The House Where Darwin Lived


Home to the naturalist for 40 years, the estate near London was always evolving.

Charles Darwin lived with his wife, children and servants in Down House, a Georgian manor 15 miles south of London in the Kent countryside, for 40 years—from 1842 to 1882. Like all close-knit families, they did not just live in this house, they created a remarkable home here. Emma and Charles adapted Down House and the 20 or so acres of its grounds, extending the building and gardens continually, so they could nurture a large family and a community within it, built on routines, mutual respect, adaptation, tolerance, affection and good humor.

In his book Art Matters, the art theorist Peter de Bolla claims that we must attend to what paintings “know,” what knowledge they contain in themselves that is separate from what their makers might have known; coming back to visit Darwin’s house last fall, in rich autumnal sunshine, I wondered what Down House might know, not just about Darwin and his family but about kinship and community.

Once Emma died, in 1896, 14 years after her husband, the house was rented out to tenants and spent some time as a girls’ school, but from the late 1920s various attempts were made to preserve it as a monument to Darwin. An institution called English Heritage acquired Down House in 1996 and restored it; it is open to visitors year-round and now has a small museum, a shop and a parking lot. Though it was the home of a wealthy country squire, it was always a family house, not at all showy, and its curators have kept it that way. There’s a large hallway with cupboards built to store tennis rackets and boots and old manuscripts. Off it branch high-ceilinged family rooms: a billiards room, Darwin’s study, a drawing room, a dining room. Upstairs is a school room and bedrooms and, on the third floor, servants’ quarters. The high windows have solid-panel shutters that fold back into their frames, so the boundary between inside and outside seems permeable; trees and green are visible everywhere through glass; light pours in.

A few years after Darwin had established a life here and become the father of the first four of his ten children, he wrote to his friend Robert FitzRoy, captain of the research vessel HMS Beagle, with delight: “My life goes on like Clockwork, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it.” It was a kind of private joke, one that FitzRoy probably didn’t get. Darwin’s head was full of barnacles at the time—he was trying to map and understand the entire group and would continue for another eight years, so when he wrote “I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it,” he was thinking of himself as a barnacle that had glued itself to a rock now that its free-swimming days were over.
Written By: Rebecca Stott
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  1. One wonders what the evolution deniers in other countries think of the UK making Down House in essence, a national monument. Would anything like this be set up for the family homes of Ken Ham, or the Hovind family ? Will anyone miss Phillip Johnson ?

  2. In reply to #2 by Stafford Gordon:

    I have yet to visit it.

    Likewise, The Eden Project.

    You must visit the Eden Project. I was there yesterday in support of this wonderful botanic marvel, now under a degree of threat from falling visitor numbers.

  3. This is only tangentially related to the OP, but two programmes about the life of Charles Darwin, one from television and the other from radio but both written and performed by the English comedian and Radio Four stalwart Mark Steel, are available as free downloads on Mark’s website.

    Television version

    Radio version

    There’s a ton of other stuff for anyone interested in learning about history from a brilliant comic mind. Aristotle, Byron, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, Rene Descartes, Sigmund Freud, Isaac Newton
    The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, The American Civil War and hours more (Why do I sound like an infomercial?)

    If you’re lucky enough to have a lazy weekend ahead of you then I implore you to immerse yourself in these programmes, and not just the Darwin stuff.

    Apologies to the mods if I’ve gone too far off-topic.

  4. I have visited Down House. It is a great place to spend a sunny weekend afternoon with family or a loved one.

    Many exhibits are designed for younger children and there is plenty of space for them to run around outside.

    We arrived early and had a late lunch in one of the two pubs in the local village.

    If you plan to be a London tourist this summer, Down House is a great way to have a low-energy day out.


  5. I’m hoping to go to London and Paris this year and I’m looking for a day trip out of London since the Lake District doesn’t seem feasible. (any other ideas?) Is this accessible by public transportation? Is it near the English Channel or still some distance?

