The evolution of Darwin: a Shrewsbury Tale

From his schoolboy experiments in a garden shed to a race against the mailcoach, Shrewsbury played a pivotal role in Darwin’s development. Did the “three pillars of Shrewsbury” and a dash of luck result in his revolutionary theory of evolution?

Darwin StatueHear the name Charles Darwin and the Galápagos Islands might spring to mind, home to giant tortoises and finches with a variety of beak shapes. Or Down House, now in greater London, where the naturalist settled with his wife Emma and strode along his “thinking path”. It’s unlikely your thoughts would turn to Shrewsbury, a mediaeval market town nestled in a loop of the River Severn near the Welsh border. But Darwin was born here back in 1809 and Shrewsbury was instrumental in his life in no less than three ways. That’s according to Jon King, founder of the Darwin Shrewsbury Festival held here in February each year.

A former radio producer, King bases his Darwin tours on the pillars of the sculpture on Shrewsbury’s Pride Hill that has more to it than meets the eye. This year King led a toast to Darwin at noon on February 12th, the great man’s birthday. The town has celebrated its famous son this way every year since 2002. Around 30 people, including me, drank sparkling fruit juice in Morris Hall Courtyard, the site of the Bellstone, a lump of granite from the north that intrigued Darwin as a child. When Charles was young, no-one knew how this heavy boulder, about two foot across, travelled the hundreds of miles to Shrewsbury.

The Bellstone
The Bellstone

In a way, Darwin’s career stems from this stone, King told us. Once he learned the secret of its transport as a student, the Bellstone showed Darwin that science can answer questions that had seemed impossible to solve. His interest in rocks later won him a place on HMS Beagle. And his understanding of geological time gave Darwin a sense of how tiny changes to animal bodies could, over decades and centuries, form entirely separate species – a key part of his theory of evolution. So Shrewsbury’s geology is pillar one in the foundation of Darwin.

Off to school

After reading from Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species”, which was published in 1859, King shepherded us out of the courtyard on the hunt for the next pillar, past a couple of people who kindly offered us leaflets on “Evolution, Fact or Fiction?” They’d picked a tough audience; I didn’t see anybody accept. The next stop was Darwin’s first school, round the corner at Claremont Place. In his time here Darwin was most struck by the burial of a dragoon in the churchyard next door, King told us. As was traditional, the dead soldier’s horse approached the graveside with its former rider’s boots facing backwards in the stirrups.

Darwin's first school, 13 Claremont Place
13 Claremont Place

It helps in imagining times long gone that many of Shrewsbury’s old buildings survive. The town escaped bombing in the Second World War and still has narrow alleys winding up steps between half-timbered houses with upper stories that loom overhead. Some say it’s an insight into how London would be today had history turned out otherwise. Shrewsbury hasn’t been entirely immune to conflict, though. King also showed us Traitor’s Gate, where John Benbow let Parliamentary soldiers in through the city walls during the Civil War.

Open to insights

But before the Civil War detour, we headed to the Unitarian Church on the High Street. An unassuming, flat-fronted stone building, largely surrounded by shops, this is an unexpected candidate for the second of King’s pillars. Darwin’s mother, Susannah Wedgwood of pottery family fame, was a Unitarian. The plaque on the wall outside says that this Christian religion is “open to insights from world faiths, reason and science”, an approach that may have helped Darwin see beyond the biblical seven-day creation story. Although Darwin attended this church until Susannah died when he was eight, his christening was at St Chad’s, a Church of England building with an unusual circular nave. In those days, you had to be a member of the Church of England to go to university or become an MP. Darwin was christened with water from a silver bowl but may have preferred today’s font, which has plenty of fossils in its polished yellow stone. In the graveyard, beneath a yew tree, lies a tombstone carved with the name Ebenezer Scrooge, a legacy from the 1984 filming of A Christmas Carol by another Charles – Dickens – who was born in Portsmouth three years after Darwin and published reviews of On the Origin of Species in his magazine All the Year Round.

