Charles Darwin- The Cambridge Years (1828-1831)

Portrait of charles darwin as a young man

Charles Darwin

In April 1827 Charles Darwin dropped out of Edinburgh University without obtaining any medical qualifications.

His father was bitterly disappointed with his son’s lack of interest in training to become a doctor.

What should Charles do next?

After giving the matter much thought Robert made the decision that Charles should be ordained as a minister in the Church of England.

William Darwin Fox

An older Darwin Fox

Before he could even be considered for ordination Charles would have to obtain a degree. That would mean spending three more years studying at university.

After becoming ordained Robert, with his great wealth, could buy Charles a fine rural parish which could include a church, spacious rectory and even a few acres of farmland. As a country parson in a rural parish Charles would be set up for life; he would have high social status and have plenty of free time to hunt and pursue his passion for learning about the natural world.

Early in 1828 Robert sent Charles to study at Christ’s College in Cambridge. Charles’s second cousin William Darwin Fox was already studying at the College.

Christs College Cambridge by George Pyne (1800-1884)

Christs College Cambridge

In the early 19th century the university authorities  were very strict on students. Darwin quickly learnt a simple set of rules that enabled him to stay out of trouble for the whole of his time at Cambridge: keep the college curfew, no fighting, remain sober in public, never be seen with girls and always, always wear a cap and gown.

Nothing was more likely to get a student into trouble than being ‘out of gown’. Not wearing a cap and gown was an admission that you were up to mischief. Why else would a student wish to remain anonymous?

The cap and gown told you who you were. ‘Gownsmen’ could be spotted at once among the ‘townsmen’ who outnumbered the students three to one.

Cambridge students wearing gowns which was a requirement when Charles Darwin was a student in the 1820's

Punishments for disobeying the regulations could include short term confinement to college, banishment from town for a fixed period or even expulsion from university.

Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree- January 1828 to June 1831

During his three and a half years at Christ’s College Darwin studied a number of subjects which counted towards his Bachelor of Arts degree. These subjects included math, physics, Latin, Ancient Greek, moral philosophy and religious studies.

The bachelor of Arts Cambridge studied by Charles darwin between 1828 and 1831©  Dr John van Wyhe at

Darwin did not particularly enjoy his university studies and was never a model student. He always harbored doubts about his own religious faith and often wondered if he was suited to becoming a church minister.

He spent much of his time pursing outside interests, incluidng botany and entomology, which left him precious little time to study.

In March 1830 Darwin was due to sit his first important exam, the so called “Little Go” exam. In December 1829, realising that he had not done enough work, he found himself in a “dreadful plight from fear and anxiety” . 

He spent the the whole of Christmas 1829 revising in his room at Christ’s College preparing for the Little Go.

Darwins room at Christs College Cambridge when he was an undergraduate©  Dr John van Wyhe at

The day of judgment arrived on 24th March 1830 when he sat six hours of exams.

His frantic last minute revision paid off; a few days later he found out that he had passed the Little Go.

After passing the Little Go, Darwin did little work until the Christmas vacation of 1830. With only a few weeks to go until his final exams he started working incredibly hard. As he had done before with the Little Go exam he crammed everything he needed to know into just a few short weeks.

He found this frantic last minute revision a miserable experience and was “far too much plagued to enjoy anything”.

Darwin’s main weakness was in mathematics, a subject he sometimes despaired of ever mastering.  About math he once remarked, “I stick fast in the mud at the bottom (of a river), and there I shall remain.” He also found the classics, including the works of Vigil and Homer, dull and uninspiring.

Perhaps strangely for one who doubted his own religious faith, Darwin excelled in divinity. He even mastered Paley’s Natural Theology.


William Paley (1743–1805) was an English philosopher….


…who presented evidence for the existence of God and the miracles of God.

Paley argued that the complex structures of living things and the remarkable adaptions of plants and animals could never have been designed without assistance from an intelligent designer.

