JOHN MURRAY and Darwin kindly written and supplied by John R Murray
In 1768, the first John Murray arrived in London from Edinburgh and, with borrowed money, bought a small bookselling and publishing business in Fleet Street. He built up and expanded the business and by the time he died in 1793, he was recognized as an important member of the London book trade. His son, John Murray II was a shrewd and ambitious businessman, who set out to attract some big names to his stable of authors. These included politicians, critics, scientists, explorers, novelists and poets. Walter Scott, Jane Austen and most famously Lord Byron were among them. In 1812 he published Byron’s Childe Harold and, following this astonishing success, Murray moved the business to 50 Albemarle Street in fashionable Mayfair, which still belongs to the Murrays today. At the time of John Murray II,s death in 1843, the publishing house of John Murray was regarded as one of the most important in the UK.
John Murray III who took over from his father, had always been interested in the sciences and natural history. As a young man in 1827, he had studied geology at Edinburgh University, where he may have encountered Charles Darwin who was a fellow student. He then travelled extensively on the Continent, making notes and gathering information about everything he saw. On his return to London he distilled these notes into a guidebook which he called Handbook for Travellers on the Continent. This was an immediate success and prompted him with his team of authors to compile Handbooks for all the counties of the UK, the countries of Europe, the Middle East, Russia, India, Japan and even New Zealand. John Murray also built up a reputation for publishing books by travellers and explorers which led to publishing such bestsellers as David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels in 1857, Paul Du Chaillu’s Exploration and Adventures in Equitorial Africa in 1861 and H.W. Bates’ The Naturalist in the Amazon in 1863.
In 1845 John Murray approached Darwin with a plan to re-issue his Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle which some years earlier had been unsuccessfully published by the publisher Colburn. Darwin agreed and revised and added to the narrative and Murray published it in his inexpensive Home and Colonial Library series. It was widely read and achieved the success Darwin felt it deserved. This 2nd edition of the Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle is regarded as the best edition of Darwin’s first published work.
It was another fourteen years before Darwin, following Charles Lyell’s suggestion, approached Murray with his next manuscript. Lyell, whose Principles of Geology had been published by Murray in 1830, encouraged Darwin to send him a list of chapter headings and accept his offer for the book of two-thirds of the profits which Darwin thought ‘handsome’. Murray may only have given the manuscript a cursory glance before sending it to be read by his two outside readers. The first was George Pollock, a lawyer, who reported cautiously that the book was ‘beyond the apprehension of any living scientist’. His second reader was the Rev. Whitwell Elwin, a clergyman from Norfolk. He was appalled by what he read and in a letter to Murray poured out his pain and hostility to Darwin’s theories, advising Murray not to publish this controversial work. He described it as ‘wild and foolish’ and instead suggested that Darwin should write a book on pigeons. ‘Everybody is interested in pigeons. The book would be received in every journal in the kingdom and would soon be on every table. The public at large can better understand a question when it is arrowed to a single case of this kind than when the whole varied kingdom of nature is brought under discussion at the outset’.
On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, as the book was called, was published on 24th November 1859. Murray sold out his entire 1,250 print-run within days of publication. It went on to be revised and re-issued in many new editions, was translated into many languages and by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882 had sold an enormous number of copies. John Murray went on to publish all Darwin’s later works, most notably The Descent of Man, and his book on Earthworms.
John Murray VII
John Murray III
By Hill & Admanson 1846
Photo courtesy John R Murray
By Julia Margaret Cameron 1868
Photo courtesy John R Murray