Spinning Earth: click to choose language
Darwin Day Celebration

Shrewsbury: Birthplace and Childhood - 1809 to 1825

Charles Robert Darwin was born in the town of Shrewsbury, England on February 12th 1809 and this picturesque, well-maintained medieval town is much the same today as it would have been in Darwin's time. The portion of Shrewsbury known as “Old Town” is almost completely surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped bend in the River Severn, as shown in this aerial view of the town below, (Figure1). The English Bridge is to the lower right and the Kingsland Bridge is to the left while the Welsh Bridge is at the center-top of this photograph. In addition there are foot bridges across the river at several points.

Figure 1: An aerial photograph of Shrewsbury looking north
Taken by Aerofilms Ltd. and published by MU Publishers, Shrewsbury, UK.

The only home that Charles Darwin knew from the time he was born until he returned from his five-year trip around the world on the Beagle at the age of 29, was his family home right here in Shrewsbury. In chronological order, here are the places in Shrewsbury that were important in Darwin's life. We will visit each of these buildings in greater detail below. Darwin was born in the family home, known as The Mount or Mount House, on February 12 th, 1809. The home was built by his father, on a bluff overlooking the River Severn, and is located at the top, center-left (A) in Figure 1. On November the 15th, 1809, in the same year as he was born, Charles was baptized in Saint Chad's Anglican Church (B). However his mother, the former Susannah Wedgwood, who was a Unitarian, took him as a young child with her to the Unitarian Church on High Street, near the center of town (C). Reverend Case was the minister of the church and also ran an elementary School at 13 Claremont Hill (D), which is close to St. Chad's Church. At the age of eight, Charles was enrolled in Rev. Case's school by his mother but attended this school for only one year. Unfortunately during this year his mother died and he was enrolled at Doctor Samuel Butler's school (E) also known as the Shrewsbury School.

At age 16 his father Robert enrolled him at Edinburgh University and, while Charles would return to the family home as a college student and also returned there after his five-year voyage around the world, he never lived at The Mount permanently again after leaving for Edinburgh.

Other familiar places in Shrewsbury that would have been familiar to Darwin are the Train Station (F), the Shrewsbury Castle (G), and Shrewsbury Abby just over the English Bridge to the right, beyond the edge of the photo. Two additional places that deserved to be mentioned, even though they had not been built in Darwin's time, are the new Shrewsbury School across the Kingsland Bridge (H), and up the hill overlooking the River Severn from the South, and the “Darwin” Shopping Center (I) in the middle of town on Castle Street. The campus at the new secondary school is attractive, consisting of a number of handsome redbrick buildings. The reason for mentioning it however is that there is a large statue of Darwin on campus in front of the Administration building. He is depicted as an energetic and active young man on the Galapagos Islands, with iguanas and other creatures around his feet. The Shopping Center is large and modern – an asset to the town that recognizes their most famous son with a month-long “Darwin Festival” which takes place throughout February each year!

The Mount

The hill, overlooking the River Severn that Robert Darwin purchased to build his home on was referred to as The Mount and once the house was finished in 1800 it became known as The Mount House. Figure 2, is a plot map of the Darwin property, looking north as it appeared when the family lived there from 1800 to 1866 when it was put up for auction soon after his sister Susan, who lived there all of her life, died.

Figure 2: A ‘plot plan’ of the Darwin property
Courtesy of Shrewsbury Museum And the Darwin Country website.

The numbered buildings on the property map are as follows (1) Farm Buildings; (2) Laundry; (3) Dairy; (4) Poultry; (5) Coal Bin; (6) Piggery; (7) Conservatory; (8) Plant Store; (9) Green House; (10) Tool Shed. The other buildings on the property are labeled.

Currently access to the Darwin Family home in Shrewsbury is restricted however, an effort by the newly formed Darwin Birthbplace Society is being made to acquire it, in order to preserve Charles Darwin's heritage for the future. To learn more about this project and to participate go to their homepage.

To visit the home, one crosses the Welsh Bridge and proceeds up the hill on Frankwell St. towards The Mount House, you cannot see the house from the street because there is a high retaining wall that fronts the property. However, as you turn to the right into the driveway near the top of the hill, there is a plaque (Figure 3) attached to the stone wall in commemoration of Charles Darwin.

Figure 3: Charles Darwin, 1809 to 1882

Continuing around to the right the wall changes from stone to red brick and the large, red brick home comes into view on your left (Figure 4). An expansive lawn, with large trees is on your right as you approach the front of the home. It is an imposing three-story building, with single story extensions on each end.

