We take evolution so much for granted it’s easy to forget that the man who worked it out, Charles Darwin, lived in Zone 6, on the outskirts of London in the village of Downe, near Orpington.
In 1839, aged 30, after his five-year round-the-world exploration aboard HMS Beagle, taking in the Galápagos Islands and Cape Verde, Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood — they shared a grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood of pottery fame.
Married life began in Bloomsbury for the Darwins, who went on to have 10 children, two of whom died as babies, while one daughter died aged 10. In 1842, when the couple’s third child was born, they moved to an area then known as Kent.
They chose a square Georgian house in the pretty village of Downe, within reach of London, and lived there 40 years. Darwin built so many additions to Down House — wings, and a full-height triple-bay window — that it doubled in size.
The downstairs rooms contain much of the original mahogany furniture, paintings and rugs, plus Darwin’s library. In his study you can vividly imagine him working. His mahogany drop-leaf table, battered old armchair and the threadbare carpet are all there, along with a huge, chipped breakfront pine bookcase and his prehistoric-looking microscope.
There’s also the padded “dissection” stool on castors that the children, interrupting his work, rowed around the room on using his stick as a paddle. He had the armchair raised up on bits of iron, as his legs were so long.
Darwin used the 18-acre gardens and greenhouses for his plant evolution experiments. They are still laid out much as he had them. He brought worms into the house in flowerpots and put them on his wife’s piano, to establish whether they respond to music. They don’t — but they do respond to vibration.
LIFE AT DOWN HOUSE
The couple decorated their home together. Early in 1859 they had red flock wallpaper with gilded stars but later, and faithfully reproduced today, more delicate creams and duck-egg blue papers were used.
The hall had a practical lino floor with a geometric border inlay, and Darwin had a wooden slide made, which still exists, to sit over one flight of stairs so the children could fly down, giggling, on to the landing.
Wedgwood relatives took lunch in the formal dining room with its gilded over-mantel mirror and portraits, and used a grand Wedgwood brown-and-white Water Lily dinner service with gilded handles, which survives, as does Darwin’s blue velvet upholstered carver chair. There are original carpets, mainly red and blue, in the centre of the room with traditional red felt surrounds. These show wear — frugal Emma had them mended.
When Darwin wanted to escape he rang for Parslow the butler, and the pair made for the billiard room.
Darwin’s bedroom, just restored, is large and sunny with a triple-bay and a six-foot mahogany four-poster hung with floral chintz. A new red figured carpet has been woven. At the day’s end, Darwin relaxed on a chaise longue while Emma read to him. Not science, but the novels of Thackeray and Dickens. His favourite bedtime reading was a Mark Twain story about a frog. With no flushing loos they used a chamber pot, and Emma had a washstand.
There is so much left in this charming family house that you can really imagine the children careering about, Darwin experimenting, and Emma’s tolerant exasperation as an errant worm slithered across her piano. In this happy atmosphere, Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, which changed thinking and sold out on its first day of publication in 1859.
SHOP: the Down House shop stocks charming items including a “bee” range, with bone china mugs at £10.99, tea towels, £7, and coasters at £3.50. Its bestseller is Ginger Wine at £10.50. There are often plants for sale outside the shop.