The Charles Darwin Letters

Posted by Tenby Museum on May 8, 2019 Blog, News No Comments

In August 1840 Charles Darwin replied to a letter from Reverend Gilbert Smith, Rector of Gumfreston and an avid amateur geologist and archaeologist. Smith had written to Darwin concerning the matter of skeletal remains of animals found on Caldey Island.

At this time Darwin had conceived his idea of natural selection but did not release his ideas upon the world until 19 years later with the release of his seminal work On the Origin of Species. Four years pervious to the letters he had completed an almost five-year survey trip on the HMS Beagle and was already a celebrity in scientific circles.

Darwin’s letter of reply to Smith is now on display at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery.   The letter was originally written to Darwin’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Wedgwood, who was asked to send a note with his questions to Smith. However she felt it better to send the letter directly to Smith – Elizabeth had built a school on Caldey and so presumably knew Smith personally. We know that Smith received the reply, as his written responses to Darwin’s questions are evident on the document. For some unknown reason however, he never sent these back to Darwin.

Darwin’s reply asks six separate questions abut the finds, ranging from “Are bones rounded or broken”, “Distance of Caldy (sic) Isd from main & depth of water” to perhaps the most interesting, “Particularly describe whether beaks of birds were embedded actually with Elephants bones, or chiefly in upper part of fissure.”

“It would,” Darwin writes, “be very valuable present (to) Geolog. Socy. if Mr Smith would send some of these beaks and breast bones or bones of legs to Somerset House, directed to me…And without they are examined by Anatomist, they are almost useless to science.”

Like other geniuses (such as Vladimir Nabakov, Victor Hugo and Samuel Becket to name but a few) Darwin’s handwriting is at times illegible. However at this time Darwin had another valid excuse for the shaky hand. At the time of writing Darwin was ill and confined to bed. Strain from overwork had left him with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms and for the rest of his life he was repeatedly taken unwell with stomach issues, vomiting, boils, trembling and palpitations.

The numerous finds of Gilbert Smith from his excavations on Caldey and Hoyle’s Mouth formed the nucleus of the original collections at Tenby Museum on its inception in 1878.