28 June 2019

Two Sidney Street plaques
are reminders of Charles
Darwin’s days in Cambridge

A plaque at Boots in Cambridge recalls Charles Darwin lived in rooms on Sidney Street in 1828 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Cambridge this week, I noticed for the first time two plaques – one a blue plaque – at Boots in Sidney Street announcing that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) ‘lived in a house on this site’ in 1828.

Darwin once said, ‘Upon the whole, the three years which I spent at Cambridge were the most joyful in my life.’ I had always thought he spent those three years in rooms in Christ’s College, and knew he had later rented rooms on Fitzwilliam Street after returning to Cambridge from the Beagle. But I had never realised that he once stayed in rooms above a tobacconist’s shop on Sidney Street.

It has long been debated why Charles Darwin came to Christ’s College, Cambridge. His grandfather, Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) of Lichfield, went to Saint John’s College, and Charles Darwin’s school, Shrewsbury School, also had connections with Saint John’s.

Darwin’s cousin, Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891), later a philologist and barrister, also went to Saint John’s College in 1821. However, at the time it had a reputation for strict discipline. Wedgwood moved to Christ’s after only one term. He took his BA in 1824 and was elected a Finch and Baines Fellow of Christ’s in February 1829, a position he held until October 1830.

I suppose it is not surprising then that his cousin, Charles Darwin’s brother, Erasmus Darwin, joined Christ’s College on 9 February 1822. He received his MB in 1828. Darwin’s second cousin, William Darwin Fox (1813-1881), later a clergyman and naturalist, came up in 1824.

So, Charles Darwin was following his cousins and brother to Christ’s. In those days, it was known as a quiet and relaxed college, neither academically rigorous nor religiously strict.

Charles Darwin’s name was entered in the admissions books at Christ’s College on 15 October 1827 as a candidate for an ordinary BA degree. As Darwin had forgotten much of his school Greek, he was tutored before coming up to Cambridge in the Lent Term of 1828.

Darwin’s rooms on Sidney Street provided a a glimpse of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s great gatehouse at Christ’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Darwin arrived in Cambridge on Saturday 26 January 1828, at the age of 18. His brother Erasmus returned two weeks later on 8 February. As the academic year began the previous October, all the college rooms were already full, and so Charles found lodgings in rooms above the shop of William Bacon, a tobacconist, in Sidney Street.

Sidney Street was then a narrow street, and he was just a minute or two in walking distance from Christ’s College. The view from his window probably gave him a glimpse of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s great gatehouse, which I was writing about yesterday.

His lodgings above a tobacconist’s shop led to some teasing. One friend, Albert Way (1805-1874) of Trinity College, drew a mock coat of arms for Darwin in April that included crossed tobacco pipes, meerschaum pipes, cigars, a wine barrel and beer tankards.

That summer, Darwin went home to Shrewsbury. When he returned to Cambridge for the Michaelmas Term on 31 October 1828, he found a room was now available in Christ’s College and the Tutor assigned him to a comfortable set on the south side of First Court.

On All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1828, he moved into a set of rooms, as he later recalled, ‘in old court, middle stair-case, on right-hand on going into court, up one flight, right-hand door & capital rooms they were.’

There is a tradition that these were once the rooms of the natural theologian William Paley (1743-1805), although there is no evidence to substantiate this story. At the time, college staircases were not named with letters as they are today, but Darwin’s rooms are now known as G4.

Darwin had a panelled main sitting room with an adjoining dressing room and bedroom. His three windows on the north side overlooked First Court, with the Chapel directly across from him, the Master’s Lodge to its right and closer still the Hall. Darwin’s south facing windows overlooked what was formerly called Bath Court and is today the site of the new undergraduate library.

He decorated his room with 18th century engravings of master paintings, and loved spending time listening to the choir in the Chapel at nearby King’s College.

Darwin spent time listening to the choir in the Chapel at King’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Darwin later recalled: ‘During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned.’ But he graduated in the Easter Term of 1831.

In December 1831, he left England with Captain Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865) on the voyage of HMS Beagle.

