Sometimes I have a nugget of a blog in mind that doesn’t quite have enough substance. The story of Darwin and his Origin of Species came into this category. No disrespect to Darwin is meant but I wanted to express the flavour of his relationship with Plymouth. He was only 22 when he set sail from Plymouth for a two year exploration and survey of the coast of Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego. He was rich enough to pay the £30 a year cost of the voyage, was making a name for himself as a naturalist and had no responsibilities. The yellow boat in the picture above is moored roughly in the position of the Beagle at Barn Pool.
Darwin arrived in Plymouth in late October and eventually sailed in late December. He described his months in Plymouth as the worst time he had ever experienced. He was able to spend time with many great scientists and engineers of the time and also listen to sermons given by university friends, in many first hand accounts he expresses great pleasure in doing such things. But Plymouth, as the city is now known, had a vibrant night culture which Darwin made no effort to study. The city was too bawdy and licentious for a man who delighted in sermons. Devonport where his lodgings were was a place well used to having young men slightly bored waiting for a boat to sail. Devonport had bars and Theatres and many many ways a man with money could have found stimulation and good times. I suspect he was a prissy young man who would not have know a good time if it had jumped up behind him and said Boo!
The Beagle was eventually ready to sail in late December when the weather had become more favourable. One more thing was set to cause Darwin misery. It was just another thing for him to disapprove of, furthering his judgement of Plymouth as a giant den of iniquity.
On Christmas Day 1831, Darwin went to church, most probably Stoke Damerel, where the guest preacher was a friend from Cambridge University, William Strong Hore of Stonehouse. Hore was at that time Assistant Stipendiary Curate to Saltash; after ordination he became Curate at Stoke Damerel.
Whilst Darwin was at church, the Beagle’s crew got drunk and disorderly. The weather on the 26 December was ideal for sailing, but the crew were either hung over or in irons as a result of their behaviour the day before. At 11am On Monday 27 December 1831, in perfect weather, the Beagle did weigh anchor and set sail. On a friend’s yacht, Darwin caught the ship at 2pm beyond the Breakwater, and so began his epic voyage.*
Nearly 200 years on I can sense the look on his face and the set of his body language as he eventually set sail for South America. Most of us know a Darwin!
* Shaun Standfield 2008 Plymouth History Festival 2022