Darwin in London – Commemorative Plaques and Family Baptism Records

Portraits of Charles Darwin and Emma Darwin. 1840. By George Richmond

During research concerning Charles and Emma Darwin’s life at number 12 Upper Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London, I identified several errors and vagaries in biographical material found in standard reference works. This note communicates corrections and clarifications.

This article appeared as Cain, Joe. 2014. Darwin in London. The Linnean: Newsletter and Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London 30 (2):13-21.

Darwin Commemorative Plaques on Gower Street

Fig 1 Drawing of London County Council commemorative plaque for Charles Darwin on the site of the house he rented at number 12 Upper Gower Street.
Figure 1. Drawing of London County Council commemorative plaque for Charles Darwin on the site of the house he rented at number 12 Upper Gower Street. This was unveiled in February 1906 and placed on the James Shoolbred Company’s lodging house at 106–112 Gower Street. Source: LCC (1907).

Confusion exists regarding the commemorative plaque for Charles on the site. There have been two plaques, and they are different in one key feature (Figures 1 and 2). In 1904, London County Council (LCC) agreed to erect a plaque on 110 Gower Street.[1] This was unveiled on 26 February 1906. It is visible but not legible in Huxley and Kettlewell (1965: 58) and Chancellor (1973: 102-3). It is barely legible in Barlow (1945). The plaque is discussed in detail by LCC (1907 1: 96-99) but it was not saved when the property was demolished following collapse of the building in 1941 and clearing of the site.

In July 1959, during construction of the University College London’s (UCL) Biological Sciences Building, the university’s Secretary proposed a replacement plaque to the LCC. This was approved, and the second plaque was unveiled on 11 January 1961.[2] UCL renamed the building ‘Darwin Building’ in 1982. The plaque is still visible today.

Should the date on which the Darwins arrived be 1838 or 1839? Neither seems satisfactory knowing what we know today from correspondence between Charles and Emma, and related materials. Charles signed the lease, paid a deposit and collected the keys to the property on 29 December 1838.[3] On 31 December 1838, Charles and his assistant, Syms Covington, began moving possessions from his flat at 36 Great Marlborough Street. That night was his first spent in the house.[4] Emma arrived on the couple’s wedding day, 29 January 1839, accompanied by Charles. (After the ceremony in Maer, they took a fast coach to Birmingham, then train to Euston Grove Station.) Importantly, none of the important intellectual work Darwin undertook in 1838 occurred in the house on Upper Gower Street. Moreover, Charles created symbolic meaning for 1839 in his first letter to Emma from the house, writing,

‘!!12 Upper Gower Stt!! | Monday January 1st 1839 | And the first of Our Marriage’. [5]

During the approval process for the second commemorative plaque, the Clerk of the Council to the Town Planning Subcommittee (Architectural and Historical Buildings, etc) reported Darwin’s residence began on 31 December 1838. However, other reports reviewed by the Clerk suggested (wrongly) that while Darwin had taken possession in December 1838, he only moved into the house on his marriage to Emma later in January.[6] Freeman (1982: 10-11) complained 1838 was an error of judgment, preferring 1839. His argument was that Charles’ first full day of residence was 1 January 1839.

Building Photographs

Fig 2 Second commemorative plaque for Charles Darwin on the site of the house he rented. This plaque was unveiled in January 1961 and placed on the Biological Sciences Building (now UCL Darwin Building) on Gower Street.
Figure 2. Second commemorative plaque for Charles Darwin on the site of the house he rented. This plaque was unveiled in January 1961 and placed on the Biological Sciences Building (now UCL Darwin Building) on Gower Street. Photo by Joe Cain.

Confusion also exists over photographs of the property. The house occupied by Charles and Emma was built by Alexander Hendy in 1785–87 as a five-floor terraced house, with its own front entrance and back garden.[7] No photographs of that building are known. The first recorded occupant dates from 1791.[8] George Scharf’s 1834-35 sketches are the best known depictions of the street.[9] Today, the least modified buildings along the street are 80, 87-89, and 93 Gower Street. The doorframe sketched for Freeman (1982) is a fantasy, modelled after doorframes at 123-129 Gower Street, which came later and do not match any of the surviving intact doorframes closer to the intersection with Torrington Place.

