Young linguists who thanked Darwin

At a new exhibition on the correspondence of Charles Darwin, I came across a letter from 5 daughters of a family friend of Darwin’s. Describing themselves as botanists and linguists, they ended the short letter with a saying in the Maori language.

Text of the letter

The Botanists present their best thanks to Mr Darwin for his kindness in advancing them in their pursuit by sending them a book with such interesting plates and which they intend to study with great attention.

The learned Linguists feel also grateful for Mr Darwin’s generous assistance.

Ki te kahore hoki he mahi.

Summary of commentary in the exhibition guide

The 6 Horner sisters were in Darwin’s social circle, both immediately after the Beagle voyage and after. They and their husbands were in the inner circle who knew of Darwin’s work on species before he published Origins. One sister was a botanist, one a linguist, another was both. A 4th sister was an expert on shells and translated a Swedish work on barnacles for Darwin.

The excellent guide to the exhibition is available at DARWIN IN CONVERSATION Exhibition Guide_v6s.pdf (

More information on the Horners

The Horners were daughters of Leonard Horner, (a geologist and social and educational reformer) and Anna Susanna Lloyd:

  • Mary Horner was a conchologist and geologist, who married the eminent geologist Charles Lyell in 1832 in Bonn (Germany), where the Horner family was living from 1831-1833.
  • Anne Susanna (Susan) Horner and Joanna Baillie Horner were both authors, editors and translators. There is an article on Susan at Who was Susan Horner? | National Trust
  • Leonora Horner was a translator. She married a German historian and archivist, Georg Heinrich Pertz.
  • Frances Joanna Horner was a botanist, editor and translator. She married Sir Charles Bunbury, a paleobotanist and geologist.
  • Katharine Murray Horne was a botanist, specialising in ferns. She married Charles Lyell’s younger brother, Henry.

The Darwin Correspondence project says that the undated letter was written in 1837 or 1838 by 5 of the Horner daughters. (The oldest, Mary, was already married.)

The Maori phrase

The exhibition guide translates the Maori phrase as ‘If you have nothing else to do’. The Darwin Correspondence project says the literal meaning is ‘If there is no (other) work’.

Darwin Correspondence Project

The Darwin Correspondence Project started in 1974, aiming to publish all of Darwin’s correspondence. The 30th and final volume of Darwin’s correspondence will be published this year. The project website contains a mass of interesting information at Darwin Correspondence Project | (

Stolen and returned notebooks

One late addition to the exhibition is 2 of Darwin’s notebooks, stolen from Cambridge University Library in 2000 and returned anonymously in March 2022.  

The Exhibition

The exhibition is Darwin in Conversation, and it is subtitled The endlessly curious life and letters of Charles Darwin. Using his prolific correspondence (over 15,000 letters), it uncovers little-known aspects of Darwin’s life. Well worth a visit.

It is on at Cambridge University Library until 3 December 2022.

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