Archives shed light on Darwin’s student days

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Some recently uncovered archives shed light on Darwin’s student days at Cambridge — particularly for those with a dim understanding of economic history:

Six leather-bound ledgers unearthed in the university archives reveal how he lived in the most expensive rooms available to a student of his rank from 1828 to 1831.

He hired a battery of staff to help him with the daily chores, including a scullion (dishwasher), a laundress and a shoeblack (someone who cleans shoes).

A tailor, hatter and barber made sure he was well presented, while a chimney sweep and a coalman kept his fire going. He even paid five and a half pence extra each day to have vegetables with the basic ration of meat and beer at Christ’s College.

Peter Griffiths breathlessly calls this “the sort of pampered university life that today’s debt-laden British students can only dream about” — which is really missing the point. Today’s debt-laden students wouldn’t even be going to school under 19th-century conditions, because no one would have lent them to money.

Darwin’s father paid £636 — 636 actual (troy) pounds of silver — to Cambridge over the three years his son spent there, so that his son could live materially almost as well off as a modern debt-laden student, who has technology to take the place of servants.

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