The Old Study at Down House was the centre of Charles Darwin’s daily routine. It was in here that he performed experiments, wrote to fellow scientists and composed his groundbreaking works – including ‘On the Origin of Species’.
The beautiful Victorian interior has been recreated from original photographs, and contains almost every piece of furniture from Darwin’s time.
Here are eight details from the Old Study to inspire you.
1. Good light and a comfortable chair
Darwin sat in this mahogany-framed horsehair chair, which had been specially adapted to his long-legged frame by raising it up on cast iron legs. It also had casters added so that he could easily move from one workspace to another.
As the room is on the north side of the house, the sun only shines in directly first thing in the morning. For the rest of the day, the steady ‘cold’ light conditions were perfect for Darwin’s detailed scientific work.
2. A microscope and other equipment
Everything in the room was arranged around the rectangular ‘Pembroke’ table (a small table with fixed legs and a drop-leaf on each side) which was Darwin’s main work space.
Some of Darwin’s key equipment stood on here, including his microscope.
3. The drum table
The baize-covered drum table stood near the window, scattered with glass-stoppered bottles and pillboxes. Darwin stored insect and seed specimens in them.
4. Writing materials
As well as his books and scientific papers, Darwin was a prolific letter-writer. Pen nibs, pens, letters and parcels of books are all over the study. He corresponded with many leading scientists, including Alfred Russell-Wallace who (independently) came to the same conclusions about natural selection as Darwin.
Darwin was often ill, but when he was enjoying better health his working and writing routine was fairly fixed. He’d work until noon, with a walk before both breakfast and lunch. In the afternoon he’d write letters, read the newspapers and take another walk – then work from around 4.30pm until a rest, dinner and spending more time with his family.
5. Skulls and bones
One of Darwin’s most famous theories is that humans are descended from apes, but he also drew conclusions about evolution from observing other species.
He spent eight years reclassifying the entire barnacle sub-class to prove his credentials as a zoologist. He also undertook experiments breeding pigeons and varieties of plants at Down House. This skull of a primate, collected by Darwin, is on the sideboard – and there are numerous other skeleton samples in the collection.
6. The writing board
Rather than sit at the table, Darwin balanced this cloth-covered writing board on the arms of his chair (which eventually wore away the upholstery).
7. Pigeonhole shelves
Darwin kept his books and papers in the alcove to the right of the fireplace – which you can see above in the first picture. He used the pigeonhole shelves for filing notes on works in progress. He learned to be organised and methodical in his filing from working in confined conditions onboard the HMS Beagle.
8. Family members
Working from home mean that Darwin was close to his beloved family. His children remembered being allowed to join him in the study ‘tucked up on the sofa looking at the old geological map’ when they were unwell.
This family album isn’t in the study (sorry!), but on the right hand side it shows a daguerreotype portrait of Charles Darwin with his eldest son William in 1842. It’s the only known photograph with Darwin and a member of his family.
Remembering Charles Darwin
Darwin Day is now marked on his birthday, 12 February, and was organised to “inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin.”
- Love Darwin’s study? You could volunteer at Down House as a room explainer. You don’t need to be an expert already, you just need to be keen to share your enthusiasm – all the details are at the link above.
Visit the Home of Charles Darwin – Down House
Down House is in Kent, not far from Junction 4 of the M25.
You’ll find details of prices and opening times, as well as more information about what you can see and do at the site, here.