Darwin Day Special: Darwin’s daily routine (and lagniappe photos)

February 12, 2021 • 9:30 am

The item below was singled out by the eminent Darwin scholar Janet Browne—you MUST read her magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin—as worth highlighting on Darwin’s birthday. It shows his catlike regularity, for his routine was vitally important to him, especially because he was chronically ill. And despite that illness, he wrote not just The Origin, but eleven other books, also keeping up a voluminous correspondence and doing his own empirical research.

Click on the screenshot to go to the piece at the fantastic Darwin Correspondence Project, the locus for all his letters and writings apart from the books.

The statement above is true: Darwin moved into Down House on September 17, 1842, and died there forty years later. At the website above, you can also virtually visit Darwin’s study (just as it was when he worked there) and his garden. If you’re in England and have any interest in Things Darwin, get yourself to Downe, just an hour or so from London, and visit his undervisited home. It is a moving experience, and there’s a lovely pub nearby. You can even walk the Sandwalk, the garden path Darwin laid out to walk and think about biology.

He was regular in his habits, if not his bowels (he had constant problems with his digestion):

Note that Darwin did three solid hours of work per day, interspersed with his correspondence, walks, rests, and meals. Note too that after dinner he would retire to the drawing room with the ladies rather than joining the men.

He was a creature of habit, and we’re the better for it. Below are some photos I took on my second visit to Down House in 2008:

Janet and my friend Andrew Berry, who taught an evolution course at Oxford in the summer and did visits to Darwin-related places. He enlisted Janet to give his students a tour of Down House, and I went along. What a great guide!

Janet explaining stuff to the students:

Darwin’s study. The chair is where he wrote The Origin, on a board that straddled the arms:

The famous Sandwalk:

Darwin’s straw hat (under glass, of course):

Professor Ceiling Cat gamboling at the rear of Down House (I was chubbier then!). You can see that this was the house of a wealthy man. Photo by Andrew Berry

38 thoughts on “Darwin Day Special: Darwin’s daily routine (and lagniappe photos)

    1. A friend volunteers in the garden.

      This year the lack of visitors has meant extra mould growing in the house because there was less air flow, so more work for conservators.

  1. The charm is intense in this post – captivating… like a time machine…

    I was always intrigued that Ralph Vaughan Williams was related to Charles Darwin. I can’t recall exactly in the moment if he was a nephew. There’s this quote :

    [From Wikipedia]
    When the young Vaughan Williams asked his mother about Darwin’s controversial book On the Origin of Species, she answered, “The Bible says that God made the world in six days. Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way”.[7]

    1. Yes my favourite English composer … his father died when he was quite young & with his Wedgewood/Darwin mother he spent his youth at Leith which is not far to the west in Surrey 👍

  2. The student on the far left looks highly suspicious of the photographer!

    Like GBJames Commented above, this is on my bucket list, probably at the very top, with Galapagos second. I’d love to do a whole Darwin’s Travels around the UK, if I could, see all the locations that Rebecca Stott, James T. Costa, and others have written about, especially places like Downe Bank, aka Orchis Bank, the Scottish coastline near Edinburgh, places where he did his beetle hunting and geologizing.

    I admit I haven’t read them yet, but Browne’s books are on my wish list. But then I haven’t read all of Darwin’s own books yet either.

  3. We visited Down House in July 2015. It was lovely(we had perfect weather as well). Of course we walked round the Sandwalk and toured the greenhouses and the gardens. Very very nice. Well done the people of the UK for keeping Down House and so many others in repair and available to visit.

    My reaction to touring the English countryside: You can barely swing a cat without hitting a stately country manor home!

  4. Does Browne mention Alexander von Humboldt as an influence/inspiration to Darwin? From Andrea Wulf’s 2015 bio on AvH, that I highly recommend, “The Invention of Nature”, I gathered that he was, and that Darwin took Humboldt’s tome with him on the Beagle.