When he returned from the five-year voyage in October 1836, Darwin visited his family home in Shrewsbury and then returned to Cambridge and took lodgings at 22 Fitzwilliam Street, near the site where the Fitzwilliam Museum would open in 1848, and where he organised his specimen collection from the voyage. He dined often in Christ’s College, and I was once shown where his name occurs frequently in the Combination Room wine book.

For the rest of his life, he had a strong affection for Christ’s College, and he sent his eldest son, William, there in the 1860s. In his Autobiography in 1876 he recalled, ‘Upon the whole, the three years I spent at Cambridge as the most joyful of my happy life; for I was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits.’

Darwin was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D) from the University of Cambridge on 17 November 1877. It was a somewhat raucous event in the Senate House, at which a stuffed monkey was dangled above Darwin’s head by undergraduate pranksters.

Christ’s College regretted that new statutes were not approved in Parliament in time to confer on him the only honour it could, that of an honorary Fellowship. He died in London on 19 April 1882 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Darwin’s rooms in Christ’s College were made into an exhibition space. The Cambridge University Library holds many of his documents, including letters, and Cambridge University Press has published much about Darwin, including the correspondence series.

The site of Bacon’s tobacconist shop in Sidney Street is now occupied by Boots the chemist. A blue plaque under the first floor windows commemorates Darwin’s stay there: ‘Charles Darwin lived in a house on this site 1828.’

Lower down, at ground floor level, a slate plaque on a pillar facing the street reads, ‘Charles Darwin 1808-1882 kept in lodgings on this site in 1828 while an undergraduate of Christs [sic] College.’

Darwin’s days on Sidney Street are recalled on two plaques at Boots (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

An afternoon rummaging
in some of my favourite
bookshops in Cambridge

The Cambridge University Press Bookshop on the corner of Trinity Street and Market Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Cambridge has a wonderful array and choice of bookshops, and so, after this week’s USPG conference at High Leigh in Hoddesdon, I found I had the best part of an afternoon to spend rummaging and browsing in some of my favourite bookshops.

Cambridge is just half an hour by train from Broxbourne, the station nearest to High Leigh, and there are trains every half an hour or so. As you might expect for a university city, Cambridge has a wide variety of bookshops in Cambridge, some of them unique.

A favourite bookshop for many was Galloway and Porter at 30 Sidney Street, beside Sidney Sussex College. But, sadly, the shop closed in 2010. The Angel Bookshop was another bookshop in Ben’e’t Street, just off King’s Parade, but closed in 2015 and is still much-missed independent. More recently, John Smith closed its bookshop in Cambridge at the end of last month [31 May 2019]. But Cambridge still has an enthralling array of bookshops.

The Cambridge University Press Bookshop looks out onto the Senate House, Gonville and Caius College and Great Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This week, I was oblivious to the passing time on a summer afternoon while I was browsing in the religious studies section on the first floor of the Cambridge University Press Bookshop is at No 1 Trinity Street, on the corner with Market Hill. On one side I was looking out onto the Senate House and Gonville and Caius College on one side, and on the other at Great Saint Mary’s Church. This shop claims to be the oldest bookshop site in Britain, selling books from the oldest publisher in the world.

Cambridge University Press opened its bookshop here in 1992, but the shop itself has been around for a great deal longer, selling books all the while – since 1581, in fact, when it was run by William Scarlett. Some sources claim there was a bookshop on the site from 1505, but it can certainly claim to be the oldest known bookshop in Britain.

The Cambridge University Press originated from Letters Patent to the University from Henry VIII in 1534. CUP printed its first book in 1584 and has been producing books ever since. The first University printer, Thomas Thomas (1553-1588), was based from 1583 just across the street on what was Regent Walk – not to be confused with Street, but on what is now the Senate House Lawn. At one time, this area was the book-selling centre of the town.

Meanwhile, the bookshop at No 1 Trinity Street passed from hand to hand over the centuries, until Thomas Stevenson died. It was then bought in 1846 by the Scottish publisher Daniel Macmillan (1813-1857), grandfather of the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and his brother Alexander Macmillan (1818-1896).

It was here that Tennyson gave a reading of his poem Maud, that Thackeray had lunch with the founders of the Macmillan publishing empire, and that Charles Kingsley was welcomed as a frequent guest.

