). Several responses suggested that a prize should be offered for a humane trap, and Emma accordingly sent out papers for subscriptions towards a prize to be awarded under the auspices of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (see CD's Classed account book (Down House MS), 20 August 1863, recording a payment of £2 11s. 6d. for distributing the 'cruelty pamphlet', and letter from Emma Darwin to W. D. Fox, 8 December [1863]).

There is no surviving record of the subscription papers, or of Emma’s correspondence with the RSPCA; however, the RSPCA Annual Report for 1864 records that 'a benevolent lady, intensely interested in the matter, induced several noblemen and country gentlemen to subscribe an amount, which she kindly placed at the disposal of your Committee' (p. 32). Sufficient funds were raised to fund a £50 prize for the design of a trap serving the purposes of game preservers 'without inflicting torture'. The scheme received the support of 'many of the leading sportsmen of the country', and Francis Trevelyan Buckland, well known to sportsmen through his regular columns in the Field newspaper, was a prominent supporter of the campaign. An exhibition of more than 100 humane traps, submitted in competition for the prize, was held at the Royal Horticultural Gardens, South Kensington, in June 1864 (The Times, 27 May 1864, p. 11, and 28 May 1864, p. 14). However, despite an optimistic start, the competition failed to produce a design that was portable, cheap, and effective. The judges appointed by the RSPCA awarded three competitors a total of £10 in recognition of the merit of their designs, but the remaining £40 was reserved in the hope of finding a better design in the future (RSPCA Annual Report 1865, p. 20). The competition was held again in 1865 and 1866, but still no single design fitted the requirements (Moss 1961, pp. 146–7). During the early 1870s the RSPCA continued to campaign against steel traps through the columns of its monthly paper Animal World, and prominently linked Charles Darwin"s name to the offer of a prize for a humane trap (Animal World, 1 January 1870, p. 75). The prize was still available in 1876, when the RSPCA made a further attempt to encourage the invention of a suitable device (RSPCA General Committee minutes, 22 May 1876). Altogether the campaign had little direct effect (Moss 1961, pp. 146–7, Emma Darwin 2: 200).

Although the RSPCA considered in 1864 that many game preservers had `already discontinued the use of the old steel trap', and that others were 'awakening to its barbarity' (RSPCA Annual Report 1864, p. 32), the use of the steel trap was defended by other game preservers as a practical necessity, and some maintained that it involved no more cruelty than the possible alternatives (see letter from E. L. Darwin, 7 September 1863, letter from Emma Darwin to W. D. Fox, 8 December [1863], and Animal World, 1 February 1872, pp. 65–6). It is clear that the use of steel traps for vermin control continued to be widespread: one estimate suggested that at least 10,000 animals were caught in steel traps in England and Wales every night (Animal World, 1 January 1870, p. 75). Under these circumstances, Emma was prompted to make a further public appeal against the use of steel traps in 1877 (Spectator, 6 January 1877, p. 15, and Emma Darwin 2: 200–1).

While Emma Darwin appears to have taken much of the initiative in the organisation of the campaign, Charles Darwin evidently shared her abhorrence of cruelty to animals. His sensitivity towards the suffering of animals is recorded in his autobiography, a sensitivity he attributed to the influence of his sisters during his boyhood (Autobiography, pp. 26–7). As an adult, he took pains to prevent cruelty to domestic animals, reporting a neighbouring farmer to the RSPCA in 1852 for working horses with sore necks (see letter from Emma Darwin to William Erasmus Darwin, [23 April 1852] (DAR 219.1: 4)); he threatened to report a similar case of cruelty in 1866 (see letter to [Local landowner], [1866], Letter no. 4963). He regularly subscribed to the RSPCA, payments being recorded from 1854 to 1861, in 1863 and 1864, from 1871 to 1875, and in 1878 and 1880 (CD’s Classed account books (Down House MS)). In Descent 1: 101, he argued that sympathy for animals was one of the noblest moral qualities possessed by human civilisation. However, Darwin was not against blood-sports: his autobiography makes clear the intense pleasure he took in shooting, both as a boy and as a young naturalist (Autobiography, pp. 44, 54–5, 78, and Correspondence vol. 2, letter to W. D. Fox, 28 August [1837]). Later he gradually gave up shooting, but did not censure those of his friends and family who enjoyed the sport (see Autobiography, pp. 78–9, Correspondence vol. 7, letter to W. E. Darwin, 22 [September 1858], and this volume, letter to J. B. Innes, 1 September [1863]).

