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March 23, 2009

Darwin's College Bills

We know Charles Darwin revolutionized biology with the theory of evolution by natural selection. We know that he was fond of beetles, pigeons, barnacles, and carnivorous plants; that he enjoyed a relatively happy family life at Down House in Kent. But how much did young Charles spend in student accommodation during his 3 years as a university student in Cambridge? And did he eat his vegetables?

DarwinBillsmaller.jpgThanks to the discovery of Darwin's bills, ledgers of his expenses while at Christ's College, University of Cambridge, we can now find the answers to these not-so-pressing questions. The bills were recently discovered by chance in a storage room full of old record books neither cataloged nor listed. Nobody knew they were there, but archivist Geoffrey Thorndike Martin was keeping an eye out for bills from the late 1820s and early 1830s. While studying the old records, he recognized Darwin's name. The six books of bills detail Darwin's expenses, including lodgings, meals, clothing, and the usual services available to young gentleman of that time, from barber and tutors to laundry and shoe-polishing. The bills were published today on the Web site The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online.

The findings bring a wealth of information that allows us to reconstruct Darwin's life in the college world, says John van Wyhe, director of the Darwin Online Web site. Cambridge students in the 19th century had their expenses recorded daily and paid the bill to the college quarterly. Unlike other students, listed by their surnames, the now-famous biologist is referenced as C. Darwin or Darwin junior, to distinguish him from his elder brother Erasmus, also a student at Christ's.

The records include interesting snippets of information: Charles Darwin arrived at Christ's College on 26 January 1828 and rented one of the most expensive rooms available to undergraduates at £4 per quarter. Some of the records are very detailed: His coal bill for the 1830-1831 winter quarter was £3, 12 shillings, and 6 pence, and he paid about £1 every 3 months to have his bed made and room tidied.

Examining Darwin's accounts doesn't reveal any unordinary expenses, says van Wyhe, who scanned the books and supervised their transcription. "He does spend a lot on food" and paid the extra charge for having vegetables with every daily meal at the college, van Wyhe adds.

The bills add up to a grand total of £636 for the 3 years Darwin spent in Cambridge. In modern standards, this sum translates to about £40,000 ($57,700) according to the Victorian Web's conversion table. A seemingly staggering amount of money, but van Wyhe calls it "nothing unusual for a student from a wealthy background." Still, he admits, "Darwin was a little on the expensive side."

Not everything is listed in Christ's College's books. We still don't know how much Darwin paid for extras such as stabling his horse or entertaining. How much he spent on tobacco and alcohol remains a mystery, too—it was probably a fair amount since he was known among fellow students for his smoking and drinking habits, says van Wyhe. Time to search through the university’s other storage rooms.

—Sara Coelho

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