History of Down House
Down House belonged to the great scientist Charles Darwin, who lived here for 40 years until his death in 1882. After moving to the house in 1842, Darwin and his wife, Emma, remodelled the house and its extensive gardens, which Darwin used as an open-air laboratory. It was here that Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection and wrote his groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).
The 18th-century House
Down House was built in the early 18th century, probably on the site of a 17th-century house. It faced east and was a simple box shape.
In the late 18th century the house was extensively modernised, probably soon after George Butler, a rich businessman and landowner, bought it in 1778. He built a new kitchen and service block onto the south end and rearranged and improved the principal rooms on the ground floor, moving the main entrance to the north side of the house and the staircase to its present position.
The house seems to have changed hands several times after Butler’s death in 1783. Nathanial Godbold, a property speculator from Fulham, acquired it in 1818 and rented it out to John Johnson, colonel of engineers in the Honourable East India Company, who later bought it.
The Revd J Drummond, vicar of Down, bought the house in 1837. He commissioned the architect and civil engineer Edward Cresy (1792–1858), who lived locally, to make some improvements, installing a new roof, two bathrooms, a stable yard and a cottage.
Darwin’s Later Changes
To accommodate his growing family and improve the servants’ accommodation, in 1846 Darwin commissioned Cresy to build a new service wing. This also provided a schoolroom and an extra bedroom for the family.
In 1857 the Darwins decided that their dining room was not large enough to accommodate them and their extended family when they came to stay, and commissioned a new one with a large bedroom over it. Finished in 1858, this two-storey extension was built on the north end of the house and projected slightly into the garden. The light and airy ground-floor room was put to use as a drawing room rather than a dining room as intended, with the dining room moved to the former drawing room.
Apart from minor alterations, no further changes were made to the house until 1876, when the architect William Cecil Marshall was engaged to build an extension on the north side.
This was originally intended as a billiard room with adjacent corridor and rooms above, and was probably prompted by the arrival of the Darwins’ son Frank who came to live at Down with his baby son after the death of his wife. In his final years, however, Darwin transferred from his Old Study into the new ground-floor room, to be called the New Study.
Botanical Experiments at Down House
Shortly after the Darwins arrived at Down House, work began on improving a ‘detestable slip’ of land in use as a kitchen garden.
In the late 1850s, while writing On the Origin of Species, Darwin took over a corner of the kitchen garden for his ‘experimental beds’. One of his most important discoveries, of ‘heterostylous’ species, was a significant step in his investigations into plant evolution. In later years this formed the basis of Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, published in 1877.
In the last two decades of his life, Darwin’s botanical experiments in the gardens and greenhouse at Down House characterised his working life after the publication of On the Origin of Species.
In the early 1860s he had a hothouse built adjoining the greenhouse to provide the specialised growing environment he needed for experimentation. Darwin jotted the results of his investigations in an ‘Experiment Book’, begun in 1855 and kept until 1867, and centred mostly on the growth patterns and reproductive behaviour of plants.
These notes prompted a second tier of publications, the first of which was On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862). In this work Darwin demonstrated how intricate variations in the design of different orchids evolved to assist insect cross-pollination.
The Darwin Museum
The plight of the house was brought to the attention of Sir Arthur Keith, curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. He used his 1927 presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) to make a plea for support to preserve Down House as a national memorial to Darwin, and found a benefactor for the cause in an eminent surgeon, Sir George Buckston Browne.
Sir George was able to buy Down House for £4,250 and footed a further bill of £10,000 for repairs. In the space of two years Down House was restored, with the assistance of Darwin’s only surviving son, Leonard.
He used his photographs and memories of Down House in his father’s lifetime to recreate his father’s Old Study and the family returned many pictures and other possessions that still remain at the house.
Apart from a period of closure during the Second World War, the ‘Darwin Museum’ was maintained by the BAAS, and then by the Royal College of Surgeons, for nearly 60 years, under a succession of resident honorary curators.