Left End of Mount House
Figure 4:
Front of The Mount House
Right End of Mount House

Beyond the extension of the house, to the West, is a rather large “Stable-Yard” (see Figure 2) that was part of the original building built in 1800. This yard was used to ready the horses and/or carriage for use by the family and for other farm related activities. It was enclosed by farm buildings at the West end, farthest from the main house and the farm itself stretched out to the West beyond the buildings. Along the North side of the enclosure there is a laundry, and a dairy where the milk, cream and cheese were kept cool with ice from the ice-house. Ice was harvested from the river during the winter and stored in the ice-house below the home on the riverbank, for use of the household during the rest of the year. Along the front side of the yard there were structures for poultry, coal and a piggery where pigs were slaughtered and made ready for the family table. A door from the stable-yard opens into the kitchens and the servants quarters, all of which were located in the one-story portion of the house at the West end of the three story portion of the home.

Charles Darwin's father, Robert Waring Darwin was a physician and built the home in 1800 just after his marriage to Susannah Wedgwood, daughter of the famous porcelain manufacture Josiah Wedgwood. Doctor Darwin ran his medical practice from his home and the patients came to the front door of the house and waited to see the doctor in the room immediately to the left of the entryway. Doctor Darwin's office and surgery were to the left of the waiting room and the surgery was across the hall to the back of the house.

Figure 5: Front of Mount House
Figure 6: Fireplace in Darwin's Room

The second floor of the main house was a series of bedrooms and one of them served as the nursery where all the children were born, including Charles. The window to this room can be seen in Figure 5, off to the upper left corner of the front entry way. Figure 6 is of the fireplace in this room.

Saint Chad's Anglican Church and the Dingle Gardens

On November the 15th, 1809, when Charles was only nine months old, he was baptized in Saint Chad's Anglican Church (Figure 7), where his father was a member. The church is situated on one of the highest points in Old Town Shrewsbury and overlooks the wide Water Gardens to the west of the building which now contains the beautiful Dingle Gardens (Figure9). Only a few churches in England were ever built with round auditoriums and Saint Chad's is one of them. This feature can be seen in Figure 8, where the view is from the South across the cemetery at the side of the church. The round sanctuary is to the far right in the photograph. Even though Dr. Robert Darwin was a long-time member of this church he and his wife Susannah are buried at Montford Parish Church, a few miles north west of the Shrewsbury.

When Charles was a boy the place on the water gardens where the Dingle Gardens are now located was a quarry and he recalls going there to collect things from the water (see The Unitarian Church and Reverend Case’s School).

Figure 7: Saint Chad's
Figure 8: Saint Chad's Cemetary
Figure 9: Dingle Gardens

Today the quarry has been transformed into the Dingle Gardens, a sight to behold with brilliant flowerbeds,(Figure 10), walkways, (Figure 11) and fountains in the center of flowing water, all surrounded by beautiful trees. A truly enchanted and romantic place!

Figure 10: Dingle Gardens
Figure 11: Dingle Gardens

The Unitarian Church and Reverend Case’s School

As a young child, his mother, the former Susannah Wedgwood, took Charles to the Unitarian Church (Figures.12 and 13) on High Street near the center of town, where she was a member.

Figure 12: Shrewsbury Unitarian Church Front
Figure 13: Shrewsbury Unitarian Church
Founded in 1662

This attractive building has a plaque commemorating Charles as a member who attended regularly as a youth (Figure 14).

Figure 14: Plaque at Unitarian Church
Figure 15: Street in front of Case’s School

During this period, Reverend Case was the pastor at the Unitarian Church and he also ran a school at 13 Claremont Hill St. (Figure 16) next-door to St. Chad’s Church, where Charles was enrolled by his mother in 1816. The view down the hill on Claremont St. across town to the St. Alkmund Church (Figure 15) would have been a familiar sight to Charles as he came and went from the school. The rear windows of the school looked out onto the cemetery at St. Chad’s church (Figure 17). In his autobiography Charles recalls a number of events during this school year including the dogs in Barker St., newts in the quarry, fruit in the garden, monstrous fables, and the burial of a “dragoon-soldier.”

Figure 16: Front of Mr. Case’s School
Figure 17: Back of Mr. Case’s School

The following quotes are taken from Darwin's autobiography and they recall the incidents  mentioned above in his own words.

“In 1817, when I was 8½ years old, I attended Mr. Case’s School. I remember how very much I was afraid of meeting the dogs in Baker St. and how at school I could not get up my courage to fight. I was very timid by nature. I remember I took great delight at school in fishing for newts in the quarry pool. I had thus young formed a strong taste for collecting, chiefly seals, franks and also pebbles and minerals.

About this time, I sometimes stored fruit for the sake of eating it; and one of my schemes was ingenious. The kitchen garden was kept locked in the evening, and was surrounded by a high wall, but by the aid of neighboring trees I could easily get on the coping. I then fixed a long stick into the hole at the bottom of a rather larger flower-pot, and by dragging this upwards pulled off peaches and plums, which fell into the pot and the prizes were thus secured.

