Kindly written and supplied by John Murray VII November 2009
150th Anniversary Celebration of the Publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by John Murray VII at 50 Albemarle Street, November 24th 2009.
This year 2009, has seen the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. It was therefore a momentous year for the scientific world and particularly for Darwin whose theory of evolution has never been discredited and has stood the test of time.
In the past, the publishing house of John Murray has more often been linked to Byron than to Darwin. However 2009 saw the relationship of Darwin and his publisher John Murray III become central to the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the launch of The Origin of Species from 50 Albemarle Street.
This anniversary gave me an exciting opportunity to settle down and study Darwin’s own writing. What was remarkable was that Thomas Malthus and Sir Charles Lyell both of whom had enormous influence on Darwin’s thinking were also John Murray authors.
The Beagle voyage provided for Darwin many of the ideas that later developed into his theory of evolution and Murray published the second edition of his journal of the trip. Reading The Voyage of the Beagle and more particularly Darwin’s letters to all the great scientific minds of the day was revealing. Lyell, Hooker, Henslow, Huxley and Sedgwick made up his circle of friends offering Darwin advice and encouraging him to publish his theories. For me though, the most interesting discovery was the crucial part my ancestor John Murray III played in the months running up to the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin had written a tentative letter to John Murray offering his manuscript and outlining the chapters and their contents having made it clear through Charles Lyell that there was no discussion of the origin of man and no questioning of Genesis in the book. Murray had replied immediately that he was willing to publish without even reading the manuscript and laid out the terms which Darwin immediately accepted. Darwin was wracked with indecision and doubt over the project and most concerned that Murray should not loose money if the book failed to sell. Although Murray disagreed with many of Darwin’s views, he had the courage and the vision to see that this was a ground-breaking book and stood by Darwin during the publication process allowing him almost to re-write it in proof bringing about an enormous correction bill for which Murray was happy to pay. To Darwin’s amazement, the book sold out in three days and he immediately began work on corrections and changes for the second edition.
Plans to celebrate this landmark event began in 2008 when Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great great grandson, my wife Virginia and I got together to work out the shape the event should take. We decided we should have a special reception in the historic rooms in Albemarle Street from where the book was published on 24th November 1859. From the John Murray Archive now housed at the National Library of Scotland we borrowed Darwin’s letters to John Murray and John Murray’s replies that detailed the events leading up to publication together with John Murray III’s file copy of the first edition of the Origin of Species. Randal very kindly offered to lend a sheet of the original manuscript, of which only 43 are extant. Randal then came up with the brilliant suggestion that we should ask John Ross to bring to 50 Albemarle Street six live fancy pigeons of the breeds that Darwin refers to in the first chapter of the Origin. John took to this idea with enthusiasm and although it was to be no easy task gathering the individual birds from breeders across the UK, he succeeded brilliantly. On the day, the birds were a sensation. It turned out that several eminent Darwin scholars who had written about Darwin’s pigeons had never actually seen them and the birds captivated them. These six breeds had not been brought together into one place since Darwin’s time. John Ross was much in demand explaining the various breeds to guests, the press, the Open University and Radio 4. A short film which included the pigeons appeared on the OU website and Radio 4’s Leading Edge devoted its entire programme to the Darwin event. The British Council also covered the event for its overseas branches.
The guests included friends from the Natural History Museum, the Linnean Society, Down House, the Royal Institution, the Chelsea Physic Garden, UNESCO, the New Scientist, Imperial College, the Welcome Institute, the National Library of Scotland, the Beagle Project, Cambridge University Library, the British Council, the Open University, members of the Darwin and Keynes family, and members of the Murray family. Short speeches were made by John Murray VII, Randal Keynes and Professor Jim Secord of Cambridge University on the significance of Darwin and the Origin in today’s world before glasses were raised to toast Charles Darwin and his publisher John Murray. The day of celebration was a memorable event and will not be repeated for another 50 years.
John Murray VII