Victorians

Who was Charles Darwin?

You might know his name, but who exactly was Charles Darwin? Join us on a whistle-stop tour of Darwin’s life and legacy, from his epic voyage across the globe to the home-grown experiments in his back garden at Down House.

Image: Down House, home of Charles Darwin
Down House - Charles Darwin's former home in Kent

A family home

Down House was Charles Darwin’s home for 40 years. He lived here with his wife Emma and their children, from 1842 until his death in 1882. They had 10 children in total, although three sadly died in childhood.

Darwin used the landscape surrounding his home as a laboratory. He made observations of the nature he saw around him, and his daily walks were important thinking time. But Down House wasn’t just a place for Darwin’s work - life at there was fun as well. Charles and Emma Darwin had a happy family life with their children. They played music, read books and played games like backgammon.

Image: a view inside of Darwin's study
Charles Darwin's study at Down House

Starting an evolution

Charles Darwin is famous because of his Theory of Evolution. He wrote his influential book On the Origin of Species in 1858–59 at Down House.  It explained the idea that species of animals and plants evolved over time.  Today evolution is generally accepted as fact, but when Darwin published his book, his thoughts were considered very controversial, especially the idea that humans, apes and monkeys are related.  Darwin wrote about human evolution in his second book, The Descent of Man, which was published in 1871.

Natural curiosity

Darwin loved his garden. He carried out observations and experiments in his greenhouse to see how plants compete and adapt to changing circumstances, and recorded his investigations in an ‘Experiment Book’. Here are three of the experiments Darwin conducted at Down House that you can try at home.

  • Grow your own jungle

    A terrarium is a small glass container with plants inside.  Try making your own with some small plants like succulents, ferns or moss.

    🔎 Watch them grow towards light and fill the space.
    🔎 How fast do the different plants grow?
    🔎 Which plants are more successful?

  • Friendly flycatcher

    Try growing a cape sundew at home – these small carnivorous (meat-eating) plants will fit on a windowsill and catch flies on their sticky tendrils! Keep them well-watered and warm.

    🔎 Record how many flies the sundew catches.
    🔎 Does changing its location make a difference?

  • Seed Sailors

    Darwin wanted to see if seeds could cross oceans. Soak cress seeds in salty water (the 'sea'), then sprinkle them onto compost. Add some seeds that haven't been soaked too – this is called a control.

    🔎 Which seeds germinate first?
    🔎 How do salt-soaked seeds compare to no salt?

HISTORY AT HOME LIVE! – CHARLES DARWIN AND DOWN HOUSE

Watch TV's Ben Shires and expert guest Antony O'Rourke in this video history lesson. Learn about Charles Darwin and his home of four decades, Down House, where he worked on many of his experiments and ground-breaking theories.

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