1809-82: Influential places around mainland Britain for Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin kindly posing for a picture... by tranchis.

Charles Darwin kindly posing for a picture… by tranchis

From the Darwin 200 website –

Darwin is now a household name whose ideas over the last 150 years have revolutionised our understanding of nature and our place within it.

Darwin challenged the thinking of the day because his observations – that every living thing is related and belongs to one big family – placed humans firmly within the natural world.

As the following quotes indicate, Darwin’s innovative thoughts are just as important to our lives today…

‘Charles Darwin’s concept of evolution through natural selection is one of the most illuminating scientific ideas of all time for understanding our biosphere and humanity’s place in nature. As an iconic figure, Darwin is matched only by Newton and Einstein – indeed, he has perhaps had a more pervasive influence on human culture than any other scientist.’ Lord Rees of Ludlow, The Charles Darwin Trust’s Science Advisory Panel

‘The two governing ideas of modern biology are first, the molecular basis of all life processes and second, the origin and evolution of all life processes by Darwinian natural selection.’
Professor E O Wilson, The Charles Darwin Trust’s Science Advisory Panel.

Through a combination of meticulous observation and innovative thinking, Darwin came up with an explanation for the incredible variety of living things: that evolution was driven by natural selection. By this process, organisms most suited to their environment survive and reproduce and pass their advantages to their offspring.

‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ Charles Darwin

Although Darwin had already presented his theory to fellow scientists, it was the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in 1859 that shook the rest of the world.

‘We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.’ Charles Darwin

Initially greeted with controversy, Darwin’s ideas now form the foundation of modern biology.

‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.’ Charles Darwin

A natural life

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809. As a child he loved the outdoors and collecting beetles.

He abandoned his studies of medicine to study theology but then, when he was just 22 years old, joined a voyage around the world on the ship, the Beagle. During this five-year adventure, he keenly observed and collected hundreds of different types of plants, animals, fossils and rocks.

He spent the rest of his life carefully studying and interpreting what he had seen. Darwin came up with his original explanation for the variety of living things, the theory of evolution by natural selection, soon after his return from the Beagle voyage, but it was many years before he had accumulated enough evidence to publish his work.

‘I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.’ Charles Darwin

Although Darwin is the most familiar name associated with evolution, he was only persuaded to publish his work when another young scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, came forward having independently come up with a similar explanation for how evolution occurs.


  • Shrewsbury, Shropshire

Charles Darwin was born and raised in the family home in Shrewsbury and also attended school in the town.

The Mount

Charles Darwin was born in the Mount on 12 February 1809. The large Georgian house was built by his parents, Robert and Susanna Darwin. It has been used as offices but is currently being renovated and is due to open to the public in 2009.

St. Chad’s Church

Charles Darwin was christened at St Chad’s Church, which is now used as a venue for an annual Darwin Festival.

Shrewbury School

Darwin statue outside Shrewsbury Library. © Jon King

In 1818, aged just 9 years, Darwin was sent to Shrewsbury School, an Anglican boarding school in the centre of town. He boarded despite it being less than a couple of kilometres from his home, and only a few months after losing his mother.

Darwin hated the harsh environment of the school but made some good friends there. Charles, aged 12, wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘I only wash my fe[e]t once a month at school, which I confess is nasty, but I cannot help it, for we have nothing to do it with’.

His older bother, Erasmus, also attended the school and the brothers were renowned for their chemistry experiments, conducted in a self-equipped ‘Lab’ in an outbuilding of The Mount.

The school building has been renovated and now accommodates the town’s library with an imposing statue of Darwin outside.

The Bellstone

The Bellstone, Shrewsbury. © Jon King

Darwin’s first introduction to geology was a granite boulder, called the Bellstone, situated in a courtyard in the town centre. As a child he was told that this sort of stone was only found much further north in Cumbria or Scotland and there was no explanation for how it ended up in Shropshire.

It was only when he studied geology at Edinburgh that Darwin learned that during the last ice age moving glaciers had transported massive rocks across the country.

An annual toast is now held at the Bellstone on Darwin’s birthday, 12 February.

St Chad’s Church, Montford

Darwin’s mother and father were buried in St Chad’s Church in the village of Montford about 10 kilometres from Shrewsbury. Darwin’s father, Robert Darwin was buried here in 1848.

  • Maer Hall, nr Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

Maer Hall was the Wedgwood family home, located near to the Wedgwood factory.

Maer Hall

Maer Hall was the family home of Emma Wedgwood, who was born there in 1808. The house was near to the Wedgwood factory owned by Emma’s father Josiah Wedgwood, who was also Charles’ uncle.

Charles Darwin was a frequent visitor in his youth. He greatly enjoyed the countryside for walking and shooting and the informal evenings with the Wedgwood family. It was in the fields around Maer that Charles first investigated the role of earthworms, recording that cinders spread on the surface became buried over several years.

