RECORD: Anon. 1927. [Recollection of Darwin by gardener Henry Wheeler.] Darwin at home: a crusty, snuff-taking recluse. Sunday Post (4 September): 3.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by John van Wyhe 12.2019. RN1

NOTE: Henry Wheeler does not appear to be mentioned in other sources about Darwin. Some of his recollections may be inaccurate and could have been influenced by Life and Letters etc. However, there are several details not available in the public domain at that time.


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DARWIN AT HOME: A CRUSTY, SNUFF-TAKING RECLUSE.

Stories of the Famous Scientist: Visitor Who confirmed Him in His Ape Theory.

There is an old couple living on the outskirts of London who knew Darwin at the time when the famous scientist was engaged on his now well-known experiments on the evolution of man.

They are Mr and Mrs Henry Wheeler, of Ronver Road, Lee, who were at one time employed by Darwin at his beautiful country home, Downe Hall, in a secluded corner of Kent. The interest aroused by Sir Arthur Keith, the celebrated Aberdonian professor, in confirming Darwin's theories, has brought the old couple into the limelight.

Dozens of strangers have called upon them within the past few days, and there is nobody better qualified to talk about him than the Wheeler family, who have served Darwin for many years.

"My outstanding memory of Darwin," said Mr Wheeler to a "Sunday Post" representative, "is his extremely eccentric manners. Although he was usually best of masters, and kindliness itself, he was inclined to be irritable on occasions. His life was ruled by a strict routine, and if things were not to his liking he would storm.

"One glance at Darwin was sufficient to indicate that he was one of the deep thinkers. He cared for nothing except his experiments, and, despite all his strange ways, he always took the most infinite pains to achieve a successful end to whatever he did. To prove to the world that man originated from a species of ape was his obsession.

An Early Riser.

"Darwin was one of the most punctual risers I have ever met," continued Mr Wheeler. "Every morning he left his bed at six o'clock and took his breakfast. He also had set ideas on physical exercise. At 7.30 to the tick of the clock he would walk alone along a broad, sandy path that ran from the house to the end of the woods on his estate. At the end of the path was a seat, where he would sit for five minutes before starting on his return walk. What a contrast to Mrs Darwin, who was a happy easy-going woman who, although she shared none of his secrets, worshipped him.

"Part of the sand walk was visible from the road, and it was a familiar sight to passers-by to see Darwin's broad, stumpy figure pacing the walk, clad in the old Inverness cloak and shabby, slouch hat that he always wore on his perambulations.

"I was but a lad of eighteen when Darwin was conducting some of his most important experiments. I was assistant to the head gardener, and used to get all sorts of queer jobs to do from my strange master. One was to keep him regularly supplied with ordinary earth worms.

Studying the Worms.

"Darwin himself would often spend hours on a small, roped-off piece of lawn, studying the habits of life of these lowly creatures.  I have known him spend a whole morning over a small piece of ground, transferring insects and objects from time to time into a tin. On these occasions he would never allow us near him. He was usually more irritable than ever at these times, and would explode into a temper if we showed our faces anywhere near.

"Another of my queer jobs was the catching of flies to feed a huge plant know as 'the fly catcher.' I never did know or find out its real name. It had leaves like small cups with jaws like a rat-trap on its outer edges. The cups were filled with a sweet substance like honey, and as the flies went in to drink, the jaws closed around it and the plant presumably consumed the fly. It was an uncanny plant, but Darwin's repugnance for it. When we could not get flies in the winter, I had to feed the inhuman thing on tiny bits of meat, an occupation that always made me shiver.

"Darwin kept most of his specimens in his study, where he spent most of his time, but if you wandered  round the grounds you would sometimes come unexpectedly upon evidence of one of his strange experiments. For instance, his greenhouse was full of the most beautiful blossoms, tended by my father-in-law, but if you passed right through you would suddenly enter a strange room in which everything was painted black.

"The Black Room."

"There were black sinks, benches, vases, shelves, and utensils. Even the walls were black. We called it the 'Black Room.' There was no window except for a tiny aperture high up in the wall at one end, through which a ray of light shone on to a plant that was placed in its path. Its object was, I was told, to ascertain the effect of light and darkness upon plants.

"Darwin was an inveterate snuff taker. On a polished table in the hall outside his study there always stood a great tin of the 'old man's comfort,' to which he was in the habit of popping out to thirty or forty times a day. When he strolled in the grounds he was never without a quantity of the narcotic in his waistcoat pocket.

"The great man himself scarcely ever ventured outside the confines of his estate, but Mrs Darwin frequently paid visits to the village, of which her famous husband was the squire, and she was very kind indeed to some of the more needy villagers. She was a very sweet woman, and always had a smile and a joke for everyone. She outlived Mr Darwin some ten years or so.

"The Darwins rarely received visitors. The only persons that visited the house were fellow scientists, and the scientist never entertained. If anyone came near and Darwin himself was about, the trespasser would receive a dressing down that often left him astounded. We all had orders to warn off anybody who came near the house, unless they were bona fide callers. Many people came to have a peep at the house just from curiosity.

"There is just one more story about Darwin that amused all those who heard it. One day the great man was working in the woods at the job of collecting some plants for experimental purposes. He was just about to return home when he was accosted by a particularly ugly-looking stranger, who, seeing the scientist's old working clothes, mistook him for a labourer, and asked—'Doesn't Charles Darwin live about here somewhere?'

"'Yes,' Darwin replied, pointing towards his home, 'over there.'

"'He thinks we has originated from an ape, doesn't he?' was the next impertinent question.

"Darwin considered for a moment, and then, looking straight at the man, answered, 'Well, he was not quite certain, but he's pretty sure now.'"

 


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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

File last updated 22 December, 2019