The 'Appeal' should be set in the context of two historical movements in Victorian Britain that were to some extent in conflict: first, the extension of game preserving, and second, the growth of a humane movement opposed to the deliberate infliction of suffering on animals. The improvement of shotguns, particularly the introduction of the cartridge in 1808 and the breech-loading shotgun in 1861, transformed the traditional sport of shooting partridges, pheasants, and other game-birds (Carr 1981, pp. 475–6, Mackenzie 1988, p. 18, Allen 1994, p. 127.). The transformation was encapsulated in the 'battue', in which large numbers of birds were driven from bushes by beaters towards a point where sportsmen waited to shoot them; the size of 'bags' (kills) at shooting events increased accordingly. This practice was well established by the 1830s, and was extended rapidly over the course of the century. Shooting game was the most widespread and rapidly growing country pursuit of the landed classes (Thompson 1981, p. 459). On country estates game-birds began to be reared on a large scale for this sport, and the topography of rural England was transformed as coverts, or `game preserves', were set aside to provide habitat for them (Mackenzie 1988, p. 26). The extension of game preserves brought with it increased problems of pest control: the number of foxes and other predators had to be controlled to protect the game-birds, and the new coverts provided habitat for a growing rabbit population, which had to be controlled to reduce the depredation of farmers’ crops on neighbouring land. As a result of the need to protect game and control vermin, there was a sixty per cent rise in the number of gamekeepers in England between the 1860s and the early 1900s; Kent was one of the most densely 'keepered' counties (Carr 1981, p. 484, Thompson 1981, pp. 460–1). The extension of the use of steel vermin-traps was a result of these developments.

The early nineteenth century also saw the growth of a significant humane movement, arousing the sensitivities of sections of the upper and middle classes to the sufferings of animals. For these groups, kindness to animals had become an integral part of what it meant to be morally distinguished and civilised (Turner 1980, pp. 17–45, Thomas 1984, pp. 149–50, 300–3, Ritvo 1990, pp. 126–135). As a result of systematic campaigning, legislation was passed in 1822, 1835, and 1849 (see nn. 1 and 5, below) to prevent cruelty to farm animals, and to animals involved in the blood sports of the 'lower orders'. In the 1860s, the humane movement extended its sympathy also toward wild animals, a transition which was marked by campaigning and legislation to prevent the wholesale slaughter of categories of wild birds by sportsmen (Sheail 1976, pp. 22–7, Allen 1994, p. 177), and which some scholars have attributed to a growing 'biocentricism' following the publication of Origin (Turner 1980, pp. 60–2, 124–128, Worster 1985, pp. 179–80, 184–7).

An appeal

It is a common observation that cases of brutality to horses, asses, and other large quadrupeds, are much less frequently witnessed now than they were some time ago. This is no doubt owing to the general increase of humanity, and to these animals being now under the protection of the law.1

An English gentleman would not himself give a moment’s unnecessary pain to any living creature, and would instinctively exert himself to put an end to any suffering before his eyes; yet it is a fact that every game preserver in this country sanctions a system which consigns thousands of animals to acute agony, probably of eight or ten hours duration, before it is ended by death. I allude to the setting of steel traps for catching vermin.

Some women may never have seen a trap, and therefore I give a wood-cut of one.2

The iron teeth shut together with so strong a spring, that a pencil which I inserted was cracked and deeply indented by the violence of the blow. The grip must be close enough not to allow of the escape of a small animal, such as a stoat or a magpie; and therefore when a cat or a rabbit is caught, the limb is cut to the bone and crushed. A humane game-keeper said to me, “I know what they must feel, as I have had my finger caught.”3 The smaller animals are often so fortunate as to be killed at once. If we attempt to realise the sufferings of a cat, or other animal when caught, we must fancy what it would be to have a limb crushed during a whole long night, between the iron teeth of a trap, and with the agony increased by constant attempts to escape. Few men could endure to watch for five minutes, an animal struggling in a trap with a crushed and torn limb; yet on all the well-preserved estates throughout the kingdom, animals thus linger every night; and where game-keepers are not humane, or have grown callous to the suffering constantly passing under their eyes, they have been known by an eye-witness to leave the traps unvisited for twenty-four or even thirty-six hours. Such neglect as this is no doubt rare; but traps are often forgotten; and there are few game-keepers who will leave their beds on a cold winter"s morning, one hour earlier, to put an end to the pain of an animal which is safely in their power.