After his return from the Beagle voyage, his attentions turned to courting Emma and they married in the church in the grounds. Charles and Emma continued to make frequent visits to Maer Hall with their growing family, spending many summer holidays there.

St Peter’s Church

Charles married Emma in 1839, two weeks before his thirtieth birthday, at St Peter’s church in the grounds of the Jacobean mansion.

  • North and Mid Wales

Darwin visited Wales many times during his lifetime for holidays and field trips.

Welsh holidays

During his childhood and student days, Darwin spent several family holidays in North Wales, staying, on different occasions, near Abergele, Tywyn, Pistyll Rhayader, Barmouth and Mount Snowdon. He enjoyed riding and beetle collecting.

After graduating from Cambridge, in 1831, he was Adam Sedgwick’s assistant on a field trip to North Wales surveying red sandstone in Llangollen, Ruthin, Conwy, Bangor and Capel Curig. He returned in 1842 to study the geology at Capel Curig, Bangor and Caernarfon. Darwin’s last visit to Wales was for a family holiday in 1869 to Caerdeon and Barmouth.

  • Edinburgh

Darwin spent two years studying medicine at Edinburgh University.

Edinburgh University

Edinburgh University. © University of Edinburgh

In 1825, aged 16, Darwin enrolled at Edinburgh University to study medicine, following his father and grandfather. Although it offered the best medical education in Britain, Charles found the lectures dull and the clinical studies distressing. He was horrified to witness the pain patients had to suffer when operated on with no anaesthetic.

During his second year, Darwin pursued his interests in natural history through a small student group called the Plinian Society. He became close to Robert Grant, a sponge expert, with whom he explored and studied the marine life of the coastline near Edinburgh. Grant moved on to University College, London, where he established the Grant Museum.

After two years Darwin finally abandoned his medical studies and left Edinburgh in 1827.

  • Cambridge

Darwin studied theology at Cambridge University but also spent much time developing his passion for natural history.

Christ’s College, Cambridge University

Christ’s College, Cambridge. © David Leff

In 1827, Darwin enrolled at Christ’s College, Cambridge University where he studied theology for just over three years.

During his time at Cambridge, Darwin continued to enjoy the countryside and spent much time with his cousin, William Fox, who introduced him to beetle collecting. He also became friends with William Paley, who promoted natural theology, and the geologist Adam Sedgwick.

In his last two terms Darwin spent much time with the Rev John Henslow, a professor of botany, and became known as ‘the man who walks with Henslow’.

It was Henslow, himself restricted by family commitments, who recommended Darwin as a suitable companion and naturalist for Captain FitzRoy on the Beagle expedition.

Darwin lived in the same first floor rooms in College from late 1828 until he graduated in 1831.

Today, the College Hall has a portrait of Darwin and a stained glass window depicting him.

A large bronze bust by William Couper, presented by an American delegation in honour of the centenary of his birth, is displayed in the Shrine in the college grounds.

Darwin bust, Christ’s College. © John van Wyhe

Sidney Street

Darwin only moved up to Cambridge early in 1828, and at first lived in lodgings above a tobacconist’s in Sidney Street. He later moved into rooms in one of the college’s courtyards.

Fitzwilliam Street

Years later, after he returned from the Beagle voyage in 1836, Darwin revisited Cambridge many times. Needing time to sort his specimens from the voyage, he rented a house in Fitzwilliam Street for a few months, which can now be identified by a stone plaque.

  • Plymouth, Devon

The Beagle set sail from Plymouth in 1831 with 22-year-old Darwin on board as the gentleman naturalist and companion to Captain FitzRoy.

HMS Beagle

HMS Beagle. © The Natural History Museum

Darwin spent two months in Plymouth before setting sail while Captain FitzRoy was supervising alterations to the ship. He stayed in lodgings in Clarence Baths with John Lort Stokes, one of the two survey officers with whom he would share a cabin on board.

The waiting and increasing anxiety about the impending voyage caused Darwin to refer to this time as ‘the most miserable which I ever spent’.

Darwin commented to Henslow on the ship’s cramped interior, ‘The corner of the cabin, which is my private property, is most woefully small. – I have just room to turn around & that is all.’

The Beagle finally set sail from the Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth on 27 December 1831 with Darwin on board.

  • Falmouth, Cornwall

After five years spent circumnavigating the globe the Beagle returned to Falmouth harbour on 2 October 1836.

Epic voyage

During the voyage Darwin experienced extreme hardship and exhilarating discovery. Often having to cope with illness, hunger, tiredness, turbulent weather, natural disasters, and disagreements within the crew, Darwin dedicated his time to studying and collecting thousands of fossils, plants and animals previously unseen by his contemporaries back home.

