Charles Darwin notebooks reported stolen from university library

24 November 2020, 08:46 | Updated: 24 November 2020, 10:55

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Two of Charles Darwin's notepads have been reported as stolen from Cambridge University Library 20 years after they went missing.

Staff mistakenly thought the manuscripts had been "misshelved" within the building's vast archives back in late 2000 and the issue was not reported to Cambridgeshire Police until 20 October this year.

The value of the precious items is unknown due to their unique nature. However, estimates suggest their price could run into the many millions, the library said.

An investigation into their whereabouts has been launched and the police have notified Interpol.

The two works, including Darwin's seminal 1837 Tree of Life sketch, were removed from storage in order to be pictured at the library's photographic unit, where the job was recorded as completed in November 2000.

However, the small blue box containing the notebooks was not found in its rightful place during a routine check in January 2001.

Two of Charles Darwin's notepads have been reported stolen two decades after going missing
Two of Charles Darwin's notepads have been reported stolen two decades after going missing. Picture: Cambridge University Library / PA
One of the notebooks contained Darwin's seminal 1837 Tree of Life sketch
One of the notebooks contained Darwin's seminal 1837 Tree of Life sketch. Picture: Cambridge University Library

Dr Jessica Gardner, university librarian and director of library services since 2017 and who reported the matter to the police, said: "My predecessors genuinely believed that what had happened was that these had been misshelved or misfiled and they took forward extensive searches over the years in that genuine belief.

"Now we have completely reviewed as a new team what happened and come to a conclusion that that's not a sufficient position or set of actions to take."

She added that "extensive building work" was taking place at the library at the time the items were first known to have gone missing.

There have been continuous searches since the notebooks disappeared, Dr Gardner said, and it is now thought "likely that theft occurred".

An appeal for information has been launched on the advice of external experts, including at the Metropolitan Police's arts and antique specialist crime unit, but there are currently no leads, she added.

Cambridge University Library has more than 210km (130 miles) of shelving and is home to around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other objects.

A fingertip search of key areas was carried out early this year, including the whole of the Darwin Archive which comprises 189 archive boxes, but this failed to locate the notebooks.

The two Darwin works had previously been digitised and their content is available online.

Charles Darwin's notebooks are said to be worth several millions of pounds
Charles Darwin's notebooks are said to be worth several millions of pounds. Picture: Cambridge University Library

Dr Gardner said that security policy was different 20 years ago, adding: "Today any such significant missing object would be reported as a potential theft immediately and a widespread search begun."

"I'm heartbroken," she added.

"We've devoted the whole of our careers to the preservation of cultural heritage and we're devastated by what has happened."

Dr Mark Purcell, deputy director of Research Collections, said he is confident the manuscripts could not be sold on the open market and it is possible they have "gone to ground".

He said he hoped for a similar outcome to that of London's Lambeth Palace, where items were stolen after bombing during the Second World War.

The two notebooks had been pictured late in the year 2000 before going missing
The two notebooks had been pictured late in the year 2000 before going missing. Picture: Cambridge University Library

"Forty-plus years later, quite literally as the consequence of a deathbed crisis of conscience, those items came to light and were returned to Lambeth and I think that's the sort of outcome which we and all institutions of this kind would clearly wish to hope for," he said.

Professor Stephen J Toope, vice-chancellor of the university, said: "Cambridge University Library is one of the world's great libraries and home to globally important collections, assembled and cared for over six centuries, and encompassing thousands of years of human thought and discovery.

"As a result of this appeal for help, we hope to locate the missing Darwin notebooks and restore them to their rightful place alongside the University Library's other treasures, making them available to scholars and researchers in the centuries to come."

Anyone who may have information about the missing notebooks is asked to contact Cambridge University Library via email at ManuscriptAppeal@lib.cam.ac.uk.