As extinction events go, the dating of this one is pretty precise: the Bank of England’s Charles Darwin £10 note will cease to be legal tender at 23:59 GMT tonight (1st March 2018).
The notes had a great run: formally announced on 17 May 2000, and issued on 7 November the same year, the Darwin tenner graced many a purse, wallet, and back pocket for almost 18 years. But Darwin would be the first to point out that everything is bound to go extinct in the end. The Darwin bank note has now been replaced by an austentatious plastic monstrosity. Which just goes to show not all evolutionary change is progress. Still, life goes on…
From a personal point of view, the timing of the demise of the Darwin tenner is spectacularly unfortunate, falling as it does precisely one minute before the Friends of Charles Darwin’s 24th birthday. My friend Fitz and I founded the Friends in the Red Lion pub, Parkgate, Wirral on 2nd March 1994, when we wrote to the Bank of England to point out a certain ‘glaring omission’ from their bank notes. Thus began our campaign to see Darwin depicted on a Bank of England note.
In all honesty, I can’t with any real conviction claim we were instrumental in getting Darwin portrayed on the tenner, but I like to think we helped. And we certainly celebrated like hell when the Bank of England finally saw the light:
Time moves on at an alarming pace. Is it really 18 years since Fitz and I partied like it was 1999? I am considerably thinner on top and more grey-haired than I was back then, and poor old Fitz is considerably less alive. After he died in 2014, I took steps to ensure he was buried with a crisp Darwin tenner, just in case the ferryman demanded a fare. I miss the daft, old bugger.
Considering the Friends of Charles Darwin were created with the sole aim of seeing our hero celebrated on a bank note, and considering we got precisely what we wanted almost 18 years ago, it could be argued we’ve long outlived our purpose. But, what the hell, there are plenty more self-confessed Darwin groupies out there, so I might as well keep this thing going a while longer. So, if Charlie is your Darwin, and you haven't done so already, please feel free to join us.
Oh, and I’m thinking of starting a newsletter, so please sign up—even if you're already a member (after 24 years, our existing mailing list is very old, and completely out of date, so I thought I should start it afresh).
I was still working on my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk at the time. John Tyndall features prominently in two chapters, so I felt compelled to buy the book. (Well, that was my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.) Perhaps more intriguing than the book itself was the dramatic, hand-written inscription on the title page:
Transcript:Received at [the?] Temple Chambers on Friday 15th January 1892 (on a bed of sickness that has been well nigh unto death)
I concluded the inevitable blog post about my find with the confident prediction, ‘I guess I'll never know the story behind these words—which is one of the appeals of such enigmatic inscriptions.’
But, hang on! Not so fast, Richard…
Four years and three days after coming across the enigmatic inscription, I happened to end up in a Twitter exchange with none other than the ghost of John Tyndall. (Twitter is weird like that.) I took the opportunity to draw his attention to my find:
I think I may know the story behind those words...will get back to you later tomorrow.
True to his word, the ghost of John Tyndall did indeed get back to me the next day, in the guise of his amanuensis and biographer, Roland Jackson, who wrote:
[T]here’s an outside chance that your book is inscribed by [the mathematician] Thomas [Archer] Hirst. 15 January was publication day and he might have risen from his sickbed to get a copy. He died on 16 February. Tyndall at the time was confined to Hindhead, and the writing isn’t his wife’s (who might have gone to get it but I think there’s no mention in the diary) or his I think.
I attach the only really contemporary letter of Hirst’s we have. His writing seems to have changed quite a bit as he got more and more ill. There are resemblances but I’m not sure strong enough to be definitive. See what you think, making allowances for a sick man scrawling it on his bed.
Here is the attached letter from Hirst:
4 Jany 1892
My dear John
I have just ordered your dozen of Whisky It ought to reach you tomorrow, or next day, I trust you will continue to like it, at your midday repast.
What do you think of Sir W. Thomson’s new Peerage? People here are wondering what title he will select to bear.
As to your possible change from Hind Head; Spencer has just been saying that he found perfect quiet at Bournemouth. This is worth knowing; for he is almost as sensitive as you are, with respect to quietude at night.
Every yours affectionately | Tom
A letter concerning whisky, containing gossip about the future Lord Kelvin, and with word from (presumably) Herbert Spencer: right up my street!
I'm no handwriting expert, but, as Roland Jackson suggested, I compared my book inscription with the Hirst letter and noticed a number of similarities, namely:
the year 1892, which appears in both samples, looks very similar (especially, the elongated, lowered numeral 9, and the curly flourish at the top of the numeral 2);
the lower-case ‘m’ in the word ‘midday’, and the (presumably) upper-case ‘M’ in ‘My’ in the letter both have very distinctive curly opening finials. These closely resemble the curly opening finial on the letter ‘n’ in the word ‘nigh’ in the book inscription;
(less convincingly) the upper-case ‘T’s in ‘Thomson’ and ‘Tom’ in the letter are similar in style to the upper-case ‘T’ in ‘Temple’ in the book inscription.
Two other factors to consider:
Thomas Archer Hirst kept an extensive scientific-diary-cum-everyday-book for 47 years. Although the diary does not mention receiving Tyndall's New Fragments, its final entry was dated 18th January 1892—just three days after the date of the book inscription. This would tie in very well with Hirst's being ‘well nigh unto death’. (He died as a result of a major influenza epidemic less than a month later, at his home in Marylebone, London, on 16 February 1892.)
Whoever wrote the inscription in my book was sufficiently interested in the writing of John Tyndall to take delivery of his latest book from their sickbed on the very day it was published. Hirst, being a very close friend of Tyndall, and a voracious science-reader would seem to fit that bill very nicely.
Do I think this conclusively proves my morbid book inscription was indeed written by Tyndall's dear friend Thomas Archer Hirst? No I don't. But do I strongly suspect it was? You betcha!
I couldn't let the opportunity occasioned by writing about Thomas Archer Hirst and John Tyndall go by without relating a couple of personally interesting co-incidences about their friendship.
While I was researching Tyndall for my book, I learnt that he and Hirst first became friends as young men while surveying a proposed railway line between Halifax and Keighley, West Yorkshire. Those towns both lie just 20 minutes' drive from my home. More pleasing, however, was it to discover that the man they both worked for was my namesake, the land agent and surveyor Richard Carter.
Read more about John Tyndall (and Charles Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, Sir Thomas Browne, Celtic languages, evolution's kludgy compromises, wheatears, triangulation, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, grouse disease, defining species, DNA barcoding, the Laws of Thermodynamics, the Brontës, snipe courtship, skeletons, rooks, the Greenhouse Effect, blue skies, the songs of skylarks, contrails, and much more) in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk.
158 years ago today saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.
What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…
On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:
Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
Bronze Age burials;
evolution’s kludgy compromises;
where Earth got its water;
the mapping of Great Britain;
Scott of the Antarctic;
how to define a species;
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
the Laws of Thermodynamics;
why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
the Greenhouse Effect;
the songs of skylarks;
the best way to cook a wheatear.
…Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!
I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.
But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:
Richard Carter's fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.
Well, exactly, Neil! (The cheque’s in the post.)
…Are you still here? What are you waiting for? GO AND BUY MY BOOK, DAMMIT!