The village of Downe is clustered around the Church of St. Mary which was founded in 1291 by the Prior of Orpington, but archaeological excavation to the east of the village has shown that settlement here goes back at least till Roman times. By the Middle Ages there were a number of wealthy landowners, including the Manning family and the Petleys. The 1664 Hearth Tax Assessment shows Downe village continued to thrive, with a high proportion of wealthy residences and there remain in the village a number of gentry houses dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Charles Darwin first visited in 1842 when he came with his wife, Emma to view Down House and described Downe at that time in a letter to his sister, Catherine,
"Position…16 miles from St. Paul’s … I calculate we are two hours going from London Bridge. Village about forty houses with old walnut trees in the middle where stands an old flint church and the lanes meet."
The Parish of Downe in the 1840s served 440 people, most of them agricultural labourers and tenant farmers and had a butcher, baker, carpenter and post office as well as the George and Dragon Inn. While Darwin was living at Downe the village became increasingly prosperous. By 1866 it boasted about 12 shops, a number which continued to increase, reaching 22 by the early 20th century. Most of the buildings remain, although there are no longer any shops in the village. The school moved about 150 metres to High Elms Road in 1906, but the old schoolhouse founded in 1855 by John William Lubbock is still in use, now as a village hall. Charles Darwin helped support the school financially and in the 1870s Hooker’s science primer was used here; the first school textbook to emphasize the value of an evolutionary approach to the origin of species. In the evening the schoolhouse was used as a reading room and social club for adults which Emma Darwin supplied with newspapers and books. In 1848 the Vicar of St. Mary’s, Reverend Innes, asked Charles to take over the Downe Coal and Clothing Club into which local villagers paid a few pennies every month and larger donations were obtained from the local gentry. The money was used to help the villagers with winter necessities. In addition, Charles in discussion with the Reverend Innes and labourers who came to Down House started a benefit society called the Down Friendly Society. The Club met every month in the George and Dragon and a small monthly subscription bought villagers a few shillings a week to live on in case of illness and £5 for burial expenses. Darwin invested the money in the Bank of England and served as treasurer for 30 years, giving his report to members at an afternoon tea held at Down House every year.
When Darwin died it had been expected that he would be buried in the Churchyard at Downe, where he had bought a family plot and two of his children and his brother Erasmus were buried. But to the disappointment of the villagers he was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Daily News of 24th April 1882 reported,
"Little children, who have a quick instinct for a kind and gentle nature, would run to open a gate when they saw Mr Darwin coming, encouraged thereto by a smile and a kind word. Downe folk, by whom he was much beloved, like now to dwell upon these trifles, and of speak of his considerate kindness to all about him."
For more information about Downe Village see the Downe Residents' Association website which has further information and photos of the village.