To support his theory Paley put forward the now famous analogy with the intelligent watchmaker. Just like the intelligent watchmaker designs and makes complex watches, so the intelligent designer (ie God) designs and and makes complex, living things.

18th century pocket watch is analogy for william paley's argument for intelligent design

Darwin sat his final exams in the third week of January 1831.

By the end of the week he found that he had passed and had been ranked tenth out of a total of 178 candidates. He derived no great satisfaction from the result remarking to his cousin William Darwin Fox,”I do not know why the degree should make one so miserable”.

Interest in the natural world

Just like his Edinburgh years the young Darwin found many interests that distracted him from his academic studies.

The following is a summary of some of those interests:


He spent much of his time hunting for beetles. One of his friends, Albert Way, poking fun at Darwin’s fascination with entomology, drew these pictures of Darwin riding a giant beetle.

Darwin Beetle cartoon by Albert Way

Darwin was introduced to this new beetle craze by his cousin William Darwin Fox. During the 1830’s the countrside surrounding Cambridge, a naturally marshy region called the Fens, teemed with beetles and much other wildlife.

Fenlands showing marsh land windmill and heron

Chasing, catching, identifying, preserving and mounting beetles for display was all part of the fun. Part of Darwin’s beetle collection still survives.

darwins beetle collection © University Museum of Zoology Cambridge

One of Darwin’s finest beetling achievements was catching a black beetle with red antennae, the Melasis flabellicornis, a German species rarely seen in England.

Melasis flabellicornis bettle as caught by Charles Darwin taken fromPanzer, Georg Wilhelm Franz - Fauna Insectorum Germanicae initia oder Deutschlands Insekten (1793)


While other undergraduates would frequent pubs on Friday evenings….

19th century students drinking reperesenting the student clubs that Charles darwin joined when he went to Edinburgh medical school



….Darwin was often found having friendly discussions about natural history at the home of the Reverend John Stevens Henslow.

Henslow was Regius Professor of Botany at Cambridge University. His Friday evening meetings attracted would-be naturalists like Charles whose main interests lay outside the subjects taught in the Bachelor of Arts degree.

Darwin quickly discovered how much he had in common with the “good natured and agreeable professor”. For his part Henslow was impressed with Darwin’s enquiring mind and was one day heard to exclaim,”what a fellow that Darwin is for asking questions.”

Darwin joined Henslow’s botany lectures at the University’s Botanical Gardens where he studied and learnt to identify different plants. Darwin also accompanied Henslow on his botanising expeditions into the Fens in spring and summer.

On one such expedition in May 1830 Henslow took his students on a thirty mile round trip by stage coach to Gamlingay Heath where where wild lilies-of the-valley grew in abundance.

Lily of the Valley

As other students went hunting for new plant species Darwin went looking for Natterjack toads. He was able to locate the precise location of the Natterjacks by following their breeding calls. Darwin caught so many Natterjack toads that Henslow was prompted to ask Darwin whether he intended making a”Natterjack pie”. 

BRITISH-NATTERJACK-TOADS-IN-SPRING-© John Norris Wood- British Natterjack Toads in Spring 


During university vacations Darwin often returned to his childhood home in Shrewsbury to visit his father and sisters. After one such visit in the  Summer of 1828  he spent several weeks in Barmouth on the Welsh coast studying and revising with some of his Cambridge friends.

Darwin employed a private tutor to help him improve his mathematics, a subject which still baffled him.

In the event he found his math tutor a “a very dull man” and by July 1828  Darwin had all but given up trying to improve his math ; instead he went boating in the estuary of Cardigan Bay, walked  the hills and fished in nearby lakes.

One day he climbed up Cader Idris with his gun ….

LLyn y Cau Cader Idris by Richard Wilson 1713-1782© Tate-  LLyn y Cau , Cader Idris by Richard Wilson (1713-1782)

… which he used to shoot passing birds. His friends, standing below, retrieved the corpses of the birds for preserving and stuffing. Darwin also netted many beetles and insects, which he preserved in alcohol.

