Syms Covington (1816-1861) 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, 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.
When he was fifteen years old, Syms Covington became "fiddler & boy to Poop-cabin" on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle, which left England on 27 December 1831 under the command of captain Robert FitzRoy.
Covington kept a journal of the voyage, and in September 1832 at Bahía Blanca 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, Uruguay, 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 –
The following business piece is to my Father: having a servant of my own would be a really great addition to my comfort,—for these two reasons; as at present, the Captain has appointed one of the men always to be with me, but I do not think it just thus to take a seaman out of the ship;—and 2nd when at sea, I am rather badly off for anyone to wait on me. The man is willing to be my servant, & ALL the expences would be under £60 per annum. I have taught him to shoot & skin birds, so that in my main object he is very useful.
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 –
I have asked the Captain & obtained his consent respecting a servant,—but he has saved me much expence by keeping him on the books for victuals, & will write to the Admiralty for permission. So that it will not be much more than £30 per annum. I shall now make a fine collection in birds & quadrupeds, which before took up far too much time. We here got 80 birds and 20 quadrupeds.
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 Islands as, unlike Darwin, he had taken care to label where each specimen had been taken.
Life in Australia
Records indicate that Covington landed in Sydney in 1840, and he married Eliza Twyford who lived at Stroud, a small town in northern New South Wales, although she had been born in London in 1821. 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 Wales, 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 Bay. 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.
- Keynes 2001, p. 449.
- In July 1832 Darwin copied out a Watch-bill listing the crew and their positions, Keynes 2001, p. 84.
- "The Journal of Syms Covington - Chapter Three". Retrieved 2008-07-13.
- Keynes 2001, p. 179, Barlow, p. 169.
- Keynes 2001, p. 152, "The Journal of Syms Covington - Chapter Four". Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Barlow 1945, pp. 85–88.
- "The Journal of Syms Covington - Chapter Eight". Retrieved 2008-07-20.
- "Darwin Correspondence Project - Letter 700 — Darwin, C. R. to Covington, Syms, 7 Oct 1843". Retrieved 2008-07-20.
- "Darwin Correspondence Project - Letter 1370 — Darwin, C. R. to Covington, Syms, 23 Nov 1850". Retrieved 2008-07-20.
- Angela George; Pat Raymond (2006). "Discover Pambala, Walk in the Pioneers' Footsteps" (pdf). Pambula Area Progress and Planning Association Inc. Retrieved 2008-07-21.
- "Darwin Correspondence Project - Letter 2276 — Darwin, C. R. to Covington, Syms, 18 May ". Retrieved 2008-07-20.
- Freeman, R. B. (2007). "Charles Darwin: A companion". The Charles Darwin Trust. p. 61. Retrieved 2008-07-20.
- Darwin, Charles (1945). Barlow, Nora, ed. . Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle. London: Pilot Press.
- Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991). Darwin. London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group. ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
- Darwin, Charles (2001). Keynes, Richard, ed. Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.