One little event during this year has fixed itself very firmly in my mind, and I hope that it has done so from my conscience having been afterwards sorely troubled by it; it is curious as showing that apparently I was interested at this early age in the variability of plants! I told another little boy (I believe it was Leighton, who afterwards became a well-known botanist) that I could produce variously coloured Polyanthus and Primroses by watering them with certain coloured fluids, which was of course a monstrous fable, and had never been tried by me. I may here also confess that as a little boy I was much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was always done for the sake of causing excitement.

I remember clearly only one other incident during the year whilst at Mr. Case’s daily school-namely, the burial of a dragoon-soldier; and it is surprising how clearly I can still see the horse with the man’s empty boot and carbine suspended to the saddle, and the firing over the grave. (Figure17) This scene deeply stirred whatever poetic fancy there was in me.”

After his mother’s death in July 1817, his older sisters, particularly Caroline continued to take him to the Unitarian Church and to see to his continuing education. However, later that year his father enrolled him in Doctor Butler's Shrewsbury school.

“My mother died in July 1817, when I was a little over eight years old, and it is odd that I can remember hardly anything about her except her death-bed, her black velvet gown, her curiously constructed work-table and one or two walks with her. I have no distinct remembrances of any conversations, and those only of very trivial nature. I do remember her saying that if she did ask me to do something, which I said she had, it was solely for my good.”

Dr. Butler’s Shrewsbury School

Doctor Butler’s Shrewsbury school (Figure18) was considered a very fine institution at that time. However Charles was not very complementary about what the curriculum there had done for his mind.

Figure 18: Dr. Butlers Shrewsbury School,
now the City Library

“In the summer of 1818 I went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury, and remained there for seven years till mid-summer 1825, when I was sixteen years old. Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught except a little ancient geography and history. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank.”

Robert Darwin was not pleased with Charles’ lack of application to his school work and when Charles exchanged his passion for chemistry for that of game shooting at age 15, his father finally exploded saying, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all the family.”

Figure 19:
Original timbers of Dr. Butler’s School
Figure 20:
Original timbers of Dr. Butler’s School

This handsome building (Figure 18) is now the city library and is very modern inside. Some of the heavy timber, used in the original construction has been left exposed so that visitors can see its interesting configuration (Figures 19 & 20).

Figure 21:
Darwin Statue at Shrewsbury City Library

Not withstanding Charles’s misgivings about his education at his former school, there is now a statue of him promiment placed at the entry to the building (Figure 21). He is sitting in a likeness of the chair he used for so many years in his study at Down House where it can still be seen. Charles attended Dr. Butler’s school until he was 16, when his father enrolled him in Edinburgh University to study to become a physician.

A large number of the buildings still standing in Shrewsbury would have been there in Darwin’s day and, for the most part, they have been kept in excellent repair. Some of the more prominent structures would have been the train station and Shrewsbury Castle (Figure 22) both of which are at the Northern end of the Old City not far from Dr. Butler's school and the castle can also be seen in Figure 21 across from the school.

Figure 22: Shrewsbury Castle

Shrewsbury Abbey, (Figure 23) is an imposing structure a short way beyond the English Bridge to the east of the town. This structure dates to before King Henry VII and it was severely damaged as a result of his decree that all Catholic Abbeys were to be destroyed. Evidence of the destruction can be seen in Figure 24. Note the ragged bricks where a large portion of the Abby has been removed as a result of King Henry’s decree.

Figure 23: Shrewsbury Abbey
Figure 24: Shrewsbury Abbey

Although the New Shrewsbury School was not in existence until more recently one should take the time to visit this campus across the Kingston Bridge and up the winding street to the top of the hill on the South side of town. There are several attractive red brick buildings on campus and in front of the administrative building to your right as you enter the well-manicured grounds there is a very attractive statue of a younger Charles Darwin depicted in action on the Galapagos Islands with iguanas and other familiar creatures that he studied there (Figure 25).

Figure 25:
Statue Outside Shrewsbury School
Figure 26: The Darwin Shopping Centre

The most recent addition to the Darwin Legacy in Shrewsbury is the naming of a modern shopping center for him on Pride Hill, near the center of Old Town (Figure 26).

In conclusion it should be said that visitors to Shrewsbury will find that one can easily walk to all the sites important to Darwin’s life here and each is no more than a fifteen minute walk from the center of this charming town where the man who influenced modern thought so profoundly, was born.

Sources and Further Reading:

Charles Darwin - The Power of Place, Janet Browne, 2002

Charles Darwin - Voyaging, Janet Browne, 1995

Darwin Day Collection One, Amanda Chesworth, 2002

Baruch College - http://darwin.baruch.cuny.edu/biography/index.html

Darwin Country - http://www.darwincountry.org/

AboutDarwin.com - http://www.aboutdarwin.com/