In February 1829 Darwin took the stage coach to London.

Cambridge Telegraph Coach at the White Horse Tavern , Fetter Lane, London

Here he met up with brother Erasmus who regaled him with stories about his recently completed ‘grand tour’ of Munich, Milan and Vienna.

In London he also met distinguished members of the recently formed Entomological Club, including James Stephens, the author of Illustrations of British Entomology. Darwin found Stephens to be “a very good homored, pleasant little man.”

Darwin provided Stephens with some beetles he had captured. Two of the beetles in this illustration (marked with red arrows) from Stephens’s book had been netted by Darwin in North Wales.

Illustrations of British Entomology by James stephensJ. Stephens, Illustrations of British Entomology vol. 2, 1829

Planning for the future – February to June 1831

After passing his final exams Darwin stayed in Cambridge until June. He spent a great deal of time in the company of Henslow both on field trips and at Henslow’s botanical gardens.

Old Garden at Cambridge Botanical Gardens

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

Darwin began to think about how he could pursue his passion for nature as well as pleasing his father by becoming an ordained priest.

Henslow had sucessfully managed to combine his interest in the natural world with becoming an ordained priest. Why could Darwin not follow in Henslow’s footsteps?

Henslow had led a successful  professional life as geologist, mineralogist and botanist. His one major regret was that he had travelled very little. He had unfulfillled ambitions to “explore regions but little known, and enrich science with new species”.

But nothing need stop Darwin- perhaps Henslow’s favorite pupil could find distant lands to explore. Darwin was still young and had no family responsibilities unlike Henslow who was married with children. This was exactly the right time for Darwin to plan a trip overseas.

Full of enthusiasm about the prospect of traveling Darwin read Alexander von Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative’, a seven volume 3754 page account of a turn of the century visit to the Americas.


Humboldt’s account of his travels to the Canary Islands en route to the Americas inspired Darwin to plan his own expedition to the Canary Islands where he too might discover new species.

View of the Peak of Teneriffe by Marianne North© Kew Gardens- View of the Peak of Tenerife by Marianne North ( 1830 –1890)

He dreamed of seeing the Dragon Tree of Orotava, an illustration of which appeared in Humboldt’s book

Dragon tree of Orotava from Humboldt's account of visit to the Americas inspired charles darwin to visit canary islands

Henslow and two other companions agreed to accompany Darwin on this voyage of discovery. Darwin’s father Robert gave his financial backing for the project which would last a month.

Adam_Sedgwick geology tutor to charles darwin

Adam Sedgewick

Darwin started planning for the expedition by learning Spanish and making enquiries in London about the cost of sailing to the Canary islands.

Geology in North Wales July- August 1831

If he was to make the most of the expedition to the Canary Islands Darwin would need  to improve his knowledge of geology. Henslow introduced Darwin to Adam Sedgewick (1785-1873), Professor of Geology.

Talking to Professor Sedgwick made Darwin realize how much remained unknown about the geology of earth. Darwin reflected that,”all our knowledge about the structure of our earth is very much like what an old hen would know of the hundred acre field in a corner of which she was scratching.”

woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) in Britain Darwin accompanied Sedgwick on a geology expedition to North Wales where he learnt to identify specimens of rock and interpret different rcok strata.

In limestone caverns above the River Elwy Darwin and Sedgewick found rhino bones embedded in mud. Here was startling evidence of a lost fauna, from an age when rhinos wandered the Welsh countryside.

This chance discovery made a tremendous impression on Darwin. If such a find could be made in Wales, what discoveries could be unearthed in distant lands?

On Monday 29th August 1831 he returned to to his home in Shrewsbury to find a totally unexpected letter written to him by a Cambridge tutor George Peacock.

Peacock was passing on an invitation from his friend Captain Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) of the British Navy. Darwin was being offered the opportunity to sail on a voyage of discovery to South America- a trip that was planned to last five years!

His plans for a short expedition to the Canary Islands were now cancelled.

Further Reading

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