The Macmillans employed their nephew Robert Bowes as an apprentice. He later became a partner and eventually took over the business.

During a vote on the right of women to received the BA degree at Cambridge in 1897, protesting students took over Macmillan and Bowes and displayed an effigy of a woman on a bicycle from a first floor window. The university rejected the application to admit women that year, although they were finally admitted in 1948.

A plaque on the Trinity Street side summarises the story of the bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The shop became Bowes & Bowes in 1907, was renamed Sherratt & Hughes in 1986, and became the Cambridge University Press Bookshop 25 years ago on 30 April 1992.

The bookshop is still thriving today. It does not stock fiction or poetry, but specialises in academic texts on literary theory, philosophy and more. There are around 50,000 different titles on the shelves and access to a substantial backlist of print on demand editions, delivering books that are often hard-to-find to people who need them around the world.

The shop expanded around the corner in 2008 into No 27 Market Hill, where it opened its specialist Education and English Language Teaching shop the following year. Recently, the shop has been transformed with touch screens placing its catalogue of books and teaching materials at the fingertips of buyers and browsers.

A few steps away at No 30 Trinity Street, opposite Trinity College, Heffers Bookshop has been called ‘the most knowledgeable bookshop in Cambridge.’ William Heffer, reportedly the son of illiterate agricultural workers, was born in a village 15 miles from Cambridge.

An invitation to Britain’s oldest bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Heffers first opened its doors in Cambridge at 104 Fitzroy Street in 1876. Initially it was a stationery shop, but books were soon added. Heffers moved to Petty Cury and was there until 1970, when the shop moved to the present premises at Trinity Street, opposite Trinity College. Although Heffers became part of the Blackwell’s academic chain in 1999, it remains an institution in Cambridge.

The shop’s departments range from children’s books to crime fiction, and there is an array of fiction and non-fiction titles, as well as music and stationery and the probably the best range of board games in Britain. It opened its dedicated children’s department in 2010 in a bright space that is filled with thousands of books.

The shop also has a year-round events programme, featuring both well-known and debut authors, children’s activities and games nights.

I also called into Waterstones at 22 Sidney Street, close to Sidney Sussex College. Although it is part of large chain, the shop always has many books of Cambridge interest. Across four floors, there are books from all over the world that give this a more academic atmosphere than most chain bookshop.

Oliver Soskice, a Cambridge painter and the husband of Janet Soskice – a fellow of Jesus College and Professor of Philosophical Theology in Cambridge – found himself trapped upstairs in Waterstones in Cambridge two years ago [13 February 2017].

Staff closed up that evening while he was still inside, and he was alone inside for almost an hour and a half before a manager came to his rescue – which just goes to show how easy it is to get lost in a book and in a bookshop in Cambridge.

G David is in a quiet corner in Saint Edward’s Passage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

My favourite independent, second-hand and antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge is G David in a quiet corner at 16 Saint Edward’s Passage, beside the Church of Saint Edward King and Martyr.

This independent bookshop sells antique, second-hand, remaindered books, maps and prints dating back to the late 1800s. It was founded by Gustave David in 1896, and has been run by his family across three centuries.

The Haunted Bookshop is also in Saint Edward’s Passage. The names Sarah Kay and Phil Salin are above the door, but it is known as the Haunted Bookshop because of stories about a resident ghost.

However, the main attraction is the treasure trove of books, stacked on the ground floor and on the footpath outside in huge piles.

Cambridge has so many book lovers that it is no surprise that the charity bookshops are well-stocked. They include the Amnesty Bookshop at 4 Mill Road and the Oxfam Bookshop at 28 Sidney Street, near Sidney Sussex, Magdalene and Saint John’s.

Over the years, I have found many treasures in the Oxfam Bookshop. This is a bookshop with a difference, well-stocked with rare and unusual books, maps, children’s books, vinyl, art and philosophy, books in Greek and Latin, sheet music, fiction and non-fiction. fiction.

Graduands from King’s College line up outside the Cambridge University Press Bookshop this week to enter the Senate House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)