Huxley and Kettlewell (1965: 58) and Chancellor (1973: 102-3) depict buildings that were not the property in which the Darwins lived.[10] The property photographed is on the same site, but it is a substantially modified building. The transformation occurred after 1881 and incorporated four houses formerly on the original plot, including numbers 106-112 Gower Street. This was undertaken by the Tottenham Court Road furnishings company, James Shoolbred and Co. The property operated as lodgings for male employees in the company. An iron sign above the entrance at 112 Gower Street read ‘James Shoolbred & Compy’. The Company eventually took possession of properties 106–118 Gower Street and 98–102 Upper Gower Street, and built significant warehouse and stabling facilities in Gower Mews (National Central Library 1933). Numbers 98–102 operated as lodgings for female employees.[11] Census data shows the radical transformation (Table 1).

Table 1: Other known occupants of number 12 Upper Gower Street/number 110 Gower Street. Occupant numbers are derived from decadal census records and include those in service, visitors, etc. Sources: SL=Survey of London (LCC 1949 21: 83); information for 1841, 1951, through 1911 are drawn from England Census records.

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Gower Street in the late 19th century is described as ‘dull and monotonous’ (Walford 1873–78: 567) and ‘one of the dullest, gloomiest thoroughfares in town…’(Olsen 1976: 133). Emma Darwin described the garden as ‘smoky’ (Litchfield 1904 1:445). Shoolbreds left the property on Gower Street at some point after 1911. Muirhead (1927) reports no. 106–112 served as the Indian Students’ Union and Hostel, which opened in 1923. Later occupants have not been traced.

The building incorporating number 110 was not destroyed by explosion; rather, it collapsed following fire begun in adjoining properties, notably the National Central Library, now UCL Science Library, overnight 16–17 April 1941 (collapsed Shoolbred building shown in Barlow 1945: 279). Bloomsbury suffered particularly intense air raids that night (Filon 1977; Saunders 2005). Incendiary bombs caused damage to properties across 45 streets near Gower Street. According to London Fire Brigade reports, at 02:32 hours, incendiary bombs caused damage to Malet Place and the National Central Library. Damage and other particulars were reported as: ‘A building of 2, 3, and 5 floors and basement, covering an area of 250×120[ft], used as Library, Studios, Offices, and Stores about ¾ [75%] and contents severely damaged by fire and roof off. Rest of building Heat, smoke and water.’ At 03:15 hours, further incendiary bombs caused damage north on Gower Street near University Street, including a range of buildings of 2 and 3 floors and basement covering and an area of about 5 acres, adjoining and communicating. These were used as lecture halls, laboratories, library, offices and stores. The South Cloisters area of UCL’s Wilkins Building was severely damaged, and the roof collapsed.[12] The site was cleared and remained vacant until construction began on the Biological Sciences Building in 1959.

Baptism Records for Children of Charles and Emma Darwin

For the children of Charles and Emma Darwin, some baptism information either has been published in error, or it is missing from standard biographical dictionaries. For example, Keynes’s (2005a) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) entry for their first son begins:

Darwin, William Erasmus (1839-1914), subject of a study in child psychology, was born on 27 December 1839 at 12 Upper Gower Street, London, and baptized at St Pancras’s Church, Bloomsbury.

This baptism information is an error, most likely caused by a conflation of the England and Wales Birth Index (1837–1915) and a registration of baptism. The Birth Index is a registry of birth. It plainly records St Pancras as the Registrar’s District on entries for William Erasmus Darwin and Anne Elizabeth Darwin. However, these are civil districts, not church parishes and not records of baptism. Randall Keynes (2005b) ODNB entry for Anne Elizabeth Darwin also has an error in the detail about baptism. She was baptised on 4 June 1841 in St Peter’s Parish Church in Maer, not 2 June 1842 (Keynes 2005b). ODNB entries for other Darwin children do not provide baptism information.

