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Peter D. A. Boyd

The Darwin Garden Research Project - an introduction

Peter D. A. Boyd

Web version of

BOYD, P.D.A. 1999(a). Darwin Garden Project. Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust Newsletter


Peter Boyd is leading a project on the Darwin garden being carried out by members of Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust in association with Shrewsbury Museums Service. This short article is intended to encourage further research into the history of the garden created by Robert Darwin and other members of his family at The Mount, Shrewsbury during the first sixty years or so of the nineteenth century.

Information gathered in the course of the project will be entered into a paper archive, computerised database and Geographical Information System based at Rowley’s House Museum [Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery]. It is hoped that it will be possible to make the research available to a wide public through an exhibition in the museum, a publication, talks and, possibly, the Internet.

A summary of the research carried out so far was presented to a meeting of the Shropshire Branch of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens in November 1998.

Robert Darwin started his garden in about 1800 when he built The Mount. It was maintained by members of the Darwin family until the death of Susan Darwin in 1866 and its arrangement remained similar for many years afterwards. However, in the 1920s, the small housing estate ‘Darwin Gardens’ was built on about 2.5 acres of the walled kitchen garden and pleasure grounds (about half the total acreage of the garden). Other parts of the garden have been sold-off to neighbouring properties over the years.

The Mount itself with its surviving garden is currently occupied by The Local Valuation Office (responsible for property tax valuation).

Robert Darwin, assisted by members of his family, maintained a ‘perennial garden diary’ recording details of flowerings and fruiting in the kitchen garden, pleasure gardens and glasshouses of The Mount. It seems that Charles Darwin may have sent seeds or plants back to his father in Shrewsbury from his voyage on The Beagle 1831-1836. Robert died in 1848 after which one of his daughters, Susan, continued the diary until her own death in 1866.

The garden diary appeared at auction a few years ago. The garden history writer, Susan Campbell, is working with the owner of the diary to publish a book based on its contents. She gave a very interesting account of the garden diary at a meeting of the Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust in February 1998. Much of the information the diary contains is being kept tantalisingly secret until it has been published!

However, other information may be culled from the many publications on the life of Charles Darwin, archives kept in the Shropshire Records and Research Centre and other sources. The census returns for 1841, 1851 and 1861 provide details of the household. The 65-page catalogue for the 6 day dispersal sale of the contents of The Mount and garden in 1866 includes a list of potted plants and garden equipment. The plan included in the sale details of The Mount itself in 1867 provides details of the greenhouses and outline plan of the gardens. The 1881 1:500 scale Ordnance Survey map shows the same design.

Illustrative material has been harder to find. Two photographs of the house (of unknown dates) show different versions of the conservatory. Shrewsbury Museums Service has a fine oil painting and silhouettes of Robert Darwin but Peter Boyd has not yet been able to trace any paintings, drawings or photographs of the garden at The Mount or images of Susan Darwin.

While the publication of the garden diaries is awaited with interest, there is much research that may be done, in the meantime, by members of the Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust. There may be all sorts of tit-bits about the garden and the Darwins waiting to be found – information that will complement that recorded in the diaries and collected from elsewhere. For example, perusal of contemporary local newspapers and reports of local ‘florist’ and other horticultural societies of the time may yield information about plants and produce exhibited by the Darwins or their gardeners.

If you have any information or know of the whereabouts of other information or pictures, please contact Peter Boyd at Rowley’s House Museum.

Although so much of the garden was built on in the 1920s, it is apparent that a considerable part of the original wall of the kitchen garden has survived (alongside Hermitage Walk, forming the back boundary to gardens on one side of the cul-de-sac Darwin gardens). Integral to this are parts of the garden buildings which abutted this wall and it is understood that other free-standing features have survived. Permission will be sought from the residents of Darwin Gardens to record any such original features which may have survived.

Some of the trees, shrubs and other plants growing at the Mount may have been planted in Darwin times. It is difficult to be certain about some until the detailed contents of the garden diaries become available and comparisons between then and now may be made. However, large specimens of Magnolia acuminata adjacent to the house are thought to be original Darwin plantings and it is tempting to conjecture that the luxuriant sward of the tender Selaginella kraussiana growing outside close to the house is an escape from one of the Darwins’ greenhouses!

Peter D. A. Boyd,

Darwin Garden Project,

c/o Shrewsbury Museums Service,

Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery (Rowley’s House),

Barker Street,Shrewsbury

SY1 1QH

Tel. 01743 361196 Fax. 01743 358411

e-mail: peterboyd@shrewsbury.gov.uk


Caption for illustration [Not available at present]

Plan of part of the garden at The Mount from the 1: 500 Ordnance Survey map of 1881 (much reduced). This part is now occupied by ‘Darwin Gardens’, a small housing estate built in the 1920s. Part of the kitchen garden wall and some other features still survive.
Note: An edited version of this article has also been included in the large database-driven 'Darwin Country' website for which Peter Boyd is responsible. The following link will open the relevant page in Darwin Country which provides access to other pages about the Darwin Family and Shrewsbury:-

http://www.darwincountry.org/category.php3?trail=2850

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Revised: December 23rd, 2001