RECORD: Anon. 1909. A visit to Darwin's village: reminiscences of some of his humble friends. Evening News (London) (12 February): 4.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned and transcribed by John van Wyhe. Corrections by Kees Rookmaaker 11.2008. RN2
A VISIT TO DARWIN'S VILLAGE.
REMINISCENCES OF SOME OF HIS HUMBLE FRIENDS.
FROM A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.
To-day is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose great work on the "Origin of Species," published just fifty years ago, changed the whole face of scientific belief, and was practically the first gospel of the theory of Evolution, now accepted by scientists all the world over. Bitterly, almost venomously, attacked at the time for this work, and still more when he published the famous "Descent of Man," his theories have gradually conquered, and to-day are recognised as fundamentally accurate.
This article describes a visit paid to Darwin's home, the little old-world village of Downe, in Kent, and some stories told to the writer by people in the village who knew Darwin in the old days.
Downe, the little Kent village where Charles Darwin had his home for forty years, lies tucked away among the valleys and ridges of the weald, some six or seven miles from Bromley.
The cold, keen February wind swept the downs when I visited the place to find some traces and memories of the great man who was born a hundred years ago to-day.
Three quiet little streets converge on the low flint-built ancient church and the churchyard in which still flourishes an old, old yew-tree—seven hundred and thirty years old, they told me, according to the parish register.
Opposite the inn is a very old cottage that once was the rectory. It is more than three hundred years old, and preserves the old kitchen and the doors with the latch inside worked by a string and bobbin.
Little white gate-posts and window sashes, the green of old ivy, old tiled roofs and weather boards give Downe the sleepy, peaceful picturesqueness of the typical English village—a hidden nook and corner of the downs.
LIVED IN RETIREMENT.
All over England it is the parson who is the storehouse of local gossip, tradition, and history; so I drove straight to Downe vicarage, and was received in the kindest way by Mr. Ffinden, the vicar, who came to the parish in 1871.
He was most willing to help me in any way. Yet to my surprise I found he could tell me very little about Darwin.
"He lived in such retirement that though I was here for eleven years before he died I hardly saw him half a dozen times, and then chiefly about affairs of business."
I gathered from Mr. Ffinden that Darwin's beliefs and theories find less than favour in his eyes.
"I confess that, perhaps, I am a bit sour over Darwin and his works. You see, I'm a Churchman first and foremost. He never came to church, and it was such a bad business for the parish, a bad example.
"He was, however, most amiable and benevolent and courteous, and very liberal. I remember his giving me a subscription for the church and the house—restoration or building. 'Of course,' he told me, 'I don't believe in this at all.' 'I don't suppose you do,' I said to him. Quite candid on both sides."
I bade Mr. Ffinden farewell and drove off to Darwin's house. It is only a little way out of the village, and stands close to the road. Eighteen months ago it was taken by two ladies, who have set up a girls' school.
One of the heads received me, and readily offered to take me over the grounds and through the house.
First we went down to the little greenhouse and the laboratory and the little "dark house" he had built just before he died for experiments in keeping plants without light.
Then down to the famous "sand walk" where Darwin used to stroll for daily exercise and recreation—an alley once gravelled, now green. On one side a sheltering plantation; on the other you look over a trim, thick hedgerow across a meadow that falls away into a valley rising to a ridge fledged and crowned with pleasant masses of wintry woods.
There are about twenty acres of land attached to the house, set about six hundred feet above the sea. An air of health and vigour moves around it, and the charm of the rather tame yet alluring country is most engaging.
The lawn, with its old sundial and its fine old limes, lies at the back of the house, which was enlarged by the addition of a beautifully proportioned drawing-room and a study in which Darwin worked in his later years. It is now a classroom, filled with the desks at which the girls work.
THE OLD STUDY.
The old study, widely known through the drawing by Alfred Parsons, is also given up to the girls. The mistress wondered what Darwin would think of the new phase of his house, and we agreed that he would probably be delighted.
I saw the bedroom where Darwin spent so many tormented nights, and thought with reverence of the courage and force that led him to his achievements through so much pain.
I had been told to look up Mr. John Lewis in the village, who used to do all the carpentry and joining work for the house.
I found him in his cottage, a short, hale man with white hair and beard and a rare smile.
"I hear you are quite an old friend of Mr. Darwin."
He straightened himself at once.
"I went to him sixty years ago as page for two years. I was fifteen then. Now I'm seventy-five.
"Mr. Darwin went to Malvern to Dr. Gully for the water cure. He wrote to my father to make him a tank thirteen feet deep, with a stage in the middle. And then there was a big cistern above that held six hundred and forty gallons. I had to pump it full every day for two years. Mr. Darwin came out and had a little dressing place, and he'd get on the stage and go down, and pull the string, and all the water fell on him through a two-inch pipe. A douche they called it.
A VERY COLD "DIP."