Baptism registrations for the Darwin children based on church archives are presented in Table 2.[13] The pattern of baptisms suggests a fascinating interpretation. St Peter’s Church is 200m from Maer Hall, where Emma was born and lived until marriage. St Peter’s is the church where Emma, herself, was baptized.[14] Emma’s cousin Reverend John Allen Wedgwood (1796–1882) served as Perpetual Curate (1825–63), and the Wedgewood family used the church for many family services. For instance, on 4 June 1841, not only did Charles and Emma baptize their daughter Anne Elizabeth, but Emma’s brother and his wife also baptized their own daughter, Anne Jane Wedgwood.[15] The interval of time between birth and baptism for Charles and Emma’s children is notable.

Table 2: Records of baptisms for children of Charles Robert Darwin and Emma Darwin (née Wedgwood). Abbreviations: SRO: Staffordshire Record Office (Stafford), microfiche F3635/1/4 Maer Baptisms 1813-75; BLSLA: Bromley Local Studies Library and Archives (Bromley), St Mary the Virgin Parish registers Baptism Register 1813–83 P/123/1/10.

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It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Emma wanted her children baptised in the family seat, and while she resided on Upper Gower Street, Emma’s notion of ‘home’ remained focused on Maer. The baptism of Mary Eleanor Darwin at St Mary’s Church in Down is an exception to this pattern. Born sickly at Down House, her baptism took place, uncharacteristically, in haste. She was too weak for travel and the risk of death without baptism was a risk the Darwins were unwilling to take. Mary Eleanor died 16 October 1842.

Over time, the link between home and Maer faded for Emma. Down House came to possess that meaning for her after the death of her father (1843) and mother (1846). In 1845, Maer Hall passed into the ownership of William Davenport, pottery manufacturer.

The Darwins did not identify godparents for their children. Most likely, they did not have any. Charles told William Darwin Fox:

…we have not had Godfathers or Godmothers to our children, –not from any objection to their having such—but as we should in that case have been obliged to have stood proxies & we both disliked the statement of believing anything for another.[16]

The starting point for synoptic accounts of the Darwins in this period remains Browne (1995). Ashton (2012) is excellent for the broader frame of Bloomsbury.


1. Number 12 Upper Gower Street was renumbered to 110 Gower Street by London County Council in 1864 during a reordering of the street. A map showing the newly renumbered street is available in UCL Digital Collections as ‘Block plan of University College London’ 1930s (PID=18845). This is reproduced in Cain (2011).

2. For the 1961 plaque, personal correspondence, Elizabeth Wardle (Blue Plaques Administrator, English Heritage) to Joe Cain, 2 January 2008.

3. Darwin, Charles Robert to Wedgwood, Emma, 29 December 1838. Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-463 accessed on Fri 22 Mar 2013.

4. Darwin, Charles Robert to Wedgwood, Emma, 31 December 1838 to 1 January 1839. Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-466 accessed on Fri Mar 22 2013.

5. Darwin, Charles Robert to Wedgwood, Emma, 31 December 1838 to 1 January 1839. Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-466 accessed on Fri Mar 22 2013.

6. Details on the approval process provided by Elizabeth Wardle.

7. Upper Gower Street was part of an expansion north along Gower Street by the Bedford Estates. Source: Bedford Estates records, file: LE-BC-133. Thanks to Ann Mitchell, Archivist.

8. D. Sun Insurance policy (number 589987) for 12 Upper Gower Street taken out on 12 October 1791 by John Hedderburn. Located in London Metropolitan Archives file: CLC/ B/192/F/001/MS11936/381/589987.

9. George Scharf made two sketches of Upper Gower Street. ‘Top of Gower Street…’ (August 1835) is located in British Museum (registration number 1862,0614.746) and is available online via