The story of Joseph Parslow - butler to Charles Darwin

In 1839, two years after the return of H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood at Maer in Staffordshire. They moved into their new home in Upper Gower St., London, and at about the same time Joseph Parslow was employed as Darwin’s servant for £25 p.a. all found. Eventually, the Darwins were to have ten children, seven surviving, and Parslow became known by them as ‘the venerable P’ after ‘the aged Parslow’ in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Joseph Parslow served the Darwin family for about thirty-five years, first as servant, and then going on to run the household, as butler, until he retired in 1875.

Joseph Parslow was born at Standish in Gloucestershire on 22nd March 1812, son of an agricultural labourer. He married Eliza Richards at St George Hanover Square, London on 20th May 1845. Eliza had been Emma’s personal maid before marriage, and she later ran a dress making school. Joseph and Eliza had two sons. The first, Arthur, became a carpenter, and in turn he married a member of the Darwin household. She was Mary Anne Westwood, nursemaid to Darwin’s grandson Bernard, who was always called ‘Nanna’ by the little boy. The second son, Ernest, died in 1856 of small pox at the age of three, of which Darwin wrote to his friend Lubbock,Have you heard that we have Small Pox in the village. We have had a cruel death in the little Boy, after only 18 hours illness, of our servant Parslow”

As butler to Charles Darwin, Parslow had to perform some curious duties. For example, Darwin felt that the mud on birds' feet probably had a role to play in the distribution of seeds and carried out some unusual studies that required Parslow to shoot partridges after a heavy rainfall, so that Darwin could count the number of seeds in the earth between their toes.

Another task, mentioned by Darwin’s son, Francis, when writing about his father, “In some of his early letters he speaks of filling several note books with facts for his species books; but it was certainly early that he adopted his plan of portfolios. (The portfolios were at first made of brown paper by Parslow, in late years Horace got some smarter ones made by a stationer;) The plan was to have a large number of portfolios one for each subject or subdivision of a subject — and to put in them the notes written on separate bits of paper, letters, scraps of printed matter — pamphlets &c.”

Joseph’s qualities were apparent early on. In June 1840 Darwin was not well enough for Emma to have the happiness of receiving her aunt, Madame Sismondi at their London home in Gower St., but the house was lent to them. Madame Sismondi wrote to Emma, “Your roof, my Emma, brought us good luck while there, everything went to our hearts' content; be it observed that Parslow is the most amiable, obliging, active, serviceable servant that ever breathed. I hope you will never part with him.”

But in one aspect, at least, there was room for improvement, and Charles’ father, Robert Darwin, addressed it. In July 1841 Charles wrote to EmmaMy Father has taken Parslows long greasy hair into hand, which I am well pleased at, & quizzed him before the other servant, whether he was training to turn into my Lord Judge with a long wig.—“

In 1842 the Darwins moved to a Georgian house in Kent, bought for them by Robert Darwin. Francis Darwin wrote later

“On Sept. 14, 1842, my father left London with his family and settled at Down.* In the Auto-biographical chapter, his motives for taking this step in the country are briefly given. He speaks of the attendance at scientific societies, and ordinary social duties, as suiting his health so "badly that we resolved to live in the country, which we both preferred and have never repented of."

*I must not omit to mention a member of the household who accompanied him. This was his butler, Joseph Parslow, who remained in the family, a valued friend and servant, for forty years, and became, as Sir Joseph Hooker once remarked to me, "an integral part of the family, and felt to be such by all visitors at the house."”


Darwin’s personal health became a major life influence as he was plagued by a chronic illness whose symptoms rarely left him for a day. He suffered severe flatulence and retching. In 1844–47 Darwin’s new friend Joseph Hooker witnessed the retching. In February 1849, when Hooker was climbing the Himalayan Mountains in India he reported to his friend in England: “I never thought more of you than amongst Snowy passes, where the rarefied air affects me at rather low elevations; sometimes I go on retching for hours & what with headaches & its concomitant sensations I doubt if I ever could reach 18000 ft. perhaps 16000.... In the spring of 1861, when Darwin’s mentor Henslow was dying in his house in Hitcham, Darwin excused himself from visiting, explaining to Hooker that being with Henslow would exacerbate his flatulence, so that “I shd not like to be in the House (even if you could hold me) as my retching is apt to be extremely loud”. When he was at Down it was Joseph Parslow who held him when his retching became severe. The retching sometimes alarmed Parslow, for in the 1870s he told a visitor to Down that “about thirty years ago many’s a time when I was helping nurse him [Darwin], I’ve thought he would have died in my arms”

At Down House, in Kent, recently restored by English Heritage, the sick bay built to cater for Darwin’s persistent ill health can be seen. Also open to the public is the games room where Darwin played billiards with Parslow to "drive the horrid species out of my head". It was at Down that Darwin developed his theories about evolution leading to the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.