  • London Societies linked to Darwin

After his return from the Beagle voyage, Darwin developed contacts with many eminent scientists and scientific societies based in London.

Geological Society of London

Darwin was an active member of the Society as he was elected a Fellow in 1836, became a Secretary in 1838, and Vice-President in 1843. He had regular interactions with Charles Lyell, whose book, Principles of Geology, Darwin had fervently studied while on the Beagle voyage using it as a basis for developing his ideas on the formation of coral reefs.

Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of surgeons, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, c.1842. © The Royal College of Surgeons of England

After Darwin returned from the Beagle voyage, he needed to find people to identify the thousands of specimens he collected on his travels. In October 1836 he met Richard Owen, who was the new Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons. Later that year he handed over his prized fossil mammals for Owen, a skilled anatomist, to identify. Owen’s assertion that the fossils belonged to extinct giant mammals of similar types to smaller living mammals in South America, provided Darwin with evidence of common ancestry.

Linnean Society of London

On 1 July 1858 Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell read out Darwin’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s papers on the tendency of species to form varieties and species by natural means of selection to a select group of scientists.

The timing was prompted by a letter Darwin received from Wallace a month before. Darwin was alarmed to find out that Wallace, who was collecting specimens in the Far East, had come up with almost the same theory as Darwin’s of evolution by natural selection. He was now forced to make his ideas public.

Hooker and Lyell arranged to read Wallace’s letter and extracts of Darwin’s unpublished manuscripts to the next meeting of the Linnean Society. Wallace was far away and Darwin’s youngest son had recently died of scarlet fever so they were both absent from the meeting.

Later that year, the president of the Linnean Society wrote in his annual report that the year had not been marked by any discoveries which “revolutionize science”.

The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum © NHM

During the Second World War a number of Darwin’s fossil mammal specimens were taken to the Natural History Museum when the Hunterian Museum suffered bomb damage.

Today, the Museum stores hundreds of specimens collected by Darwin, including parrotfish preserved in jars of spirit, domestic pigeon skins, beetles, stuffed armadillos, giant ground sloth fossils, fragments of coral, and dried mosses and lichens.

There are many specimens from the Beagle voyage, including the finches and mocking birds from the Galapagos Islands that helped to crystallise his ideas. Darwin’s barnacle collections, which he studied later in his life to establish himself as a senior and serious systematic scientist, are also held at the Museum.

The Museum has recently acquired the Kohler Darwin Collection, the world’s largest collection of works by and about Charles Darwin, which includes a first edition presentation copy of On the Origin of Species.

Royal Institution of Great Britain

In 1880 Thomas Huxley gave an address on ‘The coming of age of The origin of species’, which was published in Nature. He talked of the significant accumulation of fossil evidence in favour of evolution that had occurred since 1859, when On the Origin of Species was first published.

Royal Society of London

Darwin was elected fellow of the Society on 24 January 1839. In 1853 he was awarded the Royal Medal for his exhaustive work on barnacles, and in 1864 he was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal for his outstanding researches in geology, zoology and botanical physiology.

Royal Zoological Society of London

Gorillas at London Zoo. © ZSL

Darwin became a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of London in 1837. John Gould, who was then employed by the Zoological Society, described the birds Darwin had collected on the Beagle voyage. It was Gould who realised that the finches found on the Galapagos Islands belonged to a new group and that different species were confined to different islands.

In March 1838, Darwin saw his first ape in London Zoo, which had recently acquired an orang-utan named Jenny. Darwin observed a keeper teasing her with an apple and was fascinated by the similarity between the ape’s reaction and a child’s tantrum, later writing to his sister, that the ape ‘threw herself on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child’.

  • London locations linked to Darwin

Darwin lived in several locations in London and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Great Marlborough Street

Great Marlborough Street, London. © David Leff

Darwin lived in rented accommodation here from 1837-8, soon after his return from the Beagle voyage.

Upper Gower Street

Number 12 Upper Gower Street, which later became number 110, was the first home of Charles and Emma Darwin after their marriage in 1839. Charles Darwin moved in on 31 December 1838, and Emma joined him after their wedding on 29 January 1839. They rented it, furnished, and called it Macaw Cottage after the gaudy colours of its furnishings.

Their eldest two children, William Erasmus and Anne Elizabeth, were born here. They moved out in September 1842.

The house was bombed in 1941 and the site is now part of the Department of Biology, University College London. A modern block called the Darwin Building stands on the exact site of Macaw Cottage.

Grant Museum

UCL Darwin Building, Upper Gower Street. © David Leff

The Darwin Building, which bears a blue plaque commemorating Darwin, houses the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. The collection was started by Robert Grant, an early mentor of Darwin’s at Edinburgh University.

