Charles Darwin

12 February 1809 - 19 April 1882

Charles Robert Darwin, was born in Shrewsbury into a scientific family, being grandson of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), doctor, naturalist and member of the Lunar Society, and of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), potter and industrialist. He studied medicine at Edinburgh 1825-7 with freethinking naturalist Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874), who imparted the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and St Hilaire.

At Cambridge, where he went to study divinity, his biological studies were encouraged by botanist John Stevens Henslow, who recommended him as travelling companion to the aristocratic captain Robert Fitzroy (1805-65) who was fitting out his ship The Beagle for a two-year scientific survey of the coast of South America.

The voyage extended to a circumnavigation lasting 5 years (1831-36). Darwin took with him the first part of the new Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell (1797-1875), and was sent the other parts while travelling. He spent much time ashore and sent back many specimens so that by the time of his return he was well-known in scientific circles in London.

Over the next ten years while living in London at Macaw Cottage, 12 Upper Gower Street, Darwin published a series of works that established his reputation as a sound scientist in both geology and biology, and in 1836 married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and took up official appointments. Then in September 1842 he retired from all this to the quiet of Down House in the village of Down in the Kent countryside (now Downe in the Greater London Borough of Bromley).

Here he concentrated on developing his theory of the mechanism of evolution, which was already in outline. But he was only persuaded to publish when Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) sent him a paper that expounded similar ideas. Their papers were read, by colleagues, at the Linnean Society in 1858, but had little immediate effect. Darwin shelved his plan for a multivolume work and condensed his argument into one volume On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection published in November 1859. This was met with immediate approval in radical circles, stirred controversy among scientists, and consternation among the religious.

Down House was originally a farmhouse, and later a parsonage. Over the forty years he lived there Darwin made extensive changes not only to the house but also to the surrounding area. One of his first projects was, with permission of the parishioners, to lower the lane that ran past his study window, and build a wall to ensure his privacy. He also put up a mirror to espy callers approaching the front door. Later alterations to the building were in part to accommodate his expanding family. These included a kitchen wing with a schoolroom above, and another wing including a drawing room with verandah overlooking the garden and with bedrooms upstairs.

It was on a strip of land, originally rented from his neighbour Sir John Lubbock, that he planted trees to shelter the house and laid out his famous thinking path, the Sandwalk. It was his neighbour's son, also Sir John, by then President of the Linnaean Society, who in 1882 was influential in arranging his burial in Westminster Abbey. Darwin's own choice would have been to be buried alongside his brother Erasmus, in St Mary's churchyard, Downe, where his wife Emma and several of their children are also buried.

Sources and Links

An excellent biography is Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Michael Joseph, 1991)
James Moore BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2005
Complete works online
Panorama of Down House
Virtual Tour of Down House
History of Down House
Guide for American Visitors