This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, perhaps the most famous naturalist of all time and the first man to pioneer the groundbreaking theory of evolution. Whilst his importance is well known, how he came to formulate his ideas is much less well known. In amongst these momentous events, we also find a Portsmouth connection that has been largely overlooked.
In 1831 Captain Robert Fitzroy was looking for a scientifically minded person to join him onboard HMS Beagle for what was planned to be a lengthy surveying voyage around South America and the South Pacific. After a few enquiries he was put in contact with Charles Darwin, a young scientific gentleman. Also onboard was George James Stebbing, the son of a Portsmouth nautical instrument maker who was onboard to maintain the ships instruments. George was also the elder brother of Joseph Stebbing, who would later become the Mayor of Southampton.
The voyage eventually lasted for 6 years, with HMS Beagle returning to England in 1837. During that time Darwin had observed much that would shape his later theories, especially around the Galapagos Islands. The voyage of the Beagle is, perhaps fittingly, known as Darwin’s voyage of discovery.
Among a very small crew, Fitzroy, Darwin and Stebbing would have been the only ‘gentleman’ on board, and it is not difficult to imagine them spending the long hours, days and weeks at sea discussing science and nature. Maybe Stebbing contributed towards Darwin’s ideas?
When he returned to England George James Stebbing went on to be a leading figure in Portsmouth, before he became the first Instrument Maker to the new Meteorological Office. The head of the Met? none other than Robert Fitzroy.
And Charles Darwin? The rest, as they say, is history…