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Peter D. A. Boyd

'Shrewsbury, Shropshire: Birthplace of Charles Darwin and Darwin Country'

Peter D. A. Boyd

Collections Manager and Darwin Country Project Coordinator, Shrewsbury Museums Service

peterboyd@shrewsbury.gov.uk

Web version of

BOYD, P.D.A. 2003 'Shrewsbury, Shropshire: Birthplace of Charles Darwin and Darwin Country'. In Special Publication of Darwin Day Program 'The Single Best Idea Ever' edited by Amanda Chesworth et al. Tangled Bank Press, 35-43.

Abstract

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, the 'County Town' of Shropshire, on 12th February 1809. His birthplace was a house called 'The Mount' built by his father, Robert Darwin, in an elevated position overlooking the town. Charles spent his childhood in Shrewsbury but left it to attend university from 1825-1831 and for his voyage on 'The Beagle' 1831-1836. However, Shrewsbury remained his home and it was Shrewsbury and his family to which he returned between terms from university and after his great voyage. Although he spent most of the rest of his life living in London and Kent, he continued to visit Shrewsbury until his father's death in 1848 and on a memorable occasion in 1869. The town honoured him with a statue in 1897 and a shopping centre named after him in 1989! However, in recent years there has been a growing movement in Shrewsbury to give greater recognition to the town's most famous son through an annual Charles Darwin Memorial Lecture, the Darwin Country website, the formation of a Charles Darwin Birthplace Trust and other initiatives.


The Darwin Family in Shrewsbury

Charles Darwin was born into a family of intelligent, influential and shrewd people.

Charles Darwin's father was Dr Robert Darwin. In 1786, his father, Erasmus Darwin, took him to Shrewsbury from Derby and left him, with £20 in his pocket, to set up a medical practice in Shrewsbury. From that start as a young doctor of 20, he was to become one of the richest and most influential men in Shropshire and the West Midlands.

In 1796, Robert married Susannah Wedgwood, first child of Josiah Wedgwood I, the pottery manufacturer of Etruria near Stoke. The marriage made the up-and-coming doctor more secure financially and led to an increase in the number of 'useful contacts' as a physician and entrepreneur.

In about 1800, he built the house called The Mount on high ground at Frankwell, overlooking the River Severn and Shrewsbury. The Mount was a large, plain, square, red-brick house, 'of which the most attractive feature [was] the pretty green-house, opening out of the morning room'. Dr Darwin loved his garden, planting it with a wide variety of trees, shrubs and other plants. He and other members of the family maintained a perennial garden diary.

The doctor travelled about his lucrative practice, covering more than three counties, in a yellow chaise. He was a physician to rich and poor alike and much respected. He was also a shrewd businessman and part of his wealth came from his sidelines - property speculation and lending money to the landed gentry. There are some Darwin enthusiasts in Shrewsbury who consider that Robert Darwin was more important than his son!

Dr Robert Darwin (1766-1848) and his wife Susannah (1765-1817) had 6 children:-

Marianne 1798-1858
Caroline Sarah 1800-1888
Susan Elizabeth 1803-1866
Erasmus Alvey 1804-1881
Charles Robert 1809-1882
Emily Catherine 1810-1866.

Charles's sisters had a great influence on his upbringing and were important correspondents, keeping him in touch with news of Shrewsbury when he was away from it. Susan Darwin lived at The Mount until her death in 1866. She was the last member of the Darwin Family to live there. The sale details of the house and contents provide an insight into the nature of the household and way of life of the Darwins in Shrewsbury.


Shrewsbury and the Darwins

Shrewsbury is the County Town of Shropshire. Shropshire is England's largest inland county with Wales bordering it on its west side. The historic town centre of Shrewsbury is within a loop of the River Severn. It is well known for its historic buildings including Norman castle, medieval abbey, timber-framed tudor buildings, fine churches and museums. The remains of the Roman town of Viroconium (Uriconium) at Wroxeter and the Ironbridge Gorge ('Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution') are nearby.

Shrewsbury is a popular destination for visitors not only because of the interests of the town itself and the nearby heritage sites but also for the wonderful countryside of hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, moors and mountains within easy reach. This was the countryside in which Charles Darwin was brought up and which influenced his lifelong interest in natural history.

Visitors to Shrewsbury can walk the same streets and passage-ways (shuts) that Charles and his family walked. Parts of Shrewsbury are very little changed from his time and many buildings associated with him may be seen (even though the interiors of some are not open to the public).

