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Postcard sent by Darwin to Belfast grocer sells for £3.5k

By Dick Barton

Published 10/11/2016

The postcard sent by Charles Darwin to Belfast wine merchant and grocer James Torbitt
The postcard sent by Charles Darwin to Belfast wine merchant and grocer James Torbitt
Charles Darwin

One of the most valuable postcards ever sent to Belfast has sold for £3,500 at auction - almost three times the sum it had been expected to fetch.

The card was sent to Belfast wine merchant and grocer James Torbitt on March 11, 1880, by the renowned naturalist Charles Darwin.

Before the auction, at Bonhams in Knightsbridge, London, yesterday, the card had been expected to fetch between £800 and £1,200, but in the end it was snapped up by a mystery bidder for £3,500, making each of the 40 words written on the card by Darwin worth £87.50p.

After the catastrophic Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849 and subsequent potato crop failures, including that of 1879 which sparked a Parliamentary inquiry, James Torbitt was determined to grow blight-resistant potatoes.

As part of this endeavour, he sought help and advice from the one of the world's greatest naturalists, Charles Darwin, who responded helpfully and enthusiastically.

Altogether, Darwin and Torbitt, who lived at 58 North Street in Belfast, exchanged some 93 letters.

In one month alone, March 1880 - the month Darwin sent a postcard to Belfast - Darwin wrote nine letters to Torbitt.

A further 43 letters on Torbitt's potato project were exchanged between Darwin and third parties.

Auctioneers Bonhams confirmed Darwin even lobbied civil servants in London over funding for the work.

"Torbitt was attempting to grow blight-resistant potatoes," a spokesman said. "His project required selecting the small selection of plants in an infected field that survived the infection and using them as parents to produce seeds.

"This was a direct application of Darwin's principle of selection. Darwin cautiously lobbied high-ranking civil servants to obtain funding for the project and also provided personal financial support to Torbitt."

At Sotheby's in New York in April 2005, a single handwritten page from the manuscript of Darwin's 1859 book On The Origin Of Species sold for £143,164 - around £900 per word.

Darwin's Belfast postcard features his home address, Down House in Kent, where he also wrote the book, today considered a masterpiece.

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