I subjoin the account of the appearance of a rabbit caught in a trap, given by a gentleman, who, last summer witnessed the painful sight many times.4

“I know of no sight more sorrowful than that of these unoffending animals as they are seen in the torture grip of these traps. They sit drawn up into a little heap, as if collecting all their force of endurance to support the agony; some sit in a half torpid state induced by intense suffering. Most young ones are found dead after some hours of it, but others as you approach, start up, struggle violently to escape, and shriek pitiably, from terror and the pangs occasioned by their struggles.”

We naturally feel more compassion for a timid and harmless animal, such as a rabbit, than for vermin, but the actual agony must be the same in all cases. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the suffering thus endured from fear, from acute pain, maddened by thirst, and by vain attempts to escape.

Bull-baiting and cock-fighting have rightly been put down by law;5 I hope it may never be said that the members of the British Parliament will not make laws to protect animals if such laws should in any way interfere with their own sports.

Some who reflect upon this subject for the first time will wonder how such cruelty can have been permitted to continue in these days of civilisation; and no doubt if men of education saw with their own eyes what takes place under their sanction, the system would have been put an end to long ago.

We shall be told that setting steel traps is the only way to preserve game, but we cannot believe that Englishmen when their attention is once drawn to the case, will let even this motive weigh against so fearful an amount of cruelty.

The writer of these remarks will be grateful for any suggestions, addressed to A. B.,6 Mr. Strong, Printer, Bromley, Kent.7 or to Mrs C. Darwin | Downbar Bromley | Kent.8

Christ’s College Library, Cambridge (Fox 142)

1 The Act to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of cattle, 1822, prohibited the ill-treatment of horses, asses, sheep, and cattle, excluding bulls (Statutes, public and general, 3 Geo. IV c. 71). On attitudes to cruelty to animals in nineteenth-century England, see Turner 1980.

2 This sentence, and the woodcut of the vermin-trap, did not appear in the version published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, 29 August 1863, pp. 821–2 (Letter no. 4282). The woodcut was arranged through George Brettingham Sowerby Jr (see letter from G. B. Sowerby Jr to Emma Darwin, 22 July 1863 and n. 1).

3 This individual has not been identified; however, see letter from Emma Darwin to W. D. Fox, 8 December [1863]. Only two resident gamekeepers were recorded in Down, Kent, in 1861: John Higwood, under-gamekeeper, age 34, and William Folgate, gamekeeper, age 50 (Census returns 1861 (Public Record Office, RG9/462: 73, 77)).

4 The reference is to William Howitt; the quotation is taken from Howitt"s letter to the Morning Star, 8 December 1862 (see Animal World, 1 January 1870, p. 75).

5 Animal baiting, including bull-baiting and cock-fighting, was made an offence by the Act to consolidate and amend the several laws relating to the cruel and improper treatment of animals, 1835 (Statutes, public and general, 5 & 6 Will. IV c. 59), and the Act for the more effectual prevention of cruelty to animals, 1849 (Statutes, public and general, 12 & 13 Vict. c. 92).

6 The `Appeal' was signed `C. D.' in the version published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, 29 August 1863, pp. 821–2 (Letter no. 4282).

7 Edward Strong was a printer and stationer with premises on High Street, Bromley (Post Office directory of the six home counties 1863).

8 The closing words, printed here in roman type, were added in Emma Darwin’s hand at the end of one of the two copies of the pamphlet among the W. D. Fox papers in Christ’s College Library, Cambridge.  

About this article

Adapted from Correspondence vol. 11, appendix IX.  The text of the pamphlet was taken from a copy in Christ’s College Library, Cambridge (Fox 142).