Among the many places that visitors may see in Shrewsbury include:-

· 'The Mount', where CD was born, and some remaining features of its gardens (access limited)
· St Chad's Church, opposite The Quarry Park, where CD was christened
· The Unitarian Chapel on the High Street, attended by CD and his mother (contains an interesting memorial to CD)
· Site of Rev. Case's day school on Claremont Hill attended by CD (private house not open to the public)
· The old Shrewsbury School building near the Castle attended by CD as a boarder (now the public library)
· The Bell-stone in the precincts of the Morris Hall (glacial erratic shown to CD by Mr Cotton -said to be CD's introduction to geology)
· The bronze statue of CD erected in 1897 outside the old Shrewsbury School building
· A bronze statue (erected in 2000) at the present Shrewsbury School site - representing a younger CD
· Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery (new Darwin displays planned)


Shrewsbury can also form a base to visit various sites further afield including:-

· The grave and memorial of Dr Robert Darwin and Susannah Darwin at Montford Church (a few miles north west of Shrewsbury).
· the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Stoke on Trent - pictures, documents and other items associated with the Darwin and Wedgwood families (see http://www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk )
· Lichfield - home of Erasmus Darwin (CD's grandfather) from 1756-1781 (see http://www.lichfield.gov.uk and http://www.erasmus-darwin.org).

The writer plans to create a virtual tour of the Shrewsbury sites on the Darwin Country website at http://www.darwincountry.org. However, real Darwinian visitors to Shrewsbury should make enquiries at the Tourist Information Centre in Shrewsbury for further details (see also Shrewsbury Tourism's website at http://www.shrewsburytourism.co.uk).

Henri Quinn, Robert Darwin enthusiast and local businessman, has carried out research into the Darwins over many years with a band of fellow local researchers. In 1999, Henri published a useful guide to some of the places in Shrewsbury associated with Charles Darwin and the Darwin Family (Quinn, 1999).


The Mount and the Darwin's Garden

Robert Darwin started his garden in about 1800 when he built The Mount on the north side of Shrewsbury. The garden was maintained by members of the Darwin family and their staff 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). Some features of the original garden (e.g. walls, potting shed, ice house) survive in the gardens of these houses (Boyd, 1999 and 2000).

The Mount itself, with its surviving garden, is currently occupied by The Local Valuation Office (Inland Revenue offices responsible for property tax valuation - not local Council offices). It is not open to the public but arrangements can sometimes be made for small parties to visit limited parts of the property.

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. After Robert died in 1848, one of his daughters, Susan, continued the diary until her own death in 1866.

The garden diary is in private hands but the garden history writer, Susan Campbell, is working with the owner of the diary to publish a book based on its contents. Much of the information the diary contains is being kept 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. Photographs or other depictions of the garden have been harder to find. Two photographs of the house (of unknown dates) show different versions of the conservatory. The present writer has published some of the results of his research into the history of the garden in the Newsletter of the Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust and these are available on his website (http://www.peterboyd.com). He has also incorporated some of this information into the Darwin Country website where details of the garden plans may be seen.

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 that was, until recently, growing outside close to the house was an escape from one of the Darwins' greenhouses!


Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery

The collections of Shrewsbury Museums Service owe their initiation to Darwin's contemporaries, several of whom were his school-fellows and who founded the Shropshire and North Wales Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1835. Charles Darwin was told of the newly formed society by his sister who wrote to him while he was on The Beagle. Charles Darwin became a member of the Society when he returned from his voyage on the Beagle and he was made an Honorary Member in 1842.

Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery is the headquarters museum of Shrewsbury Museums Service (website at http://www.shrewsburymuseums.com).

The collections of Shrewsbury Museums Service comprise about 166,000 items. Natural Science and Archaeology have remained, numerically, the most important components since those early days with about 112,000 archaeological objects, 18,000 biological specimens and over 5000 geological items currently in the collections. Several of the collections have been judged to be of National importance.

The smaller collections of fine and decorative arts also include component collections of National importance. The collections are rich in Shropshire ceramics (c.2500 items), costume and textiles (c.1500 items), Fine Art (c.1800 items) and photographs (c.3000 items). In addition, the collections include some 1400 miscellaneous items of general social history interest. The museum collections have evolved since 1835 in parallel with scientific, archaeological and social developments.

Shrewsbury Museums Service is responsible for three museum buildings: Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery (Rowley's House), Shrewsbury Castle and Coleham Pumping Station. A former museum building, Clive House, was sold in 2001 and the contents transferred to Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery. Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council has recently given approval for planning to proceed on the redevelopment and enlargement of Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

The development will include 'new build' to provide up-to-date museum and gallery facilities adjacent to the 17th century Rowley's House as well as work to provide access to new displays and other facilities within the original building. New displays about Charles Darwin, the Darwin Family in Shrewsbury and the development of natural sciences in 19th century Shropshire will be part of the new museum complex.

If the plans, currently being prepared, are approved by Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council, grant-aid is obtained from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other necessary funding forthcoming, the redeveloped museum and art gallery should open in late 2007.