Westminster Abbey

Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey in April 1882. His gravestone and a bronze memorial relief are inside the Abbey.

  • Glen Roy, Scotland

Darwin studied the unique geology of Glen Roy when he returned from the Beagle voyage.

Glen Roy, Scotland. © David LeffParallel roads of Glen Roy

In 1838 Darwin made observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they were of marine origin. He published his paper but later wrote, ‘I do believe every word in my Glen Roy paper is false’.

It is now known that the famous geological feature is the remains of ancient shorelines. They formed at the end of the last ice age when an advancing glacier pushed up the water level of a lake that filled the valley.

  • Downe, Bromley, Kent

Darwin moved to Down House with his growing family in September 1842, and lived here for 40 years until he died in 1882.

Down House

Darwin bought the house, with 18 acres of land, from the vicar of Downe for just over 2000 pounds. Soon after they moved in, Charles and Emma began extending and renovating the house and gardens to create the home they wanted.

Down house is now owned by English Heritage and is open to the public

Darwin’s study

Darwin’s study at Down House remains much as it was when Darwin was alive.

Darwin’s study at Down House. © The Natural History Museum

The writing desk and chair were used by Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution.

Gardens and greenhouses

The gardens and greenhouses have been restored and some of Darwin’s experiments on orchids, carnivorous plants and honeybees have been recreated.


Beyond the garden was a path around a small wood, that Darwin referred to as his ‘thinking path’ as he paced around it fives times every day at noon.

Emma Darwin, Charles’ wife was buried in Downe churchyard in 1896.

Greenhouse at Down House. © English Heritage

Downe Bank

Darwin’s observations here of orchids and their insect pollinators gave him evidence of co-evolution and led to the publication of his famous book Fertilisation of Orchids in 1862.

Experts now agree that Downe Bank is indeed the species-rich setting that inspired Darwin’s conclusion of On the Origin of Species where he refers to an ‘entangled bank’.

High Elms

This large estate of about 370 acres of woodland and species-rich chalk grassland is now a Local Nature Reserve. The land once belonged to John Lubbock, the renowned biologist and politician, who Darwin encouraged as a boy to study the local wildlife. He helped Darwin illustrate his great barnacle work and later wrote a book on the social insects.High Elms


Darwin used this area in his earthworm research, investigating their presence and absence in different parts of the heath.

Darwin also spent much time observing round-leaved sundew at Keston Bog. He noticed how insects became stuck to the leaves of sundew, which led him to investigate how it trapped and digested insects, pioneering work which led to the publication of Insectivorous Plants in 1875.

Keston Ponds were the most likely source of the mud from which Darwin germinated plants in a sequence of experiments into the geographical distribution of freshwater plants.

  • Malvern, Worcestershire

Darwin had several long stays at this spa town between 1849 and 1851, and again in 1863.

Malvern spa

Darwin stayed at The Lodge on Worcester Road and took daily water cure treatments at Dr Gully’s hydrotherapy facility. This therapy involved cold showers, wet wraps, steam baths, strict diets and long walks in the countryside intended to stimulate the circulation and drive out toxins from the blood and organs.

Malvern Priory

His eldest daughter, Annie, was taken to Malvern for treatment in 1851, suffering from a fever, and died there aged 10. She was buried in Malvern Priory.

  • Moor Park nr Farnham, Surrey

Moor Park was a water cure establishment that Darwin visited often between 1857 and 1859.

Moor Park

Darwin referred to Moor Park as, ‘Dr. Lane’s delightful hydropathic establishment’. As well as the water therapy and relaxation, Darwin enjoyed solitary walks around the beautiful grounds.

Although Moor Park House is not open to the public, there is a short heritage trail in the grounds.

  • Ilkley, nr Otley, Yorkshire

Darwin was staying in Ilkley and taking water cure treatments when On the Origin of Species was published in November 1859.

Water cure treatments

He finished working on the proofs on 1 October then travelled to Ilkley on 2 October, recording in his diary, ‘I am worn out & must have rest…’ Darwin and his family stayed here at Wells Terrace while he took water cure treatments, which included cold water baths.

  • Oxford

Oxford was the location of the infamous debate on evolution and religion in 1860.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Crab collected by Darwin © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In June 1860 the newly opened Oxford University Museum of Natural History hosted one of the most famous debates in scientific history. It was the ‘great debate’ between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and Thomas Huxley, the biologist and writer.

They argued furiously about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the questions it raised about man’s place in the natural world and religious belief. Darwin himself was not well enough to attend the debate but Huxley was nicknamed ‘Darwin’s bull-dog’ for his ardent defence of Darwin’s work.

Today the Museum displays a statue of Darwin and some of the crabs he collected during his voyage on the Beagle.

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