The Darwins arrive at Down House, Kent.

One hundred and seventy one years ago Charles Darwin and his heavily pregnant wife Emma arrived at Down House.  Their initial impressions of the house were less than favourable but Annie Kemkaran-Smith, the house curator, shares what it came to mean to them.

Down House, Kent. ©English Heritage

When the Darwins moved to Down House in September 1842, their main aim was to have a quiet peaceful life, away from the London crowds and smog, so that they could raise their two children, William and Annie. It was also a place where Charles could continue his studies and concentrate on expanding his ideas about natural selection.

Charles Darwin with his eldest son William Erasmus.
©English Heritage

The next forty years were filled with a happy family life where eight more children were born, but also interspersed with tragedy as three of their ten children would succumb to illnesses that proved fatal. There was also the controversy of Darwin’s work, with the publication of On the Origin of Species in November 1859 causing outrage amongst many religious quarters and exposing Charles to widespread criticism as well as acclaim.

It was during this time that Down House played a vital role in sheltering Darwin and providing a haven away from the wider world.

Undoubtedly the room where he spent much of his time was his study. Filled with books and scientific equipment it was here where he had written up preliminary outlines of his great work Origin in 1842 and 1844, and also spent a period of eight years studying barnacles. Situated just to the left of the front door the study was in an ideal position, with clever angling of a mirror, to see who had arrived and he could choose whether he was available to callers or not.

Darwin's Study, Down House.©English Heritage
Darwin’s Study, Down House.©English Heritage

In 1876 a new extension was built to provide a ‘New Study’ for Darwin. This room was larger than the ‘Old Study’ and although he enjoyed the extra space, he was sometimes found sitting in the Old Study instead, perhaps missing the intimacy and the memories it evoked. He also enjoyed spending time with his wife and children in the Drawing Room. Built as an extension in 1858 it provided a spacious family area facing the garden where the family would gather in the mornings to read family letters and in the evening to hear Emma play the piano or read aloud from popular novels.

Although throughout his four decades at Down Darwin regularly spent time in the gardens, it was towards the end of his life that he really focussed his work on the life-forms just outside the windows. During the last ten years of his life he published four books on plants and one book on earthworms – all based on the experiments that he carried out and the evidence he gathered in his own garden. He would often be found in the glasshouses pottering around his plants and observing the natural rhythms of life.

All of the Darwin children would later in life have fond memories of their Father who would delight in playing with them and taking them on countryside rambles. But they all remember him during the last years of his life being most comfortable sitting on the Verandah in a wicker chair, gazing out on the flower beds and looking entirely at peace.

Emma Darwin and her family at Down House. ©English Heritage

Down House is now owned by English Heritage and you can find opening times and visitor information here.

Annie Kemkaran- Smith Curator of Down House ©English Heritage
Annie Kemkaran- Smith Curator of Down House
©English Heritage

Many thanks to Annie Kemkaran-Smith for kindly writing this guest post and to Melissa Gerbaldi for allowing me to use these images.

Thanks for reading it too.


Published by

Rachael Hale (Homes and History Magpie)

Freelance home interiors and Kent history writer. Member of the Society of Authors. Find me via Twitter - @rachaelhale1 Read my home interiors and history blog -

7 thoughts on “The Darwins arrive at Down House, Kent.

  1. Thanks for a really interesting piece Annie, and Rachael. Have you seen the large mural on a house in market square Bromley? Part of it is of Darwin, can;t remember what, but very impressive


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s