Blue Plaques

DARWIN, Charles (1809-1882)

Plaque erected in 1961 by London County Council at Biological Sciences Building, University College, (site of 110) Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London, WC1E 6BT, London Borough of Camden

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Naturalist, Geologist

Category

Science

Inscription

CHARLES DARWIN 1809-1882 Naturalist lived in a house on this site 1838-1842

Material

Ceramic

Notes

Replaced LCC plaque of 1906

Charles Darwin was a British naturalist, geologist and biologist who is best-known for his theory of natural selection. He is commemorated with a blue plaque on the Biological Science Building, University College London, which was built on the site of Darwin’s former homer at 110 Gower Street.

Watercolour painting of Charles Darwin
Portrait of a young Charles Darwin in 1840, while he was living at Gower Street © GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

THE VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE

Darwin belonged to a family of well-connected free thinkers. Uncertain of his future calling, he studied medicine briefly before entering the Church – but all the while he was pursuing his real passions: biology and natural history.

In 1831 Darwin was recommended for a position as naturalist to HMS Beagle, captained by Admiral Robert FitzRoy. Leaving later the same year, the five-year scientific survey of South American waters also took in the Galápagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia, returning via Cape Town and St Helena and Ascension.

The voyage proved to be the turning point in Darwin’s career. As he told his sister soon after returning to England in October 1836, he now had an ‘interest for the rest of his life’ and clearly saw his future as a scientist.

LIFE AT GOWER STREET

On his return to England, Darwin spent six months in Cambridge as a gentleman geologist before moving to London. He moved to 12 Upper Gower Street (later 110 Gower Street) at the very end of 1838, just prior to marrying his cousin Emma Wedgwood early the following year.

‘Gower St is ours,’ he wrote to Emma, ‘yellow curtains & all’. As he looked around at the geological specimens piled high in the hall and stuffed into his own room and a servant’s upstairs, Darwin wrote again: ‘There never was so good a house for me, & I devoutly trust you will approve of it equally.— the little garden is worth its weight in gold’. The couple nicknamed the townhouse ‘Macaw Cottage’, owing to its riotous interior colour scheme.

To his surprise, Darwin took to London life: ‘there is a grandeur about its smoky fogs, and the dull, distant sounds of cabs and coaches; in fact you may perceive I am becoming a thorough-paced Cockney’, he told a friend in 1839. However, partly due to his ‘unwellness’, a serious but still undiagnosed illness that left him fatigued and nauseous, the couple withdrew from society life. But Darwin continued to attend the meetings of several scientific societies, and acted as secretary to the Geological Society.

It was during his time at Gower Street that he wrote The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842), inspired by his five-year travels, and arranged for the naturalists’ descriptions to be published as The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1838–43). It was also when he started to sketch out his evolutionary theories.

Lithograph drawing of a fish from Darwin's voyage on the HMS Beagle
Lithograph after a drawing by Waterhouse Hawkins from ‘The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle’, published by Darwin while living at Gower Street © SSPL/Getty Images

THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES

In September 1842 the family moved to Down House on the fringes of London in Kent. It was here he developed his life’s work: the origin of species. In 1858 he published his initial findings jointly with Alfred Russel Wallace, who had developed his own theory of natural selection. But Darwin – who was now extremely unwell and fearful that his reputation would be eclipsed by Wallace’s – turned his abstract of ‘natural selection’ into a book – On the Origin of Species (1859).

The book was applauded by younger scientists, but heavily criticised by the Church and some parts of the press, who feared the implications of its anti-Creationist findings upon religion and society. Darwin himself avoided controversy and it was left to Wallace and others, including Thomas Huxley, to defend the theory in public. The debates foreshadowed the sea change in Victorian thinking to which Darwin’s revolutionary ideas contributed.

Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, considered a sequel to the Origin, in 1871.

Charles Darwin died at Down House in 1882 and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. Find out more about how to visit Down House, including information on opening times, access and site facilities.

Sepia-toned portrait of Charles Darwin, leaning against a tree at Down House, Kent
Darwin on the verandah at Down House in November 1881

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