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Darwin Correspondence Project

From ?   6 April 1868

10 Cumberland Row

April 6th. 1868

Charles Darwin Esqr.


I have just been reading your late work on Domesticated Animals and Plants1   I have been very much pleased and interested with it and as it has brought to my mind two or three things bearing on the subject I am tempted to send them to you hoping you will excuse this intrusion of a perfect stranger on you from the interest your book has caused him to feel on the subject & his desire to contribute his little mite towards the prosecuting of it. First with regard to dun horses. About 1854 or 55 I was visiting a friend a farmer in the west of Yorkshire   in going over his farm with him I saw in a field with other young horses a dun cob two & a half years old   he was a roan dun and I never saw an animal of his kind so striped   he had a very distinct back & shoulder stripe   he had stripes inside of his fore legs   his hind legs were striped from the hocks quite up to the quarter   he also had marks on his head & on his ears which were very long and loped outwards giving him a very dull and mullish appearance   he was much more striped than the dun pony you figure at page 56 v 1 seems to be and I was so much struck with him that I addressed my friend somehow thus “What have you been breeding from there old fellow a zebra or a quagga” “No” he said laughing “the beasts parents were not only not striped but were not even dun coloured for he was got by so & so’s bay coaching horse out of that little dapple grey mare you saw ploughing up there”   this made me ask him some questions about the sire & dam but what his answers were I do not remember but my impression is that he could tell me little about them but the horse would doubtless be a cock tail with about an eighth or a sixteenth of Cleveland bay in him while the mare appeared to be something of a clydesdale.2

The next subject is apropos of King John’s white cattle.3 There is a certain rent due to the lord of the hundred of Knightlow in Warwickshire called the wroth penny or wrath penny   it is paid by thirty parishes in the hundred which have to appear by their deputies at the Knightlow cross a hollow stone which stands on the top of a tumulus or cairn by the road side about three miles from Dunchurch on the way to Coventry on Martinmas day before sun rise and deposit sums varying from a few pence to half a crown the whole sum being some nine shillings in the stone before good witnesses4   otherwise they must pay thirty shillings and a white bull with red ears   I was present at the ceremony in 1856 with the steward of the late Lord John Scott5 then lord of the manor of Knightlow and I believe it dates back to very ancient times   indeed the name of Wroth penny would seem to point to Saxon   Now I think it very likely that originally the fine stood thus Thirty shillings or (& not and) a white bull with red ears but that grasping lords of the hundred had managed to extort both the fine & the alternative   if this were so it would set a white bull with red ears as worth 30/– a very large price at that time. Even as it stands I think it shows that cattle of that sort were much desired.

With regard to Silk Worm moths I can corroborate what Mrs. Whitby says with regard to the males flying a little6   I spent most of the years 52 & 53 in a village near Como7 and the family with whom I resided made a considerable quantity of silk in their own house besides sending a great deal out amongst their peasant farmers. The male moths as soon almost as out of the cocoon began to buzz about in great excitement searching for the females   I have often seen them fly off the table on to the floor & then buzz about there as they had done on the table throwing such a quantity of dust from their wings as to impregnate the air of the apartment in which their & in my case to cause a tickling cough   The females crept about in a very slugish manner rarely moving their wings    indeed so little use did their wings seem to be to them that I have known them rupture their abdomens by falling to the ground. The sort of worms kept there were the large white amongst which a very few of the brindled or clouded kind were to be found in season   I picked out all the black ones and placed them by themselves and I found that all the cocoons they spun were constricted in the middle like a dumbell in shape   The Italians used to say with what truth I know not that constricted or sharp pointed coccoons contained male moths while the large oval ones contained female moths if so my brindled worms must have produced males a thing not very likely for all of them to do.

In that part of Italy they used to sow the larger kind of Maize in May the smaller kind on the land which had produced the wheat & rye crop & they used to say that the wheat should be cut by the feast of Sts. Peter & Paul8 otherwise the Maize would be late both kinds were pulled in October the larger being ripe a little before the other

I have an elm tree in front of my house which when planted there in 1832 was a weeper it continued so for some ten years when all at once it threw up a vigorous shoot straight up from the top which continued to grow in the common way and gave the tree the appearance of a tree growing from the top of a green umbrella   From that time however the weeping branches seased to thrive and this year the last of them have not as yet put out any leaves whereas the rest of the tree is flourishing so I conclude they are dead.

