The town of Northampton celebrates a number of local heroes from sports, the arts, and even science. These includ the footballer Walter Tull, the co-discover of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick, author Alan Moore, and former resident thespian Errol Flynn. I could go on, but in honour of Darwin Day 2016 I thought I’d focus on the great naturalist.
Darwin had several personal associations with Northampton and Northamptonshire. He was a corresponding member of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society, which is now one of the oldest surviving societies of its kind. Darwin also corresponded with Walter Drawbridge Crick a Northampton shoe manufacturer and amateur naturalist who was grandfather of Francis.
Further afield in Northamptonshire, Darwin had a number of friends and correspondents, including the Reverend John Downes, vicar of Horton & Piddington. By coincidence, the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, lived in Northamptonshire for much of his early life.
A Darwin link to Northampton that’s not widely known about is the brief correspondence he engaged in with Charles Bradlaugh the radical reformer and MP for the town during the 1880s. Bradlaugh is a real local hero, with a very prominent statue in the town, and a pub, a local country park, and one of the university’s student residences named after the great man.
On 5th June 1877 Bradlaugh wrote to Darwin asking for his support in a court case by appearing as a witness for the defence: Bradlaugh and his colleague Annie Besant were charged with obscenity for writing that promoted contraception. Darwin replied the very next day and politely declined.
As far as I’m aware the texts of both letters have never been published in full, only snippets are available. An extract of Darwin’s letter is given in Charles Bradlaugh: a record of his Life and Work, written by his daughter:
“I have been for many years much out of health, and have been forced to give up all society or public meetings; and it would be great suffering to me to be a witness in Court. It is, indeed, not improbable that I may be unable to attend. Therefore, I hope that, if in your power, you will excuse my attendance…. If it is not asking too great a favour, I should be greatly obliged if you would inform me what you decide, as apprehension of the coming exertion would prevent the rest which I require doing me much good”.
At the Darwin Correspondence Project, Darwin’s response is summarised as follows and gives a very different flavour to his reaction:
“[Darwin] would prefer not to be a witness in court. In any case CD’s opinion is strongly opposed to that [of Bradlaugh and Besant]. [Darwin] believes artificial checks to the natural rate of human increase are very undesirable and that the use of artificial means to prevent conception would soon destroy chastity and, ultimately, the family.”
Bradlaugh’s letter has only a very brief summary and I’ve not seen any direct quotes (though perhaps I’ve missed them?)
The correspondence, its historical context, and the subsequent trial have been written about several times (see for example Peart and Levy 2005 and Peart and Levy 2008) and there’s some more recent commentary on Dan All0sso’s blog.
All of this gives a fascinating insight into Darwin as a socially conservative member of the English upper middle class, despite the radical implications of his ideas about evolution. Bradlaugh and Besant (both true radicals in all senses of the word) were found guilty, fined and sentenced to six months in prison, though following an appeal the conviction was later overturned due to a legal technicality.
Happy Darwin Day to my readers!