Interest in Darwin’s life and work continues to grow; his groundbreaking theory of evolution is an accepted part of our understanding of the world around us and remains at the heart of scientific thought in the 21st century. Down House is important because it was here that Darwin undertook much of the research and experimentation that underpinned his scientific thinking, and much of what he saw then can still be seen and understood by visitors to Down House today.
Much of the significance of the house lies in the authenticity of the rooms, of which Darwin’s Old Study is the best example. The room as it is seen today remains structurally unaltered from Darwin’s time. It was restored to the original 1870s arrangement and decoration in 1929, based on a detailed photograph taken in the 1870s together with information from Darwin’s surviving son Leonard (1850–1943).
The wallpaper and fixtures of that early recreation have been preserved, and the room contains almost every original piece of furniture and dozens of Darwin’s possessions, including some dating from his time on HMS Beagle.
Visitors today will find the greenhouses stocked with the same plant specimens that Darwin cultivated for his botanical research projects, many of which stemmed from subjects that had first pricked his interest elsewhere.
For example, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Darwin had studied the reproductive biology of orchids; he then collected rare specimens during his voyage on HMS Beagle. At Down House he investigated his theory of orchid reproduction dependent on insect pollinators.
Among the critical findings that stemmed from his research in the gardens at Down House, was that diverse and beautiful forms of different species of orchid have evolved to attract specific insect pollinators.
The results of his research were published in 1862 in 'On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects', which made a major contribution to the study of orchid anatomy and plant reproduction.
Circumnutation and insectiverous plants
Darwin’s next work, 'On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants' (1865), developed from his examination of certain climbing-plant species that he had grown in pots in the greenhouse and winding through the trelliswork fixed to the back of the house.
By dedicated observation and copious note-taking Darwin was able to detect what he called circumnutation – the gyrating movements of the plant stems as they searched for support on their upward climb – and noted their responsiveness to different light conditions, exploring the notion that plants ‘sleep’ in darkness.
Another important area of research Darwin carried out in the gardens at Down House were on insectivorous plants, in particular a sundew 'Drosera rotundifolia', which he had first sighted in Sussex in 1860.
Darwin cultivated dozens of specimens in terracotta pots on his greenhouse benches, noted the gradual curling of the Drosera’s sticky tentacles around an unsuspecting fly or gnat, and fed his plant specimens specks of raw meat, egg white and even nail clippings.
The illustrations from the resulting work on 'Insectivorous Plants' (1875) show the relationship between insect and plant predator that he observed in the greenhouses at Down.
Downe World Heritage Site nomination
The Downe estate, with Down House at the centre, has been nominated for inscription as a World Heritage Site. The justification for this is primarily in its demonstration of how Darwin used the compact, varied and farmed landscape around his home together with his own house and grounds as resources for observations and experiments that were landmarks in the history of science.
Secondly, the house and gardens are of crucial importance as his main workplace and open-air laboratory during the seventeen years he worked on the theory of evolution between the first sketch of 1842 and the final publication of 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859.
In 2010, the World Heritage Committee deferred the nomination for the workplace and home of Charles Darwin to join UNESCO’s international list of World Heritage Sites to allow further in depth assessment and analysis.