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Syms Covington
Syms Covington (1809-1861) was a fiddler and cabin boy on HMS Beagle who became an assistant to Charles Darwin and was appointed as his personal servant in 1833, continuing in Darwin's service after the voyage until 1839. Originally named Simon Covington, he was born in Bedford, Bedfordshire, England on January 30, 1809, the youngest child of Simon Covington V and Elizabeth Brown. After Covington's trip on the Beagle, he then emigrated to Australia and settled as a postmaster, marrying Eliza Twyford there.

Beagle voyage

When he was around twenty years old, Syms Covington became "fiddler & boy to Poop-cabin" on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle, which left Englandmarker on 27 December 1831 under the command of captain Robert FitzRoy.

Covington kept a journal of the voyage, and in September 1832 at Bahia Blancamarker in South America he noted wildlife found there, including a find of Rhea eggs, and giant fossil bones of the megatherium which were collected and sent to England. It is not clear if he was assisting Charles Darwin with this work, but FitzRoy's later account suggests that both Darwin and Covington worked at excavating the fossils, and on November 3 Darwin arranged some clothing for Covington.

On 29 April 1833, Darwin and Covington landed and took up residence ashore at Maldonado, Uruguaymarker, while the Beagle went elsewhere on survey work. After an excursion into the interior lasting twelve days, they spent several weeks at Maldonado preparing the collections to be sent back to England. In a letter home started on 22 May, Darwin told his father that he had decided to take Covington on as a servant –

He had been thinking about this for some time, but had not yet consulted the captain. In an addition to the letter, dated 6 July, Darwin announced that he had FitzRoy's agreement, and an unexpected saving –

As well as working as a servant and general amanuensis, writing out Darwin's records of investigations, Covington became Darwin's assistant as a collector, hunter and taxidermist, In addition to his duties, Covington kept a personal journal regarding his impressions of the voyage. His journal includes accounts ranging from his daily mundane tasks to impressions of the lands and the people he encountered, and it provides an alternative perspective to supplement Darwin's Journal and Remarks, better known as The Voyage of the Beagle.

Return, work for Darwin and emigration

After the Beagle returned in 1836, Covington became Darwin's manservant and continued in his duties as a general amanuensis. His own collection of bird specimens was invaluable in establishing the relationship of Darwin's Finches to each of the Galapagos Islandsmarker as, unlike Darwin, he had taken care to label where each specimen had been taken.

Covington remained in Darwin's service until 25 February 1839. He decided to emigrate, and was given a personal reference from Darwin in a letter dated 29 May 1839.

Life in Australia

Records indicate that Covington landed in Sydneymarker in 1840, and he married Eliza Twyford who came from Stroudmarker, a small town in northern New South Walesmarker. He was able to draw on his naval connections to find employment, and by 1843 was working as a clerk at the Sydney coal depot of the Australian Agricultural Company. Around 1844 the family, with their first two sons, accepted the invitation of Captain Lloyd and moved to the South coast property at Pambula, New South Walesmarker, which Lloyd had been given in lieu of a pension from the Royal Navy.

Covington continued to correspond with Darwin, who sent him a gift of a replacement ear-trumpet to help with Covington's increasing deafness. In response to Darwin's request for specimens, Covington and his eldest son collected a large number of barnacles at nearby Twofold Baymarker. Darwin's letter of 23 November 1850 expressed his delight at having just received the box, which included particularly unusual species. This contributed to the extensive studies of barnacles which established Darwin as a biologist.

Covington became Postmaster of Pambula in 1854, and managed an inn called the Forest Oak Inn built on the coast road above the floodplain where the first Pambula township had been repeatedly damaged by floods. His original inn was licensed in 1855, and the building which still stands was constructed on the same site about a year later. By 1848 he and his wife had eight children, six sons and two daughters. In 1861 Covington died of 'paralysis' at only 47 years old. The inn was then run by his widow, and later by her second husband Llewelyn Heaven. The license was taken over by John Behl around 1864, and the building became known as The Retreat in 1895. It has been used as a doctor's surgery and more recently as a Thai restaurant, and its red tin roof and double chimneys can still be seen beside a sharp bend of the main Coast Road.

Books discussing Covington

"The Journal of Syms Covington, Assistant to Charles Darwin Esq." was discussed by Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin.

In 1998, Australian author Roger McDonald published a novel based on Syms Covington's life and his work for Darwin, called Mr Darwin's Shooter.

References

  1. In July 1832 Darwin copied out a Watch-bill listing the crew and their positions,
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