"He used to get up every morning at seven, and I had to have the big bath outside the study on the lawn to get cold. . . . I've seen it freeze often and me having to break the ice, and Mr. Darwin would come down and sit in a chair with a spirit lamp and all rolled around with blankets till the sweat poured off him in showers when he shook his head. . . . . I've heard him cry to the butler, 'Parslow, I'll be melted away if you don't hurry!'
"Then he'd get into the ice-cold bath in the open air. Then he'd go for an hour's walk in the sand walk, and then have breakfast and work till twelve, then have that douche through the two-inch pipe, then walk again for three-quarters of an hour.
"He took to smoking at the last—used to go up and lie down every day at three o'clock and have a cigarette.
"But he was always a rare man for snuff, black snuff, that Lundy Foot. He kept it on the hall table, in a big tin that held near two quarts, and he'd be running in and out of the study twenty times a day for a go.
"Dear, dear, an' a fine lot 'ud get spilled on the floor, and when the girls 'ud be sweeping you'd hear the sneezing.
"He hardly ever went out visiting. But they'd come to him. I've waited at table on Tyndall and Huxley and MacIntosh and Sir Charles and Lady Lyell and all o' them together.
"I left him and got my trade. I used to make all his tackle, and for Sir John Lubbock, too. I made many a pound over Sir John's ants.
"One day Mr. Darwin told me to make him six mahogany boxes, three inch square inside, and one side perforated zinc.
"I brought them up, and he bid me put them on six wee Dutch clocks and take off the hands. Then they were fixed so that the boxes went round and round with the clockwork. And he sowed seeds in them. I never could make out what it was for, but one day he says to me, 'I've gained my object.' But I never knew what that was.
"I made that dark house for him for experimenting with plants, but he died before he did anything with it. I was sorry; I'd ha' liked to seen his performance in there.
"He was a wonderful good man. There's some says he was an atheist, but I know better.
"Wonderful charitable people the Darwins were. Used to give away penny tickets for bread on the baker. I've given away thousands and thousands. And very good to the poor for blankets and coal and money till they got run on. One man used to brag in the pubs that he could live without work—till Mr. Darwin heard of it.
A HARD WORKER.
"Mr. Darwin was a ter'ble hard worker. He'd hardly have time to take notice of you when he passed. Not that he was proud, but you could see by his head that he was on for something.
"One day I was making a wire fence along the garden when he came up from his walk. 'John, listen to this,' he began, and he went right to the other end and took his watch and laid it on the wire. 'Do you hear it?' 'I do, sir.' 'I thought so,' says he, and went away. And I did hear it ticking. I don't know how.
"I made Mr. Darwin's coffin" (this with a look of important affairs). "They buried him in Westminster Abbey, but he always wanted to lie here, and I don't think he'd have liked it if he knew.
"I made his coffin just as he wanted it: all rough, just as it left the bench, no polish, no nothing'.
"But when they agreed to send him to Westminster they had to get another undertaker. And my coffin wasn't wanted, and they sent it back. This other one you could see to shave in.
THE UNUSED COFFIN.
"I kept the coffin by me a long time, I thought I might sell it. I got several bids of fifty poun', but didn't part with it. One gentleman I told about it said, 'Ask two hundred, you'll get it easy.' But I never did. I can show you letters from America and Germany about it."
"What became of the coffin?" I asked.
"I sold it for ten pounds to a young chap that kept a beerhouse out at Farnborough. He's dead since then."
I gathered that the coffin is still in the "beerhouse."
"Darwin laid in that coffin thirty-one and a half hours exactly. I put him in myself.
"The old people that knew him are nearly all gone now. The cook died the week before last, and the butler years ago. The gardener is still living. I want to see him and try to find out where was the dog's grave. I put a rail round it, but it's disappeared.
"I had a letter from Professor Arthur Edwards from New York asking me to send him a bit o' the coffin, some leaves off sandy-walk, and some o' the sand."
RELICS IN THE VILLAGE.
I took leave of Mr. John Lewis and went to see Mrs. Parslow, whose father-in-law was Darwin's butler for forty years. She was nurse to the Darwin grandchildren.
Mrs. Parslow has one very precious relic, nothing less than Darwin's snuff-box.
The village baker has a clock and some other things, bought at the sale of the house furniture.
And daily there voyages to the inn an old blue jug, the very same that Darwin had his supper beer sent up in night after night. It belongs to an old woman, to whom it was given by the cook before she died.
"I tell her it's desecration," said the pleasant landlady. "Only think what I'd feel like if I broke it some day—
"This used to be a very flourishing little place when Mr. Darwin was here. But, do you know, the village fair lived on him!
"The old people that knew him loved him, but they're nearly all gone. And the younger ones don't know or care."
I drove back through narrow climbing and falling roads, past grey flint walls and flint houses, past Lord Avebury's place with its huge rookery, noisy in the gathering dusk, back to Orpington (where the "buffs" come from), and there found a train to bring me from "Sleepy Hollow" to busy London again.
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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
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