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Cambridge After the Voyage

The Beagle docked at Falmouth on October the 2nd 1836 after its five-year trip around the world, and Darwin left immediately on a coach for Shrewsbury where he arrived late in the evening on October the 4 th. After staying the night at an inn he walked home to The Mount without the family knowing that he was coming. His father and sisters where just sitting down to breakfast when he arrived so, he was greeted with surprise and welcomed home! Even though he had been gone for nearly five years, his dog greeted him as if he had been gone for no more than a day and then headed off in front of him on their usual morning walk. It was only natural that all his relatives and friends wanted to see him but he had to almost immediately arrange for specimens due to be off-loaded from the Beagle. After 10 days in Shrewsbury he headed for London to see his Brother Erasmus, then to Cambridge for discussions with Henslow who had received and stored a large amount of the materials he had sent back to him while on the trip. He also wanted very much to meet Charles Lyell, President of the Geological Society of London and author of Principles of Geology, three volumes that Darwin had taken with him and read on the voyage. Darwin waited two weeks in London to meet Lyell and was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society. He then went to see his Uncle Josiah Wedgwood II and his family at Maer Hall and spent an additional two weeks with his father and sisters at the family home, the Mount House, before returning to London.

England had changed during the five years that he had been gone, for this was the beginning of the industrial age. Railroads had replaced many of the stagecoach lines and Charles Dickens was revealing the miserable conditions of life in London and elsewhere resulting from the excessive burning of coal to run the factories. England had become the workshop of the world but working conditions were horrific. In addition the steam driven presses were turning out newspapers with many political views, Bible tracts, protest sheets and educational material in ever increasing volume.

Charles realized that he needed to get to work sorting out the large amount of material that he had accumulated during the voyage and, for the time being, the best place for him to reside was in Cambridge. On December 16, 1836 he rented a small house on Fitzwilliam Street, large enough for him and Syms Covington, his manservant, who had been his natural history assistant while on the Beagle. Darwin recognized that he had had a remarkable and unique experience and wanted to become important in the world of science. He needed to find experts to assist him with studying the material he had so carefully collected and to present their findings in both the written and spoken word. He soon reestablished good relationships with Henslow and Sedgwick who had been so supportive of him while he was there in college. Henslow was a well-recognized botanist, and had received and carefully stored many of the specimens that Darwin had sent him during the five-year voyage. But he did not personally classify all the specimens, instead passing them on to taxonomist friends and the remainder to Joseph Dalton Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Others such as Charles Lyell, assisted him with the geological samples and also introduced Darwin to Richard Owen, a rising star of British zoology, who examined the fossils and bones from a number of animals including the bones of the Megatherium that became quite famous. John Gould at the Zoological Society of London agreed to examine the birds and classified and exhibited most of them at the Zoological Society meetings during January and February 1837. Gould was instrumental in sorting out the problems that arose about the famous finches that have been the hallmark of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Sources and Further Reading:

Charles Darwin, Voyaging Browne, Janet. 1995.

Baruch College - http://darwin.baruch.cuny.edu/biography/london.html