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Charles Darwin postcard to Belfast for sale

The postcard, sent by naturalist Charles Darwin
The postcard, sent by naturalist Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

By Dick Barton

One of the most valuable postcards ever sent to Belfast could be set to fetch over £1,000 at auction.

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

It came just two years before Darwin's death at the age of 73 in April 1882.

Now the card, containing a 40-word message from Darwin, is up for sale and is expected to fetch between £800 and £1,200 at Bonhams in Knightsbridge, London, on November 9.

After the catastrophic Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849 and subsequent crop failures, including that of 1879 which sparked a Parliamentary inquiry, James Torbitt was determined to grow blight-resistant potatoes. So he sought help and advice from one of the world's greatest naturalists, Darwin, who responded helpfully and enthusiastically.

Altogether Darwin and Torbitt, who lived at 58 North Street in Belfast, exchanged 93 letters. In one month alone, March 1880 - the month Darwin sent his 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.

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Auctioneers Bonhams confirmed: "Torbitt was attempting to grow blight-resistant potatoes.

"His project required selecting the small proportion of plants in an infested field that survived the infection and using those as parents to produce seeds.

"This was a direct application of Darwin's principle of selection. Darwin cautiously lobbied high-ranking civil servants in London to obtain Government funding for the project and also provided his own 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 or, to put it another way, about £900 per word.Darwin's Belfast postcard features his home address, Down House in Kent, where he also wrote his masterpiece, On The Origin Of Species.

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