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Darwin's Home and Family

Darwin's Home and Family

Charles Darwin bought Down House in 1842 intent on leaving the difficulties of life in central London at that time. He had been married for 3 years to Emma Wedgwood, and had two children. Down House seemed a place of safety away from Chartist riots, demonstrations and the noise of traffic as well as some of the diseases more easily spread in a big city. Although only 16 miles from central London, he described his new home as...
"...at the extreme verge of the world"

With the house was also about 18 acres of land, including a garden where Darwin later carried out many plant experiments, and a 15 acre field known as Great House Meadow, where he could graze a couple of horses and two cows. The name 'Great House' recalls the first known house here, built for John Know in 1651. It was in this field that Darwin observed how bumble bees were the sole pollinators of red clover and where he organised his children to watch for bumble bees which appeared to follow a regular flight path from tree to tree with special 'buzzing places' along the hedgerow.

Within Down House is Darwin's study where he carried out most of his scientific reading and writing, including his letter writing to colleagues around the world. In this room he had his microscope and carried our anatomical dissections and in the window he observed plant growth and movement in response to light. His indoor experiments also took place in the drawing room where he investigated the responses of earthworms to different sounds and vibration, reported in "The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms" (1881).

In the vegetable garden he carried out experiments on hardy plants including investigations of cultivated varieties of peas, beans, gooseberries and other fruit and vegetables reported in "Variation of animals and plants under domestication" (1881), while in the neighbouring greenhouse Darwin studied plants from all over the world, many of them sent to him by Joseph Hooker, his friend and Director of Kew Gardens.

South west of Great House Meadow is Darwin's 'thinking path', also known as the Sandwalk, which leads around a small patch of woodland. Bordered on the east by an ancient wood boundary, the rest of this area was planted by Darwin, who rented and later bought it from the Lubbocks. Before he planted trees here in 1846, he had the land deep ploughed and observed that where this disturbance had occurred, charlock grew, but the next year he could no longer find it. Then in 1855 it reappeared where deep digging had occurred, prompting Darwin to dig some more trial areas, where once again charlock grew. This led him to suggest that,

"the power in seeds of retaining their vitality when buried in damp soil may well be an element in preserving the species."

Darwin walked around the path every day; early in the morning, before lunch and in the afternoon, as part of a struggle to overcome his ill-health, and whilst walking there year in, year out, made many observations of wildlife through the changing seasons. He noted in early spring how the arched shoots of the parasitic toothwort pushed their way through the soil of the ancient wood boundary, just as it does today. He saw birds sitting on the clipped hedge he had planted to the west of the sandwalk and this led him to investigate bird droppings to see if they contained seeds, then he tried to germinate seeds in the droppings and succeeded in growing 12 different plants from them including yew, bryony, holly, hawthorn, wild rose and raspberry. He used this as evidence of dispersal in his book 'The Origin of Species through Natural Selection' and went on to note in 1881, how many different species were growing in the hedge he had originally planted just with hawthorn about 35 years earlier. He also noted how

"the thorn, though profiting by its thorns and thus escaping being browsed, must suffer from protecting other plants, for instance, which by their growth will soon annhilate their nurse."

The ability of trees to germinate beneath thorn bushes and then grow protected by them until eventually shading them out has been discussed in the literature many times since Darwin's day.

The field to the west of the Sandwalk, known as Great Pucklands, slopes down into Downe Valley. When Darwin came to live at Down House this field belonged to Sir John William Lubbock, who planted larches there in 1841, but the trees failed and grassland gradually regenerated. The top part has poor, sticky soil derived from clay-with-flints and it was here that Darwin made the first study of plant diversity in the summer of 1855. He wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens, how he and the governess Miss Thorley,

"are making a collection of all the plants, which grow in a field" (Great Pucklands),

and asked Hooker for help with those plants he found difficult to identify, in particular some of the grasses. He wrote of his excitement in correctly naming his first grass and recommended to Hooker,

"If ever you catch quite a beginner, & want to give him a taste for Botany tell him to make a perfect list of some little field or wood......instead of the awful abyss & immensity of all British Plants."

Darwin discussed this study in 'The Origin of Species by Natural Selection' when he wrote:

"To show the degree of diversity in our British plants on a small plot...I selected a field, in Kent, of 13½ acres, which had been thrown out of cultivation for 15 years, & had been thinly planted with small trees most of which had failed..... 142 plants were collected here during the course of a year; these belonged to 108 genera, & to 32 of the 86 orders into which the plants of Britain have been classed."

In 2005, 150 years after Darwin and Miss Thorley investigated the diversity of Great Pucklands field, their work was repeated by scientists from the Natural History Museum in London. When Darwin first lived at Down House he recalled how his children called this same field, 'Stony Field', and how, when they ran down the slope into the valley, the flints clattered under their feet. Writing "The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms", over 30 years later, he explained how over the years the flints on the surface of the field had become buried by soil, due to the action of earthworms, so that by 1871,

"a horse could gallop over the compact turf from one end of the field to the other, and not strike a single stone with his shoes."

By digging a trench and measuring the soil depth above the coarse clayey earth full of flints, Darwin was able to work out the average rate of accumulation of the mould during 30 years as the earthworm population increased. Darwin's book about earthworms, published in 1881, was his last major contribution to science.

"only 0.83 inch per year (i.e. nearly one inch in twelve years)", but he pointed out that, "the rate must have been slower at first, and afterwards considerably quicker."

Darwin was suffering from heart trouble and died the following year. Emma lived on until 1896. The family kept the house until the turn of the century, then it was leased to tenants including Olive Willis who founded a school for girls here. In 1927 it was bought by Sir George Buckston Browne on behalf of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and opened as a museum in 1929, which it still is today. After George Buckston Browne died in 1945 it was managed by the Royal College of Surgeons, then transfered to the Natural History Museum in 1992. Since 1996 it has been owned, restored and managed by English Heritage.

To find out more about Down House and its grounds, including opening times see:

For detailed local transport routes and Down House visitor information see our How to get there page.