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Please Help Us Find Darwin's Missing Notebook

English Heritage is asking you to help us track down Charles Darwin's missing 'Galapagos' notebook which contains the scientist's on-the-spot observations and which would prove invaluable when he was later writing the groundbreaking On the Origin of Species, published 150 years ago today (24 November).

The notebook went missing – it was possibly stolen – around the early 1980s from the home of Charles Darwin, Down House in Kent, before the house came under the care of English Heritage.  

The appeal comes as English Heritage digitises and publishes online the remaining 14 Beagle notebooks as well as highlights from a 1969 microfilm of the missing notebook. These are the small field notebooks which Darwin used to jot down his day-to-day thoughts while travelling around the world on board HMS Beagle (1831-1836). From today, you will be able to read the notebooks – all 116,000 words and 300 sketches and doodles.

"The missing notebook is out there somewhere but it belongs at Down House, Darwin's own home and where he referred to it over many years, all the while developing his revolutionary theory," Simon Thurley, Chief Executive at English Heritage said. "We're delighted that people can now leaf through Darwin's notebooks online but there's a desperately sad gap on the Down House bookshelves and it's one that we hope will be filled." 

Charles Darwin's great-great grandson, Randal Keynes OBE, supports the English Heritage appeal. "Our family always felt that the best Darwin material should be at Down House so that the public could see it in his home. The Galapagos notebook is of outstanding value for the history of science. If Darwin had not posed the questions in that notebook, he might never have written On the Origin of Species. The notebook was almost certainly stolen around the 1980s. But I am hopeful that it is only a matter of time before it resurfaces and when it does, it must be returned to English Heritage and Down House."   

If you have any information concerning the notebook, please email darwinnotebook@english-heritage.org.uk

Darwin's field notebooks

At Down House, Darwin developed his theory of evolution, drawing on his observations in his field notebooksThese notebooks offer special glimpses into Darwin's mind. While out in the field, the scientist would scribble down his immediate – and often brilliant – thoughts on what most intrigued him. Darwin would later stress the importance of making notes in the field: "Let the collector's motto be, 'Trust nothing to memory,' for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting."

The field notebooks contain a mixture of geological, zoological and personal observations. Their contents were described by Darwin's granddaughter as "the skeleton structure for his memory to work on". They include: notes on the fossils he had excavated; mention of a lucky escape from a dangerous snow-storm; an attack by giant black bedbugs in Argentina; an observation that the ladies of Buenos Aires were thought to be the most beautiful in the world; his discovery of a new frog off Chile; and his accurate prediction that the Falkland fox would soon be extinct. 

The notebooks and Down House

Darwin returned to England in October 1836 and began to establish his reputation in the scientific world, helped by the specimens he had collected and the observations recorded in his diaries and notebooks. He moved to Down House in 1842 and would remain there until his death in 1882. It was at Down that he developed his landmark theory of evolution by natural selection and wrote On the Origin of Species (published by John Murray in 1859). 

After his death, his wife Emma, together with the children and grandchildren, moved to Cambridge. In 1929 Down House was opened to the public as a museum and the family donated many pictures and other possessions. The 'Darwin Museum' was maintained by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and then by the Royal College of Surgeons for nearly 60 years. In 1992, responsibility for Down House passed to the Natural History Museum and in 1996 English Heritage bought Down House and its contents on behalf of the nation, with generous support from the Wellcome Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The missing Galapagos notebook

The 15 notebooks from the Beagle voyage as well as others were returned by the family to Down House in 1942 and a guidebook from 1959 describes the notebooks as on display in Darwin's study. Microfilms of all his notebooks including the missing Galapagos notebook – formerly catalogued as 1.17 – were made in 1969. A visiting academic confirmed its presence at Down House in 1976. Cambridge University Library made colour microfilms of the Beagle notebooks sometime after 1977. An index card from the filming notes: "1.17 not available at Down House".

These notebooks offer special glimpses into Darwin's mind.The first alarm bells as to the whereabouts of the Galapagos notebook sounded in the early 1980s when Professor Richard Keynes, great grandson of Charles Darwin and himself a leading scientist, visited Down House and noticed it was missing. He expressed his concern about security at Down House and it was later observed that the notebooks had been kept on one of the tables in Darwin's study, within easy reach of visitors. English Heritage has since registered the missing notebook with The Art Loss Register. 

Darwin used different types of notebooks and the missing Galapagos notebook is small, almost square, and bound in leather with a brass clasp. It is labelled on the outside with a rough itinerary in Darwin's handwriting, marked "Galapagos. Otaheite. Lima." It contains entries he made between March and November 1835 when he was in Chile, Peru, the Galapagos and Tahiti. Inside the front cover is written: "63.5 C. Darwin H.M. Beagle". About a third of the notes were written from the front with the rest starting again from the back of the book. Darwin usually crossed out each page when he had written up the contents, either in his diary or in one of his more formal notebooks. All the Beagle notebooks are mostly written in pencil.

Why is the Galapagos notebook so important?

The Galapagos notebook records Darwin's first encounter with the two creatures that would provide him with the first clue for his theory of evolution. "Met an immense Turpin; took little notice of me," the 26 year-old Charles Darwin briefly jotted in his notebook. He was later told that it was possible to tell from which of the Galapagos islands a tortoise came by the variation of its shell. Darwin continued to scribble what would prove crucial notes: "The Thenca very tame & curious in these Islds. I certainly recognise S. America in ornithology, would a botanist?" Thenca was the Spanish name for the Chilean mockingbird. Darwin saw the similarity between the mainland bird and the Galapagos mockingbirds, but he also noticed the differences between his specimens from different islands.  Years later, in On the Origin of Species, Darwin would answer that hastily-jotted question with his theory that species were not fixed for all time, but were continuously evolving:

"The relations just discussed … including the very close relation of the distinct species which inhabit the islets of the same archipelago, and especially the striking relation of the inhabitants of each whole archipelago or island to those of the nearest mainland, are, I think, utterly inexplicable on the ordinary view of the independent creation of each species, but are explicable on the view of colonisation from the nearest and readiest source, together with the subsequent modification and better adaptation of the colonists to their new homes."

Down House today

Down House in Kent was home to Charles Darwin for 40 years. The ground floor rooms have been re-created as they appeared when he lived here with his wife and their nine children. They include the study where Darwin wrote his books – it still displays his chair, desk and many personal items. The family's drawing room, billiard room and dining room are also on show, likewise mainly furnished with the original furniture and pictures. The extensive gardens – Darwin's "outdoor laboratory" – are also available to visit.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the scientist's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, English Heritage has created a new exhibition on the first floor of the house. It covers Darwin's life, his scientific work, and the controversy which it provoked. The exhibition includes many previously unseen objects, with highlights including manuscript pages for On the Origin of Species and a rotating display of the Beagle notebooks.

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