Joseph Parslow retired in 1875, to be succeeded by William Jackson, another servant at Down House. When Charles Darwin died in 1882 he left instructions that Parslow should receive a pension of £50 and the cost of the rent of his house. At the funeral the chief mourner was William Erasmus Darwin, followed by thirty-one relatives, including all surviving children, though Emma Darwin was not present.  Parslow & Jackson walked in procession behind the family mourners, but ahead of official representatives including Earl Spencer, representing Queen Victoria, and the Ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy, Russia & Spain.

Joseph Parslow died in 1898, and was buried with his wife in Downe churchyard. The gravestone reads, In memory of Joseph Parslow died 4.10.1898 aged 86. Faithful servant and friend of Charles Darwin of Down House in whose household he lived for upwards of 36 years. Also of Eliza his wife who died 12 July 1881 aged 69.”

Francis Darwin, Charles’ son wrote extensively about his father and the family’s life at Down House. Here are two quotes, the first from  [Preliminary draft of] Reminiscences of My Father's Everyday Life, and the second from Life and letters of Charles Darwin

 “As a master of servants he was much loved and respected; he always spoke to them with politeness, using the expression "would you be so good" in asking for anything. And he was considerate in giving them trouble, one little thing I remember, how he used to reprove one for using a useless number of spoons because it gave so much more trouble in cleaning. The only person who made him indignant was Mrs. Evans, and her carelessness or inability to [do] things methodically resulting so often as it did in food that annoyed him by bad cooking was irritating to him. The household of servants was at any rate a happy one as was shown by the length of time the servants stayed. As my father began life in Gower St. in such a simple way it is curious that they had a man-servant, nowadays a corresponding household wouldn't think of a man. It led to some troubles as first as they had a mad ma servant who went about with knives in his hands. But it also led to our having Parslow who remained Butler for [blank space] years, and was ultimately pensioned. He served us to the best of his power, and no man ever had a truer affection for the whole family than Parslow. He was a curiously simple-minded man and if sent to buy a cow &c. would say the seller "a most respectable man assured him it was a good cow." I am afraid that my father never quite got over the discovery of some roguery in supply of flour &c. to house which Parslow ought to have discovered — not that anyone ever dreamt of it being more than slackness on his part. Poor old Parslow aged rather soon & lived on in the village, always taking a pleasure & pride in doing anything for any of us that he could.”

“We were fortunate in having a set of simple, kindly, old-fashioned servants with whom we could be on friendly terms. The butler, Parslow, was a kind friend to us all our lives. I do not remember being checked by him except in being turned out of the dining-room when he wanted to lay the table for luncheon, or being stopped in some game which threatened the polish of the sideboard, of which he spoke as though it were his private property. He had what may be called a baronial nature: he idealised everything about our modest household, and would draw a glass of beer for the postman with the air of a seneschal bestowing a cup of malvoisie on a troubadour. He would not, I think, have disgraced Charles Lamb's friend Captain Burney, who welcomed his guests in the grand manner to the simplest of feasts. It was good to see him on Christmas Day: with how great an air would he enter the breakfast-room and address us:—"Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish you a happy Christmas, etc. etc." I am afraid he got but a sheepish response from us.”

This information has been drawn from the many web sites devoted to the life & work of Charles Darwin on the Internet, including

Special thanks are due to Malcolm S. who first spotted the Darwin – Parslow connection.

Joe Taylor, Dec 2007


To see how you may be connected, see the chart below…………………….


John Parslow, (1780-1856)

+Anne Bromell, (1781-1871)

├── Hannah Parsley, (1808-    )

├── Eliza Parslow, (1810-    )

├── Joseph Parslow, (1812-1898)

   +Eliza Richards, (1812-1881)

   ├── Arthur Parslow, (1847-1895)

      +Mary Ann Westwood, (1854-    )

      ├── Margaret Parslow, (1882-    )

      ├── Ernest Parslow, (1883-    )

      └── Ellen Eliza Parslow, (1885-    )

   └── Ernest Parslow, (1852-1856)

├── William Parslow (1815-1837)

├── Mary Parslow, (c1817-    )

├── Thomas Parslow, (1817-    )

   +Sarah Biddle, (1819-    )

   └── Clara Purslow, (1860-1929)

└── John Parslow, (1821-1891)

    +Hannah Griffiths, (1817-1900)

    └── Ann Parslow, (1841-    )



·         Joseph Parslow’s niece, Ann, the daughter of his brother John (see chart above) also served in the Darwin household. In the 1861 census she was an under nurse at Down House, and in the 1871 census a ladysmaid with Emma Darwin, visiting Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ brother) in London.

·         In the 1871 census at Down House there is also a servant, Ellen Parslow. As yet unidentified…..