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The Down House

Charles and Emma were married in early 1839 and had lived on Gower Street in London until July 1842 when they found a house about 16 miles south, in County Kent, near the village of Down. Within the next few years the English postal authorities changed the village’s name to “Downe”, but Darwin, and those who wrote about him, retained the original spelling of “Down” when referring to the House.

Both Emma and Charles had grown up in more rural areas in Shropshire where the air was clean and healthy in comparison to that in London where smoke and soot hung heavy in the air. In addition they were expecting their third child and they wanted to have a proper home in the country where they both wished to raise their family. At first they were going to rent the Down House but in the end Dr. Robert Darwin purchased the home and about 18 acres of land for 2,200 pounds and they moved in on September the 14th, 1842.


Figure 1: Diagram of the Charles Darwin Family Home-Site at Down

The numbers on the property represent the following: The main house (Down House) and front entrance is on north east corner of the property (1); Emma’s flower gardens (2); Orchard (3); Kitchen Garden (4); Great Meadow (5); Sand Walk (6); Great Pucklands Meadow (7); and the Service Yards (8).

At first both of them recognized that the home was not what they needed; it was square and rather small but over the years they made several additions to the home and they grew very fond of it. Emma had their third baby on the 23rd of December and named her Mary Eleanor unfortunately their new baby lived for only three weeks and was buried in the Churchyard in the nearby village of Downe. It must be said, that Charles was a very sensitive person and took each family tragedy very personally and severely, often becoming ill himself, from the emotional strain.

The Darwins both loved children and would eventually have 10 in all; William, Anne, Mary, Henrietta, George, Elizabeth, Francis, Leonard, Horace and Charles Waring. Seven of their children lived to become adults and lead very productive lives. More information about the family can be found in the section in this website on ‘The Children of Charles and Emma Darwin.’ Emma and Charles would spend the rest of their lives at their beloved ‘Down House’ and while Emma and the members of the family that were living there moved to Cambridge after his death, Emma returned nearly every summer until she died. Charles was 73 when he died in 1882 and Emma died in 1896 at the age of 88. They were married for 43 years and were a loving and compatible couple – each supported the other’s views of life and enjoyed each other’s company. Emma loved the gardens and trees and created six gardens to the rear of the house so that they could be seen from the drawing room. Charles became very content with their home and surroundings at Downe and it was here that he accomplished his prodigious scientific achievements.

The family retained the house until 1900 when it was rented to a succession of tenants. One, Olive Willis founded a successful Girls school there in 1907 and stayed until 1922 when it was necessary for her to move to larger facilities. The house was eventually purchased by Sir George Buckston Browne, in 1927 and renovated as a National Memorial to Darwin. Browne entrusted Down House to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) and they opened it to the public on June 7 th,1929. After World War II the care of the National Memorial was transferred to the Royal College of Surgeons. This arrangement lasted until the late 1980’s when the College negotiated a deal with English Heritage.

English Heritage purchased the property in 1996 and restored Down House, making it into a museum in honor to the life and work of Charles and Emma Darwin.


Figure 2: Front Door of Down House

When one visits Down House today, as it has been restored by British Heritage, it is much the same as when the Darwins made their last addition to it in 1876. The front entry way is reminiscent of the one at Darwin’s boyhood home, at the Mount House in Shrewsbury. The two windows to the left of the entryway in figure 2, are located in Darwin’s old study while the two to the right look into what was his new study and is now the ticket office and gift shop for the estate. The new studie and the story above it were the last addition made by the Darwins, in 1876.

The rear-view of the house (fig. 3) is very distinctive and is readily recognizable because it has been used in many publications. The drawing room is to the left on the ground floor and opens onto a covered verandah. Perhaps the most distinctive feature is the large bay with a flat roof that reaches up three stories, and was the first addition made on the house, by the Darwins. The dinning room is on the ground floor of this structure while the kitchens are to the right. Entrance to the main house from the back is through the garden door, located between the drawing room, and the dining room.

Figure 3: Rear View of Down House

Looking out from the drawing room across the verandah, one can sees the flower gardens that were first created by Emma (fig. 4). In the photograph below, Lola Stephens, co-creator of this web-site, is shown standing in Emma's flower garden. Farther along the pathway to the right are Darwin’s greenhouses (fig. 5) where he did research on many species of vines and exotic plants. Both Robert and Lola Stephens, co-creators of this web-site, are shown standing in front of Darwin's greenhouses.