  6. In reply to #13 by QuestioningKat:

    I’m hoping to go to London and Paris this year and I’m looking for a day trip out of London since the Lake District doesn’t seem feasible. (any other ideas?) Is this accessible by public transportation? Is it near the English Channel or still some distance?

    I suggest you look at this link: –

    Visiting Down House

    Down House, its garden and grounds are open to the public and English Heritage members. It is open Wednesday to Sunday from April to the end of October, with daily opening during the months of July and August. The site is closed on weekdays from November until the end of March, with weekend opening only.[27] The house and garden undergoes routine conservation work during its closed periods.

    The house can be reached by public transport from central London, as it is located within Transport for London travel Zone 6. The 146 bus service from Bromley South railway station (daily) terminates nearby at Downe Village, and the R8 bus from Orpington railway station (excluding Sundays) stops on request outside Down House.

    I would also suggest these:,_Kew

    or a look at this list:-

  7. In reply to #16 by bluebird:

    It all sounds and looks lovely and interesting; well written article – felt as if I was there.

    If I had my druthers, tho, I’d visit Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop Home. Amazing woman; she donated her house to the Land Trust.

    Yes, that is what I’d really like to do, but I hear it is much more than a day trip- plus plenty of places to hike. The Lake District looks very beautiful. I’d also like to check to see if there is anything/any place for Arthur Rackham.

  8. A beautiful, evocative piece.

    I completely understand RD wishing the term Darwinism were not used when evolution is what is meant. The idea not a person associated with it is the thing, and science unlike religion should not fetishise objects or personalities. And yet…

    Darwin as the consumate scientist, loving father and husband, with a clear and poetic sense of wonder at and satisfaction with the world around him is a near ideal exemplar of someone living richly without God.

    With the fundamentally religious Darwin should be doubly galling.

  9. “English Heritage (officially the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England) is an executive non-departmental public body of the British Government sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport .” (Wiki)

    “An institution called English Heritage”, indeed!


  10. What truly galls the religious about CD was that he was an exemplary human being. he loved his wife and children, was a faithful husband. He was a life-long anti-slavery campaigner, he abhorred cruelty to animals and was concerned with the plight of the poor. He shared the limelight with Wallace on the discovery of natural selection despite him being an established scientist and Wallace being 1) quite unknown 2) about 8,000 miles away.
    A devotion to certain quack medical therapies is about the only blight on his copybook.
    I can’t see how any belief in the supernatural would have made him a better man in any way, it could only have made him worse.

  11. In reply to #13 by QuestioningKat:

    I’m hoping to go to London and Paris this year and I’m looking for a day trip out of London since the Lake District doesn’t seem feasible. (any other ideas?) Is this accessible by public transportation? Is it near the English Channel or still some distance?

    Down House is an ideal day trip from London, but Down House itself is quite small, can be very crowded in the summer, and you might be happy with only a couple of hours there at the most. But what most people don’t do at Down House is go walk-about across the North Downs. You can take off in a roughly southerly direction and go as far as the M25 before turning back. This way, you really will be walking in Darwin’s footsteps.

    Or, on the way or on the way back there is another English Heritage Property Eltham Palace. I haven’t been there, but it looks great.

  12. I went there over the winter holidays for my birthday (only open at weekends in the winter) and it was excellent. English Heritage have done a good job refurbishing it – great attention to detail in the original rooms downstairs, and informative displays upstairs. They’ve even done one of the upstairs rooms to show what the inside of the Beagle was like. You can also walk around the experimental greenhouses and go around Sandy Walk where Darwin strolled several times a day. If you go in the summer the garden is planted accordiing to Emma’s detailed gardening notes – Charles wasn’t the only one with a talented eye for detail. Be aware that photography is not allowed indoors though; the attendants said it was due to copyright agreements with some of the stuff on loan for the exhibits. The superbly printed photos in the guidebook partially make up for it though. Highly recommended, and very moving.

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