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.Download a plan of Down House
The Darwins Arrive
Although Charles Darwin described Down House as ‘ugly’ and looking ‘neither old nor new’ in a letter to his sister, it was precisely what he and his wife, Emma, were looking for: a house ‘at the extreme verge of the world’ with room for expansion, acres of land, and neighbours who were neither ‘too near nor too far’.
The primary motivation for moving to the countryside was for the benefit of the children. In the summer of 1842 Emma was six months pregnant with her third child, and liberation from their cramped house in London became pressing. The couple and their young family moved into Down on 24 September 1842.
The following spring Darwin began improving the property. He commissioned Edward Cresy, the previous occupant’s architect, to make further changes to the house. The main change was the addition of a full-height bay window with views across the garden, which involved raising the ceiling and the height of the rooms above it.
He also had the lane at the front of the house diverted and dug down a few feet to give the family more privacy from passers-by travelling from Downe village.
Instead of having the entrance door facing north, as shown in WA Johnson’s sketch (above), he built an external corridor along the north side of the house with the front door opening eastwards.
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.Read a description of Down House
Family life at Down House
Charles and Emma were unusually broad-minded Victorian parents and from a young age their children were encouraged to express themselves freely. ‘We were always free to go where we would & that was chiefly the drawing room and about the garden, so that we were very much with both my Father & Mother’, recalled the Darwins’ daughter Henrietta Litchfield.
In all, Emma Darwin bore ten children, of whom three died young: Mary within weeks of the move to Down in 1842, the eldest daughter, Annie, in 1851 at the age of ten from tuberculosis, and Charles Waring of scarlet fever when it tore through the village in 1858.
The surviving five boys and two girls flourished at Down. They had each other as playmates, as well as many cousins from the Wedgwood branch of the family. Darwin, who had worried that marriage would prevent him his ‘choice of Society & little of it’, resigned himself with good will to the constant supply of family and friends.Find out more about the Darwins' life at Down House
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.Read more about Darwin's experiments in the garden
Down after Darwin
After Darwin’s death in 1882, Emma, together with the children and grandchildren who were still resident at Down House, moved to Cambridge. Emma returned every year, however, to spend her summers at Down until her death in 1896.
The children kept the house on, unoccupied, until the turn of the century, at which point a succession of short-term tenancies followed. In 1907 the house became Downe House, a school for girls run successfully by Miss Olive Willis until 1921, when it moved to larger premises in Cold Ash, Berkshire.
Another school opened in its place but failed to emulate Miss Willis’s success, and Down House languished empty for a few years, in an increasing state of disrepair.
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
English Heritage and Down House
The Royal College of Surgeons ceded responsibility for Down House to the Natural History Museum in the late 1980s. In 1996 the house passed into the care of English Heritage, which bought Down House and its contents with support from the Wellcome Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
English Heritage’s first commitment was to undertake major structural repairs to ensure the long-term stability of Down House for public access. The ground-floor rooms were restored to how they would have looked in Darwin’s time, and an exhibition exploring his life and work was installed on the first floor.
The house reopened to visitors in 1998, and in that year a long-term programme of work was begun to restore the gardens, which is now complete.Buy the Guidebook to Down House
About the Author
Tori Reeve was a curator with English Heritage for ten years, and wrote the guidebook to Down House, published in 2009. Since 2008 she has been responsible for the historic collections and interiors of the Houses of Parliament.
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