Current track



Current show

Darwin notebooks worth millions which went missing 20 years ago reported stolen

Written by on 24/11/2020

Two Charles Darwin notebooks, believed to be worth millions of pounds, have been reported stolen from Cambridge University Library 20 years after they were last seen.

One of them contains Darwin’s famous 1837 Tree of Life sketch in which he explored the historical evolution of species.

Staff thought the notebooks had been “mis-shelved” within the vast archives late in the year 2000, but it is now thought “likely that theft occurred” and the matter has been reported to the police.

Charles Darwin's 1837 Tree of Life sketch was in one of the notebooks. Pic: Cambridge University Library
Image: Charles Darwin’s 1837 Tree of Life sketch was in one of the notebooks. Pic: Cambridge University Library

It is difficult to estimate the value of the items given their unique nature but it would probably run into many millions of pounds, the library said.

Dr Jessica Gardner, university librarian and director of library services since 2017, said: “My predecessors genuinely believed that what had happened was that these had been mis-shelved 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 said that “extensive building work” was taking place at the library at the time the notebooks were discovered to be missing.

More from UK

There have been continuous searches since, she said, and it is now thought “likely that theft occurred”.

She said 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.”

Charles Darwin. Pic: Cambridge University Library
Image: The Charles Darwin section in the library alone comprises 189 archive boxes. Pic: Cambridge University Library

Cambridgeshire Police said it has launched an investigation and notified Interpol.

Both notebooks were removed from storage to be photographed at the library’s photographic unit, where the work was recorded as completed in November 2000.

It was discovered during a routine check a few months later in January 2001 that the small blue box containing the items had not been returned to its proper place.

Dr Mark Purcell, deputy director of research collections at the university library, 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.

“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.

Cambridge University Library. Pic: Cambridge University Library
Image: Cambridge University Library is home to globally important collections. Pic: Cambridge University Library

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

Darwin was an English scientist – naturalist, geologist and biologist – best known for his work on the theory of evolution by natural selection.

The Darwin section in the library alone comprises 189 archive boxes.

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

A fingertip search of key areas was carried out early this year before the matter was reported to the police in October.

Anyone who may have information about the missing notebooks can contact Cambridge University Library via email at

 Sky News

© Sky News 2020