Charles Darwin’s missing notebooks mysteriously returned to Cambridge after two decades

Two of the naturalist’s notebooks have been returned to the UL two decades after they vanished

Two notebooks written by naturalist and Christ’s College alumnus Charles Darwin have been returned to the Cambridge University Library (UL) two decades after they vanished. 

The notepads – written in 1837 and featuring his famous tree of life sketch – were anonymously returned to the university library on March 9 in a pink gift bag with a note saying: “Librarian Happy Easter x”.

The books disappeared from the UL in 2000 after being taken out for a photoshoot and were feared stolen. 15 months ago, their disappearance prompted a worldwide public appeal by the library as well as an investigation by Cambridgeshire Police and Interpol.

The notebooks were wrapped together in cling film and left on the floor in a public area of the library outside the Librarian’s office, on the fourth floor of the 17-storey Tower, in a bright pink gift bag. They had been placed inside a plain brown envelope addressed to the University Librarian with the printed message.

The note and pink gift bag the books were returned in (Image Credit: via SWNS)

They were in good condition, with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance. As part of the upcoming exhibition Darwin In Conversation, Cambridge University Libraries will be putting the notebooks freely on display this summer. The exhibition opens on July 9.

There is an ongoing police investigation into the notebooks’ disappearance and subsequent return.

University librarian Dr Jessica Gardner, who made the original appeal, described the notebooks’ return as “joyful.”

She said: “My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express. Along with so many others, all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense. The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts returned to our safekeeping and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time.

“The notebooks can now retake their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.

“Everyone at the Library was incredibly touched by the response to our appeal and to know that so many others felt the same sense of loss we did only reaffirmed our decision to ask the public for their help. We believe that decision has had a direct bearing on the notebooks being returned and we’d like to take this opportunity to give the public our heartfelt thanks.

“They may be tiny, just the size of postcards, but the notebooks’ impact on the history of science, and their importance to our world-class collections, cannot be overstated.”

The librarian’s emotional response to the return was “joyful” (Image Credit: via SWNS)

In September 2000, the notebooks were originally removed from the Special Collections Strong Rooms – where the rarest and most valuable items are kept – for photography to take place at the Library, with the photography request completed in November 2000.

Then, during a routine check in January 2001, it was found that the small box, about the size of a paperback book and containing the two notebooks, had not been returned to its proper place.

For many years, previous University Librarians had believed that the notebooks had been misplaced in the storerooms and collections of Cambridge University Library – home to around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other objects. But despite a number of searches over the years, the notebooks stayed undiscovered.

At the start of 2020, the largest search in the Library’s history was arranged by librarian Dr Gardner. 

This involved specialist staff assigned to search specific zones of the library’s storage facilities. It was led by an expert team, who carried out fingertip examinations where necessary, and included a complete check of the entire Darwin Archive – which comprises 189 archive boxes.

This new search failed to locate the notebooks, and with the help of national experts in cultural heritage theft and recovery, it was concluded that they had likely been stolen.

The notebooks were wrapped together in cling film and left on the floor (Image Credit: via SWNS)

Dr Gardner said: “The building has transformed significantly since the notebooks were first reported as missing.

“In the last 20 years this has included completion of new high-security strong rooms, new specialist reading rooms and a range of additional security measures such as CCTV, card-and-pin access to secure areas, a dedicated Security Team onsite and further root-and-branch reviews of all our security protocols to come – to make sure we minimise any future risk as far as humanly possible.”

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Along with so many others around the world, I am incredibly glad to hear of the notebooks’ safe return to their rightful home, alongside the rest of the University Library’s remarkable Darwin Archives.

“Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind. I’m delighted that the notebooks will be going on public display this summer, giving visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come face-to-face with Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch.”

A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said: “We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong. Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry. We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.”

The return of the missing notebooks comes ahead of the launch of a major exhibition of Darwin material at Cambridge University Library this summer. It will open at Cambridge University Library in July, before transferring to New York Public Library in 2023.

Feature Image Credit: via SWNS