Shrewsbury School: 1818
Odd, isn’t it, how a trivial thing can turn out to be a matter of greatest importance in one’s life. In my case, it was my nose.
I considered my nose rather ordinary, perhaps a trifle too large for me to be thought handsome, but entirely suited to its purpose. However, because of my nose I was nearly denied the greatest adventure of my life. The man responsible was Robert FitzRoy, captain of a small sailing ship, who argued that a man’s character could be divined by studying the contours of his head and the features of his face. Based on the size and shape of my nose, the captain believed I lacked sufficient energy and determination to endure the arduous sea voyage he planned to make round the world.
How did it come about that Captain FitzRoy, a perfect stranger, should care so deeply about my nose? And what was his decision and the results of it? To answer those questions and others that may arise, let me begin at the beginning, long before I ever heard of the captain or of his ship HMS Beagle.
I was born February 12th, 1809, in the town of Shrewsbury, county of Shropshire, England, and christened Charles Robert Darwin. For the first few years of my life my family called me Bobby. My father, Dr. Robert Darwin, practised medicine. My brother Erasmus, called Ras, older by four years and two months, our four sisters, our parents, and I lived at The Mount, a great brick mansion built high on a hill above the River Severn with a view of Shrewsbury Castle’s ancient red sandstone walls.
Facts are unchanging, but memories are mutable—sometimes sharp, sometimes out of focus, sometimes shadowy or absent altogether. From the early years of my childhood I can summon only a few blurred images. I offer this brief list:
Paddling in the sea on the north coast of Wales with my younger sister, Catty.
Gathering beetles and shells and pebbles and various plants for my collection, my older sister Caroline complaining of the odour.
Sitting on the riverbank with Ras whilst he patiently taught me how to spit a worm on a fishhook and answered my endless questions; I idolised him.
Walking with my mother to the small day school taught by the Reverend Case and being frightened by a dog barking in the street.
Standing uneasily by my mother’s sickbed as she whispered something to me, and being brought to that same room days later to see her laid out on the bed in a black velvet gown, my brother and sisters weeping inconsolably and my father’s face contorted with grief. I, too, wept, but without realising all that I wept for. Oddly enough, I remember nothing about her funeral. Mostly I remember her absence.
I was eight and a half years old and no longer called Bobby. I was now Charles, and sometimes Charley.
The images become etched more clearly when I reached the age of nine. At the beginning of the summer quarter my father enrolled me at Shrewsbury School, across the road from the old castle and less than a mile from The Mount. I could have continued living at home whilst attending classes, but Father thought it best if I boarded at the school.
"Your mother and I made this decision some time ago," he said sternly when I begged to stay at home with Catty and continue my schooling with Caroline as my teacher. "We both felt that you would pay more attention to your studies there."
And so off I went, desperately unhappy but trying to be brave.
Ras had been toiling away at the school for four years when I arrived. He may have rather enjoyed it at the outset, being away from our sisters and not having to endure lessons with them any longer. He pointed out that all of our boy cousins had been sent away to boarding school. Only girls got to stay at home. "Believe me, Charley, it’s better than being all day with the sisterhood"—his name for our sisters.
But he had serious complaints about the school.
"Eat up whilst you can, Charley," advised Ras, a tall, thin, rather frail lad who looked as though he ought to take his own advice. "You’ll get little enough to put in your stomach, and what you do get isn’t fit for a dog. There’s a sign by the headmaster’s gateway with his initials, SB, on it. The letters stand for ‘Stale Bread, Sour Beer, Salt Butter, Stinking Beef—for Sale By Samuel Butler.’ That’s the headmaster’s name. And try to smuggle in an extra blanket. You could read your Latin grammar through the nap of the thin shroud you’ll be issued. No use having Father go to Dr. Butler for it. He refuses all such requests."
Maurice, the groom, drove me to school on my first day, informed one of the masters of my arrival, carried my trunk up to my bed, and left me there with a handshake and a pat on the shoulder. "Ye’ll be all right now, Master Charley," he said, and hurried away. I struggled not to cry or behave in an infantile manner, though I longed to run after him and plead to be taken home.
Then I met Garnett, the boy with whom I would be forced to share a bed. I told him my name. Garnett had looked me over cannily. "Like to fight?" he’d asked, and I said that I’d never been in a fight in my life and was sure I would not like it. He smirked. "I’d have thought by the look of that nose of yours you’d already taken a few jabs. You’re thick as a stump, Darwin, and you look strong enough," he said. "We could make a good fighter out of you, if you’d a mind."
Self-consciously I covered my nose with my hand. "But there’s nothing to fight about," I said, hoping I was right but already guessing I might be wrong.
It did not take long for me to learn to loathe the school. It took a little longer to plan my escapes.
