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In the Library’s archive are a selection of handwritten Issue Books from the 1840s and 1850s, only a few of which have survived to provide a partial record of early members’ borrowing activities. In amongst them are records for Charles Darwin, listing the books he borrowed during various periods between July 1843 and February 1846 and then during a short, undated period in the early 1850s.

The Library’s recent research into these ledgers – published here for the first time - provides a remarkable insight into Charles Darwin’s reading habits during a busy period in his professional life and reveal him to be a voracious leisure reader.

In the two year period between July 1843 and July 1845, for example, the Issue Books reveal that Charles Darwin borrowed at least 200 books from The London Library, arranging 36 separate visits to collect them. Of the 119 titles mentioned – many of them multi-volume works - the Library has at least 73 of the relevant editions still in its collection today.


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he London LibraryThe list is remarkable in its range and extent, including diverse titles such as :

  • Lives of the Queens of England, by Agnes Strickland
  • Travels in New Zealand by Ernst Dieffenbach
  • Works and Essays by Montaigne
  • Consuelo, Andre and Valentine by George Sand
  • Austria by JB Kohl
  • The Journal of a Naturalist by John Knapp
  • Correspondence of William Pitt
  • The History of Greece by William Mitford
  • Sermons on Christian Life by Thomas Arnold
  • History of the Conquest of Mexico by William Prescott
  • Travels through the Alps by James Forbes
  • The Bible in Spain by George Henry Borrow
  • The Poetical Works of Robert Southey
  • The Art of Deer Stalking by William Scrope

The period covered by the Issue Books was a hectic time for the family. Five children were born and during the 1840s Charles Darwin, often ill, produced scientific works on coral reefs and volcanic islands and a revised edition of his bestselling Voyage of the Beagle. Out of the public eye, he was also working on his ‘species theory’, outlining the main ideas in his notebooks by 1842 and writing them up as a fully researched paper which he began sharing with his closest friends in 1844, 15 years before they were eventually published as The Origin of the Species. Exhaustive research into barnacles dominated his time in the late 1840s.


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In spite of the workload, Charles Darwin and his wife Emma would often spend evenings reading together. It is highly likely that London Library books formed part of this routine, with Charles often borrowing books two or three times a month, taking out several volumes at a time.

The handwritten records in the Issue Books are not always easy to read, especially as entries were ruled through when books were returned. Usually the entries are abbreviated but the book title can be confidently deduced. For example, “Horne Spirit - vol 1” is likely to be A New Sprit of the Age by Richard Horne.

In our lists the information is presented with the handwritten entry shown in inverted commas, followed by what we believe to be the actual book title.