A Cambridge love story: Ida & Horace Darwin

The Darwin Correspondence Project has just released online for the first time Charles Darwin’s letters from 1880: read more here. This is a post about his son Horace’s first year of marriage to Ida Darwin, and how moving to Cambridge in 1880 gave them both unexpected new opportunities.

Ida Farrer married Horace Darwin in London on 3 January 1880. After a chilly honeymoon touring Cornwall, they were both glad to move into their first home in Cambridge later that month. Horace had rented a house on St Botolph’s Lane, a narrow road running alongside the church wall near King’s Parade. He had wanted to find them a larger house with a garden, but there were only four such houses to let in Cambridge, he was told. More colleges were now allowing their fellows to marry, and accommodation suitable for families was scarce.

The start of February 1880 was busy with unpacking furniture and hanging pictures, but Ida was keen for Horace to get back to his work. ‘Father’s klinostat has been so much on Ida’s mind, that I knew I should have no peace until it was done’,[i] Horace told his mother Emma. He had promised his father, Charles and brother Francis – who collaborated on their father’s botanical projects – to design a special instrument to measure the gravitational pull of climbing plants two years previously.[ii] Horace had put off the project, blaming his poor health and feelings of ‘slackness’. But, encouraged by Ida, he had taken out subscriptions to the scientific journals Engineering and Nature to try to keep up with new developments, and he completed the klinostat in time for his father and brother to use it.

Cambridge in 1880 was the right place and time for Horace to develop his skills as a mechanical designer. He was already designing a pendulum with his mathematician brother George, a fellow at Trinity College, and designing a self-recording thermograph for the Meteorological Office. Well-made measuring instruments were badly needed in the UK, as scientific work was increasingly taking place not in a gentleman scientist’s home – where Charles Darwin had always conducted his experiments – but in the rigorous atmosphere of the laboratory, where results could be properly tested. Apart from in London and Birmingham, there were few skilled instrument makers to cater for the growing needs of the university laboratories.

As a newly married couple there was also, inevitably, much socializing to do and introductions to be made. Ida was amused to see how uncomfortable her husband’s Trinity College friends clearly were about having a woman in their midst. She wondered ‘in the most heartless way’[iii] who was most frightened by such introductions, and concluded that it was probably Horace. She knew that one of his closest friends, Albert Dew-Smith had been downright hostile to the idea of his marriage.  ‘I can understand her wanting to be with you’, he told Horace when he heard of his engagement, but ‘I don’t see why you want to see her.’[iv]  

When a Cambridge man married, it was believed that his allegiance to his college and to his friends changed forever. Dew-Smith, known to his friends as ‘Dew’, was an amateur photographer and lens-maker and had helped to fund Cambridge University’s new Department of Physiology with his inheritance. He had an urbane, sardonic personality, and Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have modelled the character of Attwater in Ebb Tide on him. Horace had often stayed with him in his rooms in Bishops Hostel adjoining Trinity College, dining together at High Table and sitting up late, smoking and drinking. Since 1878 Horace had assisted Dew-Smith in making scientific instruments in his workshop above a carriage shed in Panton Street, where he shared a business with the mechanic Robert Fulcher.

Ida had her own projects to pursue. Marrying Horace and moving to Cambridge in 1880 had given her a sense of her own independence, far away from family duties and expectations. Two years previously she had wanted to follow her brother to Oxford and to study Classics at the newly founded college for women, Somerville. But her father Thomas Farrer simply would not permit it. Now, as a married woman, she could attend a wide variety of university lectures and meet men and women who were as passionate about learning as she was.

It was a passport to another country. Ida took Greek lessons with Francis Jenkinson, a fellow of Trinity College who tutored women students at Newnham College, and was introduced to Anne Clough, the principal, and Helen Gladstone, by then in her third year of studies there. The Liberal Party swept into power in April 1880 and Helen’s father William Gladstone was elected Prime Minister for the second time. Although he was, like Ida’s father, opposed to the idea of women in higher education, Gladstone was proud of his daughter’s achievements in Cambridge and approved of her becoming the college’s Vice-Principal later that year.

Ida’s friendships at Newnham led to her campaigning actively on women students’ behalf, including being able to sit for the university’s final exams as a right, not a privilege (see my 1881 blog here). Horace supported Ida in this, as did many like-minded dons such as Richard Claverhouse Jebb, and there was a remarkable spirit of optimism in the air for women at Cambridge in the early 1880s.

In August 1880 Charles and Emma Darwin travelled to Cambridge to visit Ida and Horace. They stayed at 17 Botolph Lane, and met both Dew-Smith and Helen Gladstone. Despite Ida’s worries that Dew-Smith would not approve of her, they all got on famously well. ‘Our recent visit to Cambridge was a brilliant success to us all, & will ever be remembered by me with much pleasure.’ Charles Darwin told Frank Balfour.[v]

By the autumn of 1880 Ida and Horace had moved into a larger house at 66 Hills Road, and Francis Darwin went to visit them. He reported back to his father about Horace’s ambitious plans. ‘Fulcher has come round to going in a peaceable manner & remains friends with Dew,’ Francis wrote. ‘H[orace] looks on it as certain that he shall join Dew but it is still a state secret’. Dew-Smith had bought out Fulcher and persuaded Horace to join him as a partner in a new instrument-making business.[vi] Horace was convinced that he wanted to earn his own living independently from the generous allowance Charles Darwin gave him, but consulted Ida closely before making his decision. The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company was officially launched on the first anniversary of their marriage, in January 1881.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 2022, all rights reserved



[i] Cambridge University Library, Ida Darwin Papers, Add. 9368.1: 3828, 1 Feb 1880, Horace to Emma Darwin. The klinostat developed by Horace Darwin is described in detail in Francis Darwin’s Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1880) pp. 449–55.

[ii] Charles Darwin’s book (assisted by Francis Darwin) Movement in plants: The power of movement in plants was published in November 1880. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11613,” accessed on 14 February 2022, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-11613.xml. See also Anne Secord, ‘Specimens of observation: Edward Hobson’s Musci Britannici’ in The Whipple Museum of the History of Science (CUP, 2019) eds. Joshua Nall, Lisa Taub & Frances Willmoth, pp. 101-118.

[iii] CUL, Ida Darwin Papers, Add. 9368.1: 3828, 1 Feb 1880, Horace to Emma Darwin.

[iv] CUL, Ida Darwin Papers, Add. 9368.1: 3889, November 1879, Horace to Ida.

[v] Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12706,” accessed on 14 February 2022, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-12706.xml

[vi] For more about Dew-Smith and Horace Darwin’s collaboration, see Cattermole, Michael J. G. and Wolfe, Arthur F. 1987. Horace Darwin’s shop: a history of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company 1878 to 1968. Bristol and Boston: Adam Hilger

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