Figure 4: Down House Garden
Figure 5: Down House Green House

Additional redbrick buildings were built adjacent to the green houses to the north, and the largest one was known as Darwin’s laboratory (fig. 6). While it is uncertain what the buildings were used for, it seems likely that the largest building was used for detailed experiments work on plants that he is known to have studied, such as orchids, vines and carnivorous plants.

Figure 6: Darwin's Laboratory

In reality the famous Sand Walk (see fig. 1) that is known to have been so important to Darwin’s work started at the back of the house and continued along in front of the green houses and kitchen gardens to the west end of the great meadow where it turned left and disappeared into a small woods that Darwin himself had created. Darwin has described how he would take a ‘daily constitutional walk’ along this path while he thought about the meaning of the observations he was making and about the ideas they generated. We can only speculate on how important the sand walk was to the development of the Theory of Evolution as it took shape in the consciousness of his mind over more than 20 years.

Figure 7: Ground Floor Plan

The floor plan above (fig. 7) shows the comparative size and relationship of the rooms on the ground floor as they appear today. Note that the building faces northeast and after the restoration by British Heritage the function of some of the rooms have been changed to accommodate visitors, namely the Ticket Office and Tea Room. Darwin had built himself a 'new study' a few years before he died and the Ticket Office now occupies that room which is to the right of the main entrance when you are facing the house from the front. Today the Tea Room is a pleasant place where visitors can have lunch, however it was the Kitchen when the Darwins lived there. The drawing room (fig. 8) looks out to the gardens and would have been a quiet place to read, as Charles and Emma often did, sitting in comfortable chairs in front of the fireplace. One of their favorite authors was Charles Dickens, a contemporary of theirs who was very popular at the time.

Figure 8: Drawing Room
Figure 9: Emma's Piano

The piano in figure 9 belonged to Emma, who was a gifted pianist and often played for the family and guests. The bassoon apparently belonged to Francis, and Charles made use of it in attempts to determine if plants could 'hear' the instrument.

Figure 10: Darwin's Old Study

Charles’s old study (fig. 10), to the left of the front entry way, is filled with examples of the objects and specimens that he used during the 40 plus years that he and Emma lived and raised their family here. Darwin’s favorite high-back chair can be seen in the corner under the lamp and it is known that he wrote 'On The Origins of Species' along with his other major publications, sitting in this chair. A board, covered with cloth across the arms served for a desk. Charles is depicted sitting in this chair in the statue of him in front of Dr. Butlers school which he attended as a child in Shrewsbury.

Other items in the room include pictures of his good friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker hanging over the fireplace, along with one of his father-in-law Josiah Wedgwood and a Pembroke table in the foreground. The Dining room (fig. 11) is a large light-filled room in the center of the back of the house also looking out to the garden through the large windows in the bay.

Figure 11: Dining room

The Darwins were financially very comfortable and often employed 6-8 staff members to assist with the chores around the property. Both Emma and Charles treated their staff in a kindly manner, which the staff appreciated. Consequently they stayed for many years. For instance, Parslow the butler who ran the house-hold was with them from 1839 when they were first married until he retired in 1875.

Figure 12: 2nd Floor at Down House

The second floor (fig. 12) of the museum  (in England, called the “first floor”) is filled with items and displays from various periods throughout Darwin’s life including his Childhood, Voyage on the Beagle, and the reaction to the publication of On the Origin of Species. The third floor is not open to the public.

It is interesting to ponder the nature of Darwin’s true legacy as we see his star rising ever higher at the beginning of the 21 st century, as we move slowly towards his 200 th birthday on February 12 th, 2009. It would seem that his true legacy lies in the fact that his well-defined theory of evolution presented humanity with an intellectually acceptable alternative to supernaturalism on the question of ‘why biological systems in general and humans in particular exist.’ There is no doubt that this was the reason why he was denounced by Cardinal Manning for “relieving God of the labor of creation” and why his friend William Whewell would not permit his book to be included in the library at Trinity College. Notwithstanding modern-day detractors, science has continued to move forward in the ‘almost’ 150 years since the publication of ‘On The Origin Of Species’ and today the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution by Natural Selection rests firmly in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of genetics.

Sources and Further Reading:

Down House; The Home of Charles Darwin: by English Heritage.

William Calvin's Downhouse Page

Darwin Correspondence Project

AboutDarwin.com