To what you say of the effects of high breeding in Cattle & Sheep you might I think have added increased dificulty in parturition9   high bred short horn cows are much more frequently lost in calving than more inferior stock while the little cows in Ireland & the west of Scotland drop their calves in the fields as often as in the house   The same way with Sheep   high bred Leicesters nearly always require assistance in lambing and are much more frequently lost    they require the greatest attention while black faced sheep or cheviots or sheep of mixed breeds very seldom die in lambing and rarely require assistance.10

I have often heard breeders of horses say that when they had a mare that was obstinately sterile to males of her own kind that they would put her to an ass and that she would not only have a foal to him but that she would afterwards hold when put to a horse and I remember an instance in which this was tried with a mare called Clementina somewhat celebrated here in the north as a steeplechaser   when her steeplechasing days were over she was tried with several blood horses but would not hold to any of them   her owner then put her to an ass   she bore a very fine mule and has since had I believe more than one foal to horses.

Red Wheat is undoubtedly more hardy than white11   the farmers down here are all of that oppinion and only sow white wheat in a sheltered field or on a bit of their best land or on a bit extra manured and of white wheats they say that those with a good rough chaff stand the climat better than those with a smoother chaff. In the north of Italy they grow nothing but awned wheat and they told me that wheat without awnes would not thrive and that if the cultivation of it was persivered in it had a great tendency to become awned a very curious thing if true   The reason they gave for awned wheat thriving best was that in their dryer climat the awns collected the heavy night dews and kept the plant fresh.

I have always thought my Fathers family a marked instance of the transmission of disease12   My Grandfather was a clergyman and died at the age of about 40 of phthisis   my Grandmother was daughter of an old Westmoreland statesman   her father lived to be 76 her mother to 98 she herself to 90 her sister to upwards of 80. They had three children   my Father the eldest was borne within a year of marriage then at intervals of about two years another son & daughter. My Father is now living in his 86th year my Uncle died of consumption when about 40 and my Aunt of the same complaint at 22. Here I think as the seeds of the complaint became more developed in the parent he transmitted it more strongly to his offspring   my Father having all his mother’s strength of constitution while my Aunt had more than her Father’s delicacy. the former was begotten on a healthy woman before the complaint had appeared in the Father the latter when the complaint was fairly manifest my Uncle being intermeadate   My Father & I are examples of hereditary baldness13   he lost his hair at thirty   I was bald before that age   I think however the baldness of Englishmen is caused by their tight hard brimed hats the horrid chimney pot   on the continent soft felt hats are much more worn & in this country early baldness shows its self mostly in the middle & higher classes   there are more balded heads in the House of Commons than any assembly in the world but I do not think so many working men or more particularly agricultural labourers who only wear hats once a week on Sundays and sometimes not so often become bald early in life


The writer refers to Variation.
The reference is to the horse breeds Cleveland Bay and Clydesdale (see Peplow ed. 1998, p. 50).
The reference is to the Chillingham cattle, an ancient breed of white cattle.
For more on the ceremony, see Long 1930, pp. 211–12.
John Douglas Scott.
See Variation 1: 303. Mary Anne Theresa Whitby had provided CD with information on silkworms (see Correspondence vol. 4).
Como, the northern Italian city situated at the south-west end of Lake Como near the Swiss border, was a centre of the Italian silk industry (Columbia gazetteer of the world).
The feast of St Peter and St Paul is 29 June (Jöckle 1995, p. 357).
See Variation 2: 117–20.
There are three distinct Leicester sheep breeds, but the writer probably refers to the Leicester longwool, a breed that was improved by Robert Bakewell in the eighteenth century (Henson 1986, pp. 21–3). In Variation 2: 198, CD had mentioned the work of Bakewell. The other breeds referred to are the Scottish blackface and probably the South Country Cheviot (Henson 1986, pp. 15, 17).
In Variation 2: 229, 336, CD had noted that red wheat was said to be hardier than white.
For CD’s discussion of inherited diseases, see Variation 2: 77–80.
In Variation 2: 73–4, CD mentioned inherited baldness in men.


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Henson, Elizabeth. 1986. British sheep breeds. Aylesbury, Bucks.: Shire Publications.

Jöckle, Clemens. 1995. Encyclopedia of saints. London: Alpine Fine Arts Collection.

Long, George. 1930. The folklore calendar. London: Philip Allan.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Gives details of some points that occurred to him while reading Variation, including observations on horses, cattle, silkworms, and hereditary baldness and disease.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Cumberland Row, 10
Source of text
DAR 159: 139

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6097,” accessed on 28 July 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16