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Down to Dublin – an original link

Down House

Down House

On a recent visit to London my cousin and I spent a pleasant afternoon in Down House, Kent where Charles Darwin lived. His house is now a museum, and the wonderful exhibition that is set in almost all the rooms of the house, tells of his travels and experimentation that helped him formulate his historic and ground-breaking ideas that were eventually brought to the world in his book ‘On the Origin of Species’.

A timeline of Darwin’s life led us from room to room with mementos of his journey on The Beagle to illustrate his thought process towards the theory of evolution. Of particular interest was his small, intimate library. Standing in the quiet space it was easy to imagine the great man sitting at the desk, contemplating the words he was writing and wondering about their importance and impact. As we found out, he postponed the publication of the book for twenty years because of the potential damage from its contentious findings.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Darwin was saying nothing less than that humans had evolved from a series of biological adaptations and not created by God. He knew it was revolutionary stuff, but he was finally impelled to publish before another scientist beat him to it. Alfred Russell Wallace, who had spent many years observing similar evolutionary changes in Borneo and various islands in the Far East, had published a paper suggesting what Darwin had discovered but was too afraid to go public with it. In the autumn of 1858 Darwin began a feverish year of research and editing, and finally, on 24th November 1859, his ground-breaking work was published by John Murray of Mayfair. The initial print run of 1,250 copies sold out in a few days and led, inevitably, to a mixture of high praise and equally loud condemnation. As a result of his work the scientific world was changed forever. His theories were proved many years later, and they now form a fundamental part of our knowledge.

Towards the end of the exhibition there was an original copy of the book on display set behind heavy, security glass. It was interesting to think that such a small piece of work had set fire to our imagination, explaining evolution and creating a firestorm of argument. It was one of the most profound books ever published and a thrill to be within touching distance. We left Down House feeling a little closer to the great man and in awe of his magnificent achievements.

Some days later on my return to Dublin, I met a friend who is one of Ireland’s leading manuscript conservators. I described my visit to Down House and my proximity to the famous book. Jay laughed, stopping my story in mid-sentence.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘I have a copy in my office at the moment. I’m doing some conservation on it,’ he said casually.

‘Wow; is there any chance of having a look at it?’

‘Sure, come in next week.’

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I duly showed up at Jay’s office, excited to see an original ‘Origin’ without any restriction.
Jay opened a drawer and took out a small white envelope. ‘Put these on,’ he said handing me a pair of soft, white gloves. Then he pushed back the flap and, seconds later, revealed a familiar sight. For there on the desk was a first edition of the famous book, its cover showing the signs of studied use and a corner slightly the worse for wear. ‘Open it,’ he said, grinning.

The Origin of Species

The Origin of Species

I smiled and ran my fingers gently over the cover and eased it open. I could smell its aged mustiness and noted that the pages were a little loose.

‘That happens with years of use,’ Jay said ‘but otherwise it’s in very good condition.’

‘And whose signature is that?’ I asked pointing to the well-written letters at the top of the contents page.

‘That’s the signature of its first owner, Rev. Samuel Haughton.’

I thought about the name for a few moments. ‘Do you mean the man who invented Haughton’s Drop?’

‘The very man,’ said Jay. ‘Strange, eh.’

Rev. Samuel Haughton

Rev. Samuel Haughton

It was strange indeed. Haughton, originally from Carlow, was a brilliant natural scientist and Professor of Geology at Trinity College, Dublin. Ever restless to learn more he studied medicine and graduated in 1862. In 1866 he submitted a paper on the most efficient and humane form of hanging. It had been noted that the hanging process was delivering different results depending on the prisoner’s height and weight. In some cases the convicted man was left dangling for minutes before death released him, while others had been decapitated. The inconsistency was addressed when Haughton’s submission won and was subsequently adopted. And with typical black (gallows) humour it soon became known as Haughton’s Drop. In later years he was elected President of the Royal Irish Academy and Secretary of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland.

Thinking about him I shook my head at the odd idea that came to mind.

‘What is it?’ asked Jay.

‘It’s ironic to think that Darwin’s book was about life evolving and this is a copy signed by a man who invented a way of ending it.’ I closed the book and felt, in an odd sort of way, that my story had come full circle, from Down to Dublin.

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The origin of The Origin

I must first admit that I have never read the book but I, like many others, are familiar with Charles Darwin’s famous work The Origin Of Species. It was a groundbreaking work that even today, over 150 years after its publication, his Theory of Evolution rouses heated debate. But what I did not know until recently was just how fortunate he was in getting the chance to do the vital research that led him to question the established theories of the day, and revolutionize  our way of thinking. He never planned for what happened, but made the most of the opportunity when it came along. How very Darwinian indeed!


Fitzroy’s house – Upper Norwood, London

It was while staying with my cousin in London that the first piece of the story was revealed. He had been visiting a  fiend in Upper Norwood (south London) and noticed a plaque to Captain Robert Fitzroy on a house a few doors down the street. Fitzroy was a captain in the Royal Navy and had taken charge of HMS Beagle in 1828 in Rio de Janeiro after the previous captain, Pringle Stokes, had shot himself. The long period away from home,  allied to the stress and loneliness of his position with no ‘suitable company’ had brought on a deep depression, leading to his suicide. When Fitzroy returned to England in 1830 he was a skilled surveyor and commander. The following year he was asked by the Admiralty to lead HMS Beagle on another journey and he requested the ‘company of a gentleman to carry out the geological surveying’ so that he would not suffer the fate of the Captain Stokes.

After a number of men were asked, and refused the offer, the young Charles Darwin (22 years) accepted and, as we all know ‘the rest is history’. Considering that fine margins are at the heart of Darwin’s great theory, it’s nice to think that he would appreciate the irony of the situation. The famous (second) Voyage of the Beagle, although originally planned to take two years, it lasted almost five, from 27th December 1831 until 2nd October 1836. The scientific expedition was hugely successful although Fitzroy, a staunch believer in the teachings of the Bible, fell out on numerous occasions with Darwin and his radical ideas that would form the basis of his great book.

Years after the voyage Fitzroy became Governor of New Zealand,  and later helped setup what was the forerunner of the now familiar Meteorological (Met) Office. However, his work was not appreciated and his system for gale warnings was abandoned. This failure cost him not only most of his money but also brought on the depression that he had being fighting all his life. He lost that battle and cut his throat with a razor in the bathroom of his house (in Upper Norwood) on 30th April 1865.

So, on a bright afternoon in May my cousin and I walked the 400-or-so yards from Fitzroy’s home to All Saints Church to see his grave.  When I pushed the creaky gate open I wondered how often Fitzroy had done this, and we walked through the sunbeams to find him.  The grave is well maintained, and his memorial was restored by the Meteorological Office in 1981. Being a most religious man I’m sure that he would shake his head at the irony of his resting place when compared to that of the ‘non-believer’ Darwin who had expected to be buried in his small, local church (St. Mary’s Church, Downe) but who was interred in Westminster Abbey, near Sir Issac Newton. It was quite a journey!


Fitzroy’s grave – All Saints Church


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