At the end of each day the boys lined up stiffly in the school refectory for the calling-over. One of the masters read out our names, starting with the oldest students, the sixth formers, who were then dismissed, and ending with the youngest. I’d been placed in the lower third form.
Once my name had been called and the lower third dismissed, I contrived to slip away by the servants’ side door and bolted across the wet lawn and through the unlocked iron gates to freedom. I prided myself on being a fast runner and hadn’t far to go—ten minutes if I gave it my best, trotting along the old town walls, across the Severn by the Welsh Bridge, and up the hill to The Mount. Spark, our black-and-white pup, was first to greet me. At the sound of his joyous barking Marianne, twenty years old and the eldest of my sisters, set down the needlepoint canvas she was working. Caroline, sixteen, laid aside the book she’d been reading aloud—one of Miss Jane Austen’s novels during that autumn of 1818—and gasped, "Charley! What on earth—?"
Susan, the fifteen-year-old sister I sometimes called Granny, frowned her disapproval. "Charley, you ought not be here!" she scolded. "You’re breaking the rules, and you’ll get caught and punished, and Papa will be furious."
During our mother’s lingering illness Caroline had made herself into a kind of substitute mother for me and Catty, younger by a year. Caroline was tall and serious as a judge, thick black hair pulled into heavy plaits, and she had sat with us every day at a low table in a corner of the nursery at the top of the house. She’d taught us our letters and numbers, supervised the practise of penmanship, and patiently rehearsed us in our Bible verses and the prayers we were expected to recite faultlessly when she took us each by the hand and led us off to worship at St. Chad’s. This church was the only building I had ever been inside that was not square but round, and for that reason alone I found it interesting. We’d all been christened there. Father, not a churchgoing man, didn’t accompany us on Sunday mornings.
I was a pensive boy often lost in my own thoughts, and that dreaminess exasperated my sisters. "Charley is clearly bright enough," I’d once heard Caroline remark to Susan, who replied, "Yes, but he is intolerably lazy." Catty was quicker than I was, though not much more interested in her studies. She preferred to amuse herself with dressing her dolls and feeding them flower petals from Father’s conservatory. Ras, we all knew, was the brilliant one.
Now, as I appeared unexpectedly after my escape, Catty threw down the speller Caroline had assigned her and flung her arms round me. "Charley! I’m so glad to see you! Is the school truly horrid? Do you hate it? Oh, I do wish you were still at home with us!"
"It doesn’t matter if he hates it," Susan said severely, glowering at me over her spectacles. That’s why I called her Granny.
The school was every bit as dreadful as Ras had promised, but I put on a brave face and squirmed out of Catty’s embrace. "I wish I were still here, too," I admitted.
I’d loved rambling round The Mount in all kinds of weather, sometimes letting Catty ramble with me, on foot or on our ponies. We’d spent hours together by the river, perched in the crooked branches of the old Spanish chestnut tree I’d named Borum, sending messages to each other by means of ropes and pulleys in the code I devised. The tree where an owl nested I called Owlo, and I’d invented names for members of the household: Nancy, our nursemaid, was "Pea-spitter," and Father was dubbed "Squirt." I don’t know how I came upon those names, but I do know that Father, for one, would not have been amused. Now there was no opportunity for rambling or for perching in trees, and I missed this world with an ache felt in my bones.
"I’m afraid you’re too early for tea," Marianne said, placidly threading a needle with a length of rose-coloured wool. "You know we always wait for Papa."
"I know." Father seldom got home from his evening medical calls before eight o’clock, and by that hour I had to be back at the school and in my dormitory or suffer dire consequences. If Father had found me at home, the consequences would have been dire as well.
Nancy rushed in, clucking her tongue, and rushed out again. "Lad’s like to starve to death," she muttered when she’d returned with a plate of teacakes, and I’d gobbled up two and stuffed two more in my trouser pockets.
There was not much time between calling-over and locking up at Shrewsbury School—no more than an hour—and though I stretched my visit home to the last possible moment, I knew I would have to run fast to reach the school before I was shut out. A glance at the gold clock on the drawing room mantel warned me that the time had come to wrench myself away. I was bestowing one last belly rub on Spark when I heard the crunch of Father’s carriage on the gravel drive leading to the front entrance. Caroline hurried me to the back door. "Dear Charley," she murmured. "Be off with you now, and quickly!"
I began to run, my feet skidding down the path to the river. I could picture the scene I left behind in every detail:
Father heaves himself out of the smart yellow phaeton recognised by everyone in Shropshire and hands the reins to the groom. He is a large man—immense, in fact. Well over six feet tall, he’d stopped weighing himself some years earlier, when he reached twenty-four stone, exceeding three hundred pounds. His bulk fills the doorway. My sisters rise to greet him, smoothing their skirts, offering smiles.
"Good evening, my dears," he says. His voice is surprisingly high and light for a man of such size. A stranger might have expected a low growl. He allows each daughter to kiss his cheek.
