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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Dora Roberts   17 December [1872 or later]1

The Greenways | Leamington

Decr. 17th.

Charles Darwin Esqr.


May I trespass on your time while I try to relate a curious instance of misdirected maternal instinct which occured in our Hen House here?

A cat came to the cook mewing piteously and expressing both grief & excitement— The woman allowed her to pull her gown & then followed her to the Hen House where a hen—which had been very indignant because not provided with eggs to sit upon for some time past—was found in possession of two small & starving kittens— These she defended by beak & wings until fairly beaten off with a stick— She flew with fury at the mother cat especially— Some hours after the supposed restoration of the kittens the mother again came to her friend the cook exhibiting even greater despair—& on yielding to her entreaties once more the cook found that the hen had managed to convey the kittens to the very highest shelf of the Hen House—when a ladder had to be fetched in order to release the kittens again   How they had been carried to such a height we never knew— The instinct which drew the cat to the cook was odd as the woman disliked cats & had never treated her kindly— It seemed her sense of justice to which the creature appealed2   With regard to the almost human scream of a horse in agony having heard it once I can never forget it   In a crowd in London the horse fell & got under the wheel of a carriage the sounds rang in our ears for days after as the most expressive of agony we had ever heard—3 The cat & hen adventure occurred at Collin House six miles from Belfast—4

Yours obedly— | Dora Roberts.

A friend of ours was pursued by a pig once with wide open mouth   Her description made the animal seem very terrible— A niece of mine can distinctly move her ears & draw them forward she cannot explain how it is done—5

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘Keep | Horse—screaming | Maternal Instinct misled’ pencil


The year is established on the assumption that Roberts’ letter was written in response to Expression, which was published in November 1872 (see CD’s ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)). Dora Roberts has not been identified.
In Decent 1: 41, CD had reported the case of a female baboon who stole young dogs and cats and then carried them about. In Expression, p. 120, he mentioned a dog who had lost her puppies and transferred her maternal affection to licking her master’s hand.
This description of a horse screaming was added to Expression 2d ed., p. 89 n. 2.
Collin House, five miles south-west of Belfast, no longer exists; it was built between 1790 and 1810 (Parks and Gardens Data Services 2007, (accessed 1 March 2012)).
In Descent 1: 20–1, CD discussed the rudimentary ability of humans to move their ears.


Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Expression 2d ed.: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. Edited by Francis Darwin. London: John Murray. 1890.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.


Describes a case of maternal instinct, in which a hen protected kittens.

Letter details

Letter no.
Dora Roberts
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 184
Physical description
7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8683,” accessed on 21 October 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20