The Darwin Country website

"Darwin Country" is a website project that was initiated in February 2000. It was grant-aided by the Resource IT Challenge Fund and the West Midlands Regional Museum Council until March 2001 and, with funding for additional digitisation, by WMRMC April 2001- March 2002. The WMRMC has supported further development of the website in 2002-2003. A prime purpose of the website and the funding that it has obtained has been to make images and information about museum collections more accessible. 'Darwin Country' may be found at http://www.darwincountry.org.

The first stage of the project was called "Cradle of Science, Technology and the Better Life!" It was intended to provide an introduction to scientific, technological and social development in part of the West Midlands of England during the 18th and 19th centuries illustrated by the archives, paintings, decorative arts, archaeology and scientific collections of the partner museums. The initial partners were Shrewsbury Museums Service (the lead partner), Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust and the Wedgwood Museum.

After March 2001, the scope of Darwin Country was extended by Shrewsbury Museums Service to include material from other historic, prehistoric and geological periods. By April 2002 the website had about 9000 pages and 6000 images and it will have about 3000 more images by April 2003.

The site provides information about Charles Darwin, the Darwin Family, Shrewsbury and other parts of Shropshire but also much more. It provides access to thousands of images of people, places and museum objects that act as a valuable resource for Lifelong Learning. This has been recognised by its early inclusion in the National Grid for Learning, The People's Network, Curriculum Online (forthcoming) and other portals.

Many of the places depicted on the website are those known by Charles Darwin and the objects depicted made, used or found during his lifetime. His friends and contemporaries initiated the Shrewsbury museum collections in 1835 and continued to contribute items during the following decades.

This database-driven website provides multi-disciplinary content in what the writer has called a 'knowledge-net' environment. The software that runs the site has been developed with Shrewsbury-based software engineers Orangeleaf Systems Ltd. The concepts behind and techniques employed in the creation of the website have been described in detail elsewhere (e.g. Boyd, 2002a and b). Website versions of these papers are accessible at http://www.peterboyd.com.


Charles Darwin Memorial Lecture and Darwin Week

Shrewsbury has been looking at ways of increasing interest in Charles Darwin for several years. In 1997, the first phase of new interdisciplinary displays about Charles Darwin and the history of natural history were opened at Clive House Museum and the first annual Charles Darwin Memorial Lecture instigated by the Museums Service. Professor David Bellamy, the well-known naturalist (who was inspired by Charles Darwin) opened the new displays and gave the first lecture to a packed Shrewsbury Music Hall. We have held five more annual lectures plus an extra Millennium Lecture in 1999. They have all been held at the Music Hall on the Sunday closest to Charles Darwin's Birthday. Proceeds have gone to the Friends of Shrewsbury's Borough Museums.

1997 Professor David Bellamy (Naturalist)
1998 David Shepherd (Natural History Artist)
1999 Michael Leach (Natural History Photographer)
1999 Professor Steve Jones (Geneticist and Darwin author) [Millennium Lecture]
2000 Dr. Janet Browne (Biographer of Charles Darwin)
2001 Professor Chris Stringer (Human Palaeontologist)
2002 Randal Keynes (Great Great Grandson of CD and author of 'Annie's Box)
2003 Professor Sir Paul Nurse

These lectures, the Darwin Country website and other activities have helped to raise the level of interest in Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury and February 2003 will see an even wider range of activities.

Jon King is a popular broadcaster on BBC Radio Shropshire with a daily programme of music, local news and interviews. Following a recording with the present writer about the history of the garden at the Mount for his programme and another soon afterwards with Randal Keynes (our 2002 Memorial Lecture speaker), Jon decided it was time for more to be done in Shrewsbury about Charles Darwin! He called together a wide range of individuals with an interest in Darwin to discuss what might be done and this engendered further support not only for the concept of a Charles Darwin Birthplace Trust but for a far wider range of activities around the time of his birthday. As a result, 2003 will see the first of an annual Shrewsbury Darwin Week of events that will grow in future years including lectures, exhibitions and arts events inspired by Darwin or Darwin-related themes.


Charles Darwin Birthplace Trust

Perhaps, it is a little surprising that, with the success of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford, the idea of a Charles Darwin Birthplace Trust for Shrewsbury was not discussed until 2001 and not put before the public tentatively as an idea until 2002. A questionnaire on the matter distributed at the 2002 Memorial Lecture received considerable support and support has grown as plans for Darwin Week in 2003 have progressed. At the time of writing, the Trust has not been formally set up but it is hoped that this will happen in the near future.

At least two models for the Trust have been suggested but one model, suggested by the present writer, might be an independent charitable trust supported by public subscription, grants, sponsorship and income from appropriate activities.