"Good evening, Papa," says Marianne. She pronounces it Pa-pa; to say Pa-pa or Mam-ma, with the accent switched back to front, is what people of the lower classes call their parents, not well-bred young ladies like the Darwin girls.
And so it goes, down the line in order of age, the kiss planted on his smooth cheek, the greeting, the smile for Pa-pa. Last comes Catty, his pet and well aware of her special place as the youngest.
On I ran, panting, ignoring a little pebble in my shoe, too worried about coming late to stop and fix it. The Severn wrapped round Shrewsbury as though tying a parcel. Fog curled up from the river and clung to my skin like silk.
Father settles into his favourite chair, built specially for him with adequate reinforcement and covered in deep red plush velvet. The manservant kneels to remove his boots and presents his slippers, warmed and ready. Marianne rings the bell, calling the parlour maid to bring the tea. It is Caroline’s honour to pour from an elegant teapot into five delicate cups. The teapot, cups, saucers, and cake plates are all from the Wedgwood Potteries, owned by my uncle Jos. We all remember they were Mamma’s particular favourites.
I pounded across the Welsh Bridge and plunged, panting, through the dark, narrow streets and over the worn cobblestones of the town centre. Shrewsbury School loomed ahead, a bleak grey stone presence. Fear drove me. I’d shaved it a bit too close, lingered at home a bit too long. Suppose I found the iron gate barred, the door locked and bolted? Darkness had closed in, the fog thickened to a drizzle.
Determination turned to desperation as the hour hand of the clock in the tower of Old Market Hall moved tick by tick towards my doom. I’d be flogged and ordered into the Black Hole Garnett had told me about, left in the cold blackness of the narrow cell for hours, perhaps even forgotten for days, as he swore had happened to others. Expulsion and the horrified embarrassment of my father would surely follow. The thought filled me with dread. I kept a little prayer ready for when disaster loomed: Heavenly Father, I most humbly pray to Thee—help me run faster!
My prayer was answered. In the very nick of time I reached the servants’ entrance and found the gate and the door still miraculously open. In the distance the clock began to strike. Seeing no sign of Old Philip, the verger in charge of locking up, I scrambled undetected up the dark stair to the fetid attic that smelt of urine. Some two dozen unwashed boys slept two to a bed on seldom-laundered sheets. There was only one window with a row of washstands lined up beneath it. I fell, wheezing, onto the bed I shared with Garnett.
A year and a half older and far more knowing than I in the ways of the world and Shrewsbury School, Garnett was waiting for me, eyes gleaming with malice. "What’ve you brought me, Darwin?" he demanded. Garnett knew about my little escapes—this had not been my first—and threatened to report me if I failed to buy him off. I fumbled in my trouser pockets and produced the mashed and crumbled remains of the teacakes.
Garnett’s lip curled in disgust. "You’ve got to do better than this," he said. "Next time, pray, bring a meat pie—if you know what’s good for you."
I nodded, and Garnett bolted down the scorned teacakes, crumbs falling on our shared blanket. From the trunk at the foot of the bed I pulled out a thoroughly abused book on Roman history and carried it to the passageway where the other boys sat at long tables, studying or pretending to study, and took my accustomed seat. I opened the book. The words swam before my eyes.
I’d rather have been searching for newts in the pond of the old quarry. Or squatting on the bank of the Severn with my fishing pole. Or tramping across the fields that stretched beyond the old town walls. Or lying beneath the dining room table at The Mount, rereading my favourite book, Robinson Crusoe, and imagining myself as the shipwrecked Englishman surviving against all odds on an island inhabited by fierce cannibals.
I replaced the history book and took out a mouse chewed book of Latin grammar. It was impossible to concentrate. My mind kept drifting back to The Mount.
Caroline calls the parlour maid to close the heavy draperies and add a half-scuttle of coal to the grate—more than that would be wasteful. Catty scratches Spark’s ears and sings softly to him. Susan reaches for Miss Austen’s novel to take her turn reading aloud. Marianne’s needle darts in and out, finishing the petal of an elaborate floral design. Father dozes in his chair, snoring softly.
The prayer bell rang and we leapt to put away our books. Speedily changing from trousers and waistcoats and jackets into nightshirts, we knelt by our beds, hands folded, eyes squeezed shut, lips moving. "God bless Father, Ras, Marianne," I murmured, going down the list, ending with "and bless Mamma in heaven. And Garnett and the others," I added for good measure, in the forlorn hope that a blessing would make him more congenial.
Old Philip shuffled along, snuffing out the candles, and Garnett and I finished our amens at the same moment and piled into our miserable bed, each struggling for a share of the shrunken blanket. Quiet settled over the restless boys, coughs and mumbled prayers and curses eventually giving way to snores and an occasional sob, and I lay there thinking sadly of home.