‘Stolen’ Charles Darwin notebooks anonymously returned to library

The manuscripts have been returned almost a year and a half after they were reported stolen

Two Charles Darwin manuscripts that were reported as stolen from Cambridge University Library have been anonymously returned in a pink gift bag, with a typed note on an envelope wishing a Happy Easter to the librarian.

The precious items were found to be missing in 2001, but at the time staff believed they might have been mis-shelved.

They carried out extensive searches in the library – which contains about 10 million books, maps and other printed items – but in October 2020 the manuscripts were reported as stolen to Cambridgeshire Police.

The force launched an investigation and notified Interpol, with the university making a worldwide appeal for information.

Almost 18 months later, the notebooks – one of which contains Darwin’s famous 1837 Tree of Life sketch – have been returned.

They were left on the floor of a public area of the library outside the librarian’s office, on the fourth floor of the 17-storey building, on March 9.

The area is not covered by security cameras.

The manuscripts were said to be in good condition and with no obvious sign of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance.

The two notebooks were wrapped together with clingfilm inside their archive box.

A plain brown envelope with them had the printed message “Librarian/ Happy Easter/ X”.

The police investigation around the notebooks’ disappearance and subsequent return is ongoing.

Dr Jessica Gardner, who became director of library services in 2017 and who reported their disappearance to police, described her joy at their return.

“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,” she said.

“I, along with so many others, all across the world, was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.

“The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts safely returned to our safekeeping, and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time.

“The notebooks can now retake their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.”

While there is no CCTV of the area where the manuscripts were returned, Dr Gardner said entrances and exits to the building are covered, as are certain areas such as strong rooms and specialist reading rooms.

She said all available footage has been handed to police, and added: “It really is a mystery.

“We don’t know how and we don’t know who.”

The notebooks had been removed from storage to be photographed. This work at the library’s photographic unit was recorded as completed in November 2000.

During a subsequent, routine check in January 2001, it was found that the small blue box containing the notebooks had not been returned to its rightful place.

Dr Gardner said the library building has “transformed significantly” since then, with card-and-pin access to secure areas, a dedicated onsite security team, high-security strong rooms and additional camera surveillance.

She said there would be “further root-and-branch reviews of all our security protocols to come – to make sure we minimise any future risk as far as humanly possible”.

Prof Stephen J Toope, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said he was “incredibly glad to hear of the notebooks’ safe return to their rightful home”.

“Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind,” he said.

The notebooks are to go on public display from July, as part of the library’s Darwin in Conversation exhibition.

“Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry,” said a Cambridgeshire Police spokesman.

“We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.”

Updated: April 06, 2022, 3:46 AM