The aims of such a Trust might be to:-

· collect and disseminate accurate information about Charles Darwin (1809-1882), his family and times in Shrewsbury and its region (c.1786-1866);

· encourage/support appropriate research into Charles Darwin, the Darwin family and their times in Shrewsbury and its region;

· if the property was ever offered for sale, seek to acquire and develop and manage the birthplace and home of Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury (known as The Mount or Mount House) as a museum/visitor facility and study centre;

· if The Mount was ever acquired, seek partnerships with Shrewsbury Museums Service (SABC) and other bodies to support the appropriate interpretation of the buildings and garden, the lives of the Darwin Family and their times;

· if The Mount was ever acquired, seek partnerships and funding to support and sustain the long-term preservation/public use/interpretation of the building and grounds and otherwise support the aims of the Trust;

· provide an annual programme of talks and other events to support the aims of the Trust;

· celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin each year on or near 12th February through the support of appropriate educational activities;

· plan for and carry out/support an appropriate celebration of the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth in 2009;

· carry out such other activities as may support the aims of the Trust and extend public knowledge of Charles Darwin and his family in Shrewsbury.

The Trust would be managed by a specified number of Trustees and a membership that supported the work of the Trust through an annual subscription and fund-raising.

It should be noted that:

· the Mount House (the Birthplace building) may or may not become available. The suggested aims provide for such a Trust having a role whether or not the building could ever be acquired as the focus for activities.

· Shrewsbury is the Birthplace town of Charles Darwin. The Trust would have particular interest in the history of Shrewsbury, its people and its natural history from the late 18th century onwards.

· the Trust could start as a society with a committee and membership and then seek charitable status once it had been founded.

If readers of this article would be interested in membership of such a Trust, they may contact the author to be added to the mailing/e-mail list to be informed when there is more news of the Trust.


Conclusion

Charles Darwin is Shrewsbury's most famous son and the town has perhaps been a little slow to honour him and his family. However, now (nearly 200 years since his birth) there is a growing movement to honour him and his work. The 'Darwin Country' website, Memorial Lectures, Darwin Week initiatives, plans for new Museum displays and the possible formation of a 'Charles Darwin Birthplace Trust' have all raised awareness and interest in Charles and other members of the Darwin Family in Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury has always been a rather special place and it gave rise to a special man. That man and his links with Shrewsbury and its region have helped to make it even more special!


References

Boyd, P.D.A. (in press). 'Darwin Country - a case study in website creation and content management' In Special Content Management issue of Spectra (a publication of the Museum Computer Network) Spring 2002, vol. 29, pp20-27. [Available at: http://www.peterboyd.com/spectra2002.htm]

Boyd, P.D.A. 2002. 'Darwin Country - Cradle of Science, Technology and the Better Life!' - a case study In mda information vol 5, no5, pp 35-44. Proceedings of the Museum Documentation Association Conference, September 2000: 'Clicks and Mortar - building cultural spaces for the 21st century'. [Available at: http://www.peterboyd.com/mda2000.htm]

Boyd, P.D.A. 2000. Darwin Garden Project - Sale of The Mount in 1866. Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust Newsletter [Available at http://www.peterboyd.com/darwingard2.htm].

Boyd, P.D.A. 1999. Darwin Garden Project. Shropshire Parks and Gardens Trust Newsletter [Available at http://www.peterboyd.com/darwingard1.htm]

Quinn, H. 1999. 'Charles Darwin: Shrewsbury's Man of the Millennium'. Privately printed. Shrewsbury.


Links

Darwin Country website at http://www.darwincountry.org

Shrewsbury Museums Service Website at http://www.shrewsburymuseums.com

Shrewsbury Tourism website at http://www.shrewsburytourism.co.uk

Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council's website at http://www.shrewsbury.gov.uk

Ironbridge Gorge Museums website at http://www.ironbridge.org.uk

Wedgwood Museum website at http://www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk

Erasmus Darwin Foundation website at http://www.erasmus-darwin.org

Orangeleaf Systems website at http://www.orangeleaf.com

Peter D. A. Boyd's website at http://www.peterboyd.com

 

For other articles written by Peter Boyd about Darwin see

Charles Darwin and Darwin Country

including

The Darwin Family and their Plants at The Mount in Shrewsbury

 

A Darwin Birthplace Society has now been formed. This society has applied for charitable status and is working towards acquiring The Mount to achieve at least partial public access to the building and grounds by the Bicentenary of Charles Darwin's Birth, in 2009. Peter Boyd is Curatorial Advisor to the Society.

Darwin Birthplace Society

 

There is also a website to publicise the Darwin Festival which takes place in Shrewsbury in February each year and other Darwin-related events in Shrewsbury.

DarwinShrewsbury

 

Information about international activities to celebrate Charles Darwin may be found on the Darwin Day Program website

Darwin Day Program Website

 

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Peter D. A. Boyd.
Copyright 2006 Peter D. A. Boyd. All rights reserved.
Revised: December 14th, 2006.