Darwin lived the gentleman’s life at Cambridge

We haven’t known a great deal about Darwin’s college days because all we’ve had in the way of evidence are a registration record or two.

But this year, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publishing of On The Origin of Spieces, Honorary Keeper of the Archives and Fellow Commoner, Geoffrey Thorndike Martin, uncovered six financial ledgers from Christ’s College, Cambridge, which include Charles Darwin’s itemized expenses.

They show that Darwin, who studied at Christ’s College between 1828 and 1831, lived the life of a 19th century gentleman and paid people to carry out tasks such as stoking his fire and polishing his shoes. […]

The books also contain accounts for the barber, chimney-sweep, apothecary [pharmacist], porter, brazier [who looked after the fires], glazier, hatter, laundress, linen-draper and painter, among others.

Back then, students purchased goods and services on account and the merchants applied to the college for payment. Then the college just billed the students for these expenses along with its own charges (ie, tuition) on a quarterly basis.

So now we know that the young Charles Darwin spent more on shoes than he did on books, and that he paid extra for a serving of vegetables with every meal. (The default rations were a joint of some sort of meat and a pint of beer. Srsly.)

The bills have been digitized and made available to all comers on Darwin Online. I get errors when I try to load the images and text on the site itself, but the pdf files work just fine. They’re image rich and high resolution, though, so they take a while to download.

23 thoughts on “Darwin lived the gentleman’s life at Cambridge

    1. Nyuk nyuk. There have been a lot of those kinds of headlines in the news stories.

      I think the billing system was fairly common at that time. It’s why you read about the bad guys in Austen novels leaving unpaid accounts with all the local shopkeeps and hostelers.

  1. According to “Charles Darwin: the Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution” by Cyril Aydon, Darwin benefited much from his family’s social standing and his father’s pocketbook. His father actually paid for his living expenses well into his adult years, allowing Darwin time to do his research. While on the Beagle, Darwin was able to send specimens back to England on his father’s name. I would say it’s quite fortunate for us that he had such support, but Wallace managed to arrive at the same principles while having to support himself. Still, I don’t know that Wallace would have been as well-received as Darwin.

    1. That’s fascinating. I had no idea Darwin suckled at the family teat for so long. I think you’re right that family connections and respectability had to have played a role in how Darwin was received.

  2. Hi – excellent web site, you’re trying to achieve some of the same things as me from a different perspective though, how do you feel about exchanging details on each others blogrolls? e.g. my site has a link to your and vice versa. Please email me if this idea of interest and pardon the instrusion if not
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  3. Improper venue alert (I found no email)!!

    I found this blog I think after looking for “history chunk” in google, and I look forward to flipping through it further, but I was hoping you could point me in a direction for what I’m thirsting for. What I’d like is somewhat anecdotal snippets of historic events, like snapshot portraits of pivotal people in history like “And along came nero, who is said to have fiddled on the roof as rome burned, but is known to have actually built the most lavish goldleaf palace at the hands of ..etc.” Any leads? By the by, a very well categorized website, and beautifully executed, good work! :notworthy:

  4. I knew about the joint and the pint 🙂 At Oxford in the middle ages the rule was that if an exam ran more than x time, I think 6 hours, a student was entitled to a steak and beer. There’s an urban myth that this dude dusted off this rule in the Oxford law book like in the last 20 years or so, and during a lengthy law exam demanded his pint and steak, showing the relevant law… and eventually settled for a whopper and a coke. The urban myth further has it that a week later he was summoned to the Proctor for violation of another “so obscure they never bothered to cancel it rule”: Students must attend exams wearing a sword…

    I have a strong feeling the whole thing is bogus, but the steak and pint at a strenuous exam thing may be true…

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