Back to school

Shrewsbury library
Shrewsbury library

Outside Shrewsbury library, we heard about the next stage in Darwin’s education. It didn’t go much better than his first. The young Charles boarded and studied in this building, which was then Shrewsbury School, from the age of eight. He wasn’t a fan of Latin and preferred to be in the garden shed at home with his brother Erasmus doing chemistry experiments that blew up every now and then – his school-friends called him “Gas”. In his autobiography Darwin wrote “nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr Butler’s school”. Now there’s a statue of him, bearded and eminent in a high-backed chair, sitting outside the very building he disliked so much. Although he does have his back to it. Facing him, there’s a statue, just head and shoulders, of Shropshire poet and novelist Mary Webb. The town is a literary hotbed; First World War poet Wilfred Owen went to technical college here. There’s a memorial sculpture to him in the grounds of the Abbey, where another local author, Edith Pargeter, set her detective tales of mediaeval monk Cadfael. And TV gardener and writer Percy Thrower was parks superintendent; there’s a memorial to him in the garden he created – The Dingle – in Quarry Park, where Darwin hunted for newts. Dickens visited Shrewsbury too, reading out his novels from a hotel balcony.

Inside the library, there’s 18th century schoolboy graffiti on wood panelling beneath the upstairs windows. Today’s Shrewsbury students seem more dedicated. When I went in, almost every seat and windowsill held a young person bent over their books. Later I discovered that not only are the town’s youngsters conscientious but they also have excellent fashion sense; a group stopped me to ask questions for their survey on public transport and one of them told me she liked my hat. It’s a friendly place; on another occasion there was a two second gap between my opening a map and somebody offering directions.

The Mount
Darwin’s childhood home in Shrewsbury, The Mount.

Darwin, however, didn’t find his direction until later. Even then it was more by luck than design. His formal schooling hadn’t helped, but his home-life did. Susannah was a keen botanist and the family kept notebooks about the garden at their Shrewsbury home, The Mount, including details such as planting date and shade conditions. This background in record-keeping was to stand Darwin in good stead for writing field notes – it’s the final pillar of Shrewsbury’s influence. That said, this town didn’t provide everything Darwin needed to come up with his theory of evolution. It gave him the pillars but not the luck that helped bring them together. That came from Cambridge, a couple of rounds on Darwin’s sorry educational treadmill later.

Scotland rocks

After Shrewsbury School, and a summer spent helping his doctor father Robert at the town’s infirmary, which is now the impressively-columned Parade Shopping Centre, Darwin headed to Edinburgh to read medicine. It was here, whilst skiving from his medical studies at a geology lecture, that Darwin discovered that the Bellstone travelled to Shrewsbury in a glacier during Britain’s frozen past. During his time in Edinburgh Darwin also investigated marine life in the Firth of Forth. Working as a doctor wasn’t for him and so he went on to Cambridge University to study for the church, “the next best thing after medicine”, in King’s words. All the while Darwin kept up his interest in natural history on the side, which was acceptable as a science because it involved “the wonders of God’s creation”.

This is where the luck came in. It’s through this hobby that he ended up on HMS Beagle. Darwin studied in Cambridge with mineralogist, botanist and priest John Stevens Henslow. When Captain Robert FitzRoy needed a ship’s geologist, naturalist and companion to accompany him on his expedition, he asked Henslow. But Henslow didn’t want to go and recommended Darwin. FitzRoy duly sent an invitation letter to The Mount but Robert Darwin refused to fund his son’s participation and Charles wrote back declining. But then his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, persuaded Robert to change his mind. Charles raced his letter rejecting the offer to London in a coach that left from the Lion Hotel on Shrewsbury’s Wyle Cop. He arrived too late. FitzRoy had already received the reply and offered the position to somebody else. In another stroke of luck, that candidate rejected it too – without changing his mind – so Darwin was on board. In 1831 he left Shrewsbury for Plymouth to join the ship, again from the Lion Hotel, where coachman Sam Haywood was renowned for his ability to drive a coach and horses up the steep hill and make a right-angle turn at speed through the hotel’s narrow archway. During his five years on HMS Beagle, Darwin toured South America, where he encountered those finches and giant tortoises in the Galápagos Islands. Finally, he headed home, via New Zealand and Australia, with copious field notes.

Darwin's Gate
Darwin’s Gate

An archway, this time free-standing rather than part of a hotel, forms another stop on King’s tour. The Darwin Gate sculpture between Pride Hill and the corner of Claremont Street has three separate columns, each topped by a broad scythe-like blade pointing towards the centre. If you’re lucky and find the right place to stand by chance, or King tells you where – on Mardol outside the travel agent, all three metal blades appear to join together at the top, in a single Gothic arch. The three pillars of Darwin’s experiences in the town – its geological history, the liberal nature of the Unitarian Church, and the Darwin family notebooks – have come together, with the aid of some luck, to help him develop his revolutionary, ages-spanning theory of evolution. “All you need is perspective,” King told us. And perhaps to have been born in Shrewsbury.

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