    In reading her book I was astonished to learn how widely revered Humboldt was by the end of his life. He seems to occupy a position between Linnaeus and Darwin, but he’s almost unknown today. I just met a guy yesterday who confirms that – he’s lived the last 16yrs in Humboldt Co CA, off the grid, coming down out of his remote location a few times/yr to visit Nat’l Parks. What he was doing outside Pittsburgh besides getting a driveshaft for his Sprinter van that he travels in, I have no idea, but in any event he had no idea who Humboldt exactly was, and was happy to learn about the book.

    1. What I find astonishing is his lack of curiosity to know in the first place! I have always wanted to know as much as possible about where I have lived & what the name meant, but then I just want to know about everything! 🤓😎
      Whys & hows are endlessly fascinating…

    2. I tried to read Humbolt’s Personal Narrative of Travels but never made much headway. I really struggled to see what Darwin found so compelling. Is it just me?

    3. Loved Wulf’s book and am currently finishing Daniel Kehlmann’s wonderful Measuring the World, a novel about Humboldt and Gauss. Best book I’ve read in ages.

      1. I read it in the original German. It is extremely unusual in that it is written completely in indirect speech, despite much conversation in the book. Did the translation carry that over?

        1. I hadn’t actually noticed that, but you may well be right. It sometimes took several sentences to figure out who was talking. Kehlmann is really good on the math and science and is very very witty. I do read German reasonably well, but read this auf englisch. Am looking forward to reading his next book, Tyll. (Growing up I had a Cocker Spaniel named Til Eulenspiegel aus Wien.)

    4. Yes, p.600 of Janet Browne’s 1st volume index has a dozen references to Humboldt.
      And page 581, index of 2nd, about 4 mentions. Terrific books, thanks again Jerry from a few years ago.

      Humboldt has long been a hero of mine, is very famous in South and Central America.

      He and companion’s long journey there around 1800 is very interesting. I cannot imagine facing the humidity and dangers of the long voyage up the Orinoco (almost killed by 700 volt eels), confirming a Jesuit’s claim that its headwaters and the Amazon’s are connected (Casiquiare Canal), and the dangers of venturing from Spain’s Venezuela claims into Portugal’s Brazil claims.

      The journey down the Columbian and Ecuadorian Andes is less stressful sounding. They held the record for humans at altitude going up Chimborazo (highest mountain in the world measured from the centre of the earth!), but didn’t make the summit.

      I got accosted by an elderly Havana lady while having my picture taken by my wife in Cuba with my arm around Humboldt’s statue. She regarded herself as the someone to tip for that. But we stuck to a few children on the street for handing out a few treats, and trying to get them talking.

      He later lived in France for many years, the 2nd most famous European, snubbed by #1 Napoleon, who referred to his own wife as also being a gardener, in insulting Humboldt’s botanical achievements, then turning heel and leaving Humboldt dumbfounded.

  5. I visited Down House (in the village of Downe in Kent) back in 2015. Inspiring to say the least. For 10 to 15 minutes my wife and I were alone in his office which we still reminisce about. I don’t have any photos of the inside of the house. Seems like photo’s were prohibited. A combination of train and bus got us there from London.

  6. Since pandemic lockdown, I too feel like my life goes on like clockwork and that I am fixed on the spot where I will end it!

  7. The custodians of Down House are English Heritage: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/ Those of you who are planning to visit Down House at some time in the dim and distant future, when we are all allowed to travel again, and are likely to want to visit a few other places as well, might consider taking out a year’s membership. It pays for itself after three or four visits. (NB: senior citizens get a discount!)

  8. I’m very envious of your trip and would like to go myself – and I’m not usually into that kind of thing you do – like visiting graves. I’d make an exception for C.D. though.
    Having a strict routine like his is a good reliever of anxiety even for non-anxious people like myself: my (and my dog’s) days are (even pre-covid) pretty regular, if a touch bizarre. (like reading this site on waking at about 1-2am. hehehe)

    D.A. NYC

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