Darwin Family Treasures Return to Scientist's Home

A keepsake box once belonging to Charles Darwin's daughters will be displayed at Down House, the family's home in Kent.

A keepsake box that once belonged to Charles Darwin’s daughters containing family mementos associated with the great scientist has been donated to English Heritage, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

The red leather box and its treasures – which include shells gathered by Darwin on his famous Beagle Voyage – will go on display at the Home of Charles Darwin, Down House, in Kent later in the year, following conservation by English Heritage.

Charles and Emma Darwin initially gave the box to their eldest daughter Annie (the original label on the box’s key is marked ‘Annie’s red box’) but when she died aged 10 in 1851 – a tragedy which devastated the Darwin family – the box passed to her sister Henrietta.

Etty (as she was nicknamed) continued to fill it with souvenirs, including locks of hair belonging to different members of the Darwin family (including Emma and Henrietta), Charles’ silk handkerchief embroidered with the initials CD, and shells collected during Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle between 1831-36 which his daughters later carefully labelled using scrap paper from the naturalist’s draft manuscripts.

The box will go on display at the Home of Charles Darwin, Down House, later in the year. Darwin lived at Down House for 40 years until his death in 1882 and it was here that he wrote his ground-breaking scientific masterpiece, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection (1859).

The keepsake box reminds us that Darwin’s work and family life were deeply intertwined, for instance Henrietta helped him to edit The Descent of Man (1871) in which he applied his theories of evolution to mankind. English Heritage announced the donation of the box on the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication.

In 1897, Henrietta gave the box to her niece Margaret Keynes and it remained in the Keynes family until earlier this year when it was donated to English Heritage from the estate of Richard Darwin Keynes, great-grandson of Charles and Emma Darwin.

English Heritage curator, Olivia Fryman, said:

“This charming keepsake box gives us an intimate insight into Victorian habits of collecting, the life of Charles Darwin and how his scientific work and family life were intertwined. A treasured object, carefully preserved over the generations, the box will give visitors to Down House a valuable sense of Darwin’s work and the family who surrounded and supported him. We are incredibly grateful to the Keynes family for donating such a personal item.”

Speaking on behalf of the Keynes family, Simon and Randal Keynes, the great-great-grandsons of Charles Darwin, said:

“We are delighted to return this box, long treasured by Darwin’s daughter, Etty, and granddaughter, Margaret, to Down House for display among the other objects there which remind visitors of its many years as a family home.”

As a charity, English Heritage relies on the generous support of its members and visitors to care for historic artefacts such as the keepsake box and with sites such as Down House currently closed due to the pandemic, that support is all the more important.

The Darwin keepsake box is in need of conservation to stabilise the leather surface of the box and some of the contents. English Heritage is asking for the public’s help to fund this expert care so that once Down House opens its doors again, the box can take pride of place and help to better tell the story of Charles Darwin, his family and the house in which they lived.

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