Shrewsbury School

A letter from Charles Darwin to Sir Philip Sidney

Friday 8 June 2018

The winning letters in this year's Michael Schutzer-Weissmann Letter-Writing Prize are small masterpieces. Please read on.

In memory of the late Michael Schutzer-Weissmann (MASW), former Head of the English Faculty, the Michael Schutzer-Weissmann Letter-Writing Prize was established in 2017, generously endowed by Aidan Hartley, a current Shrewsbury parent and himself a former pupil of MASW at Sherborne College. The prize is open to members of the Third and Fourth Forms. 

This year’s brief was as follows:   

You are the statue of Charles Darwin on Central. 

Write a letter to your friend Philip Sidney, at the other end of Central, reflecting on your feelings about the lives of the 21st century Salopians who swirl around your base.

The letter had to be written by hand on pre-printed writing paper and posted to the judge, former Head of Biology Andrew Allott.

The winner was Tom Allen (4F) and the runner-up Issie Urquhart (3F).

The texts of their letters are set out below: 

Dear Sir Philip,

For many years we have stood facing one another – Shrewsbury’s proudest sons – but not until now have I thought to write to you.

Aside from our physical closeness, we have very little in common.  You, the epitome of chivalry, the Elizabethan polymath, poet, knight, gentleman, a true Renaissance man.  I, the beetle-obsessive adventurer, the rational naturalist, visionary, biologist, science’s towering figure.  You look up to the divine; I, down to the mundane – so it is ironic that it is the opposite in the case of our statues. 

But we are together here, common in that sense.  I hear the parting voices of Benjy-runners, pupils dashing late to lessons with their files tucked under their shoulders, and the climax of our summer festivities.  While – standing next to Churchill’s and Rigg’s – I suspect you see Shrewsbury’s intimate side:  football on the lawn, music spilling out of house windows and end-of-term picnics.

Shrewsbury in the 21st century seems rebranded and reformed, with an explosion of change in recent years, as houses are gender-swapped and the school modernises.  Gone are the beating and the birching, while the fagging has been forgotten and the more absurd parts of the dress code have passed out of memory. 

Yet for all this, some things never change.  We have seen three centuries of youth – generation after generation of the same family even.  We grow fond of those who pass by – watching them mature and grow wiser.  Then comes the last summer and they are gone – we are forever, they are but fleeting: to leave us for the wider world or – as you too, bitterly commemorate – to be cut down in some far-flung field – while we are left to mourn their passing. 

Yet what lies beneath those boyish faces?  A statesman or a poet, a surgeon or an admiral?  We try to read them, but a face is not always the expression of a soul and a glance and a smile are nothing to judge by – yet we try to learn and ask ourselves, what latent ambition lurks within?  What hidden talent?  What passion flourishes in that mind?

We both know that schooldays can be tough; that it can often be a struggle but after all ‘ignorance is bliss’, and here at Shrewsbury we are – and always were – all at least sheltered and secure, safe from life’s battering storm outside.  A place where we were given time to find ourselves and learn about others, here within our haven beside the Severn.

Yours sincerely,

Charles Darwin

Tom Allen


Dear Sir Philip,

I would like to formally introduce myself, as a fellow Salopian and member of the honoured order of ‘Statuam Salopia’.  I am Charles Darwin, a naturalist, biologist and geologist.

I’m sure, Sir, that you experience many of the inconveniences and boredom that being a statue brings, the endless unchanging view.  So many times have I wished for a plinth with the more captivating view of the river, or Quarry, or even the charm of the cricket pitch.  It seems, regrettably, I am doomed to an unwavering view of a straight road with you, Sir Philip, in the distance.  

I stray from my point.  The reason for my letter to you after all these years of stony silence, is that I would like to invite you to join our select band in a voyage of discovery and freedom.  We, the Statuam Salopia, who are a group of the finest quality statues in Shrewsbury, are planning a short visit of approximately six months to explore Borneo.  This is an area that is newly discovered since your times, Sir.  

Our varied but gifted group includes the great Clive of India, Lord Hill, Hercules, St Michael the Archangel, a large lion, a small eagle, and the Goddess Sabrina.  

I have learnt, from overhearing the students debate, that there is an issue of the destruction of forests in Borneo.  This is leading to a loss of habitat for orangutans.  I have been interested in these animals since I observed them in the Zoological Gardens in London.  I am concerned that humans are using their limited resources in an unsustainable way, and destroying the planet that is vital for their own survival.  Human evolution is in crisis; rather than becoming fitter and more intelligent, our development has halted.  I’m sure, Sir, that you haven’t the faintest idea as to my meaning, and are probably still under the impression that the world is flat and that we may disappear over the edge.  

All the more reason to join us on our undertaking.  We need to join together to save orangutans, stop the destruction of the forests, ban palm oil production and help the humans to evolve into more sensible creatures who do not destroy their own habitat.  Philip, a knight and poet of your abilities is needed for this task.  

We will be leaving Shrewsbury at midnight on 30th June, after Speech Day, and travelling by Octo to the Thames where we will meet with the London members.  We will board the Cutty Stark at midnight on 2nd June of this year, 2018, and from there sail on to Borneo to save the orangutans and set human evolution back on the right path.  

I await your reply by return post, or hawk, as preferred.  

Yours faithfully,

Charles Darwin

PS  We have not invited the ‘Slinky’ aka Quantum Leap, as he has the backbone for adventure but not the sea legs.  

Issie Urquhart

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