Two hundred year’s after his birth, Madalyn researches one of Britain’s most famous sons and to this day one of the most controversial.
Ask anyone what they know about Charles Darwin and they’ll say, the theory of evolution and he lived at Down House in Kent. Few people will mention that Charles Darwin was born in the West Midlands. He was a Salopian from the Frankwell area of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire. He went to Shrewsbury School, wanted to go into medicine like his father, but switched to divinity in order to become Parson. Darwin lived in Shrewsbury until he was 27 and moved to Down House in his early 30s. Down House was his home for forty years - until he died from a heart attack at the age of 73, on April 19th 1882.
Charles Robert Darwin was born into a very wealthy and well connected family. His maternal grandfather was the famous china manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood and his paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a scientist and a poet, and one of the foremost physicians and leading intellectuals of 18th century England.
Baby Charles was born on February 12th 1809 at Mount House, a large Georgian house which his father Robert had built in 1800. Both sides of his family were Unitarian, though the Wedgwoods had begun to adopt Anglicanism. Robert Darwin, himself a freethinker, had baby Charles baptised in the Anglican Church, but Charles and his siblings attended the Unitarian chapel with their mother, until her death in July 1817.
Charles Darwin The Boy
As a boy, while Charles’ brother Erasmus was riding a rocking horse and his sisters were playing with a dolls house, or with china and wax dolls, young Charles was cataloguing plants and flowers, and collecting minerals, insects and birds.
Charles Darwin in 1816 aged seven.
By the time Charles began his education at the nearby Anglican Shrewsbury School – first as a day student in 1817 and later as a border with his brother Erasmus in September 1818 - he had developed a passion for natural history.
Charles left school in 1825 and spent the summer as an apprentice doctor, helping his father treat the poor of Shropshire, before going with Erasmus to the University of Edinburgh in the autumn to study medicine. It was a pioneering but conflict-ridden time for the medical profession.
A new idea of teaching by dissecting corpses was promoting the illegal trade of bodysnatching, which was eventually brought to the attention of the public some years later by the notorious Messrs Burke and Hare.
Except for chemistry lectures, Darwin found lectures dull, outdated and boring – and the brutality of surgery without anaesthetics distressed him so much he only attended two operations both times fainting at the sight of so much blood.
Burk and Hare 1827/28
To relax the Darwin brothers went for long walks on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Charles kept a diary and recorded their finds, which included a sea mouse and a cuttlefish. It was then that he regretted not having learned dissection, but he did learn taxidermy from a freed black slave, a “black moor” named John Edmonstone who charged one guinea, for an hour every day for two months. During this time Darwin would sit and listen to Edmonstone tell tales of the South American rain-forest of Guiana and later spoke of him as “a very pleasant and intelligent man".
Charles neglected his medical studies, which angered his father so much he sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge, to do a Bachelor of Arts Degree – the first step to becoming an Anglican parson. But even then, when he was supposed to be studying, he spent his time riding, shooting, and collecting beetles. He joined he ‘Gourmet Club’ which met once a week to eat animals not ordinarily found in menus, like hawk and bittern, but returned to his studies after trying barn owl that he said tasted like beaver - which he never actually ate. Finally, with his exams imminent, he knuckled down to work and in 1831 - captivated by the language and logic of William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity - he passed his exams coming tenth out of 178 students.
After his graduation, Darwin planned to take a trip to study natural history and in preparation joined a geology course. However, on his return from a fortnight away with student friends he found a letter inviting him to join an expedition to chart the coastline of South America. Captain Robert FitzRoy was looking for a gentleman naturalist to accompany him while the ship was at sea and found an eager travelling companion in graduate Charles Darwin who had hoped to see the tropics before becoming a parson.
The Voyage of the Beagle The second survey expedition of HMS Beagle under captain FitzRoy - who took command of the ship on its first voyage after her previous captain committed suicide - set off on 27 December 1831 and returned on 2 October 1836.
The camera had not yet been invented and Edison’s voice recording machine was 40 years away by the time the Beagle set sail, so Darwin recorded his finds by writing in-depth descriptions and drawing detailed pictures. By the end of the expedition he had not only made his name as a geologist and fossil collector, but he had evolved from gentleman-naturalist to scientist and the publication of his journal, which became known as The Voyage of the Beagle, gave him wide renown as a writer.
HMS Beagle sailed across the Atlantic Ocean carrying out detailed hydro graphic surveys around the coasts of the southern part of South America, and returned via Tahiti and Australia. The expedition, originally planned to last two years, lasted almost five - three years and three months exploring on land and 18 months at sea.
Fuegians hailing the Beagle. A watercolour painted by Conrad Martens, draughtsman on HMS Beagle during the survey of Tierra del Fuego.
For Darwin’s 25th birthday on February 12, 1834, Captain FitzRoy named a mountain after him. Mount Darwin is the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego. A year earlier, Darwin and his shipmates were on a small island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago when a huge mass of ice fell from the face of a glacier and plunged into the ocean, causing an enormous wave. Darwin ran to the shore and saved the ship's boats from being swept away. For saving everyone from being marooned, FitzRoy named the area Darwin Sound.
Early in the voyage Darwin began writing a book about geology. After finding gigantic fossils of extinct mammals at Punta Alta, he collected and made detailed observations of plants as well as animals, the results of which shook his belief that species were fixed and provided the basis for ideas which led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Home to Down House When he returned home from the trip Darwin was in ill health and decided it was time to settle down. He made two lists and methodically compared the dos and don’ts of married life. The dos, “Constant companion, to be beloved and played with - better than a dog anyhow - and the charms of female chit chat,’ outweighed the don’ts which included, “Spending one’s whole life like a neuter bee, and living one’s life in a dirty London house. No, no won’t do!” he concluded and so he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, moved to Down in Kent, and began to compile notes of his trip around the world. Eight months later he had a rough outline of his ‘tree of life’ but it took another 22 years to complete the work. It wasn’t until he learned that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had developed similar ideas that Darwin contacted him and joined forces with him - and in 1858 published the extremely controversial book 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’ to give it its full title. Charles Darwin aged 31
Darwin said he was born a Naturalist. And growing up in Shropshire combined with his liberal upbringing helped to fuel his inquisitive mind. Shropshire has rocks from more periods of geology than anywhere else in the world, a point not lost on the young Darwin. Marine fossils laid down when Shropshire was part of the Caribbean can still be found on the coral reef that is now known as Wenlock Edge. But it was the glacial meres and scars that shaped the Shropshire landscape and the deposits they left that convinced Darwin that the world was much older than the popular thinking at the time.
Today the original Shrewsbury School houses the town library, outside of which is a statue of Darwin who looks down benignly over his town as it develops and adapts. After all, these changes are merely further examples of evolution at work.
* Some say that Charles Darwin renounced his faith when his daughter died of scarlet fever at the age of ten. Some say he returned to his Christian beliefs on his deathbed – something his children vehemently denied. But Darwin himself said that he had never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God, but he was an Agnostic.
Darwin's theory changed the way we look at the world and evolution. He was one of the foremost thinkers of his generation and the legacy of his work has withstood centuries of debate and criticism. And, although at the time he was attacked by the Church for his work on the theory of evolution, the Church of England has since apologised and Shropshire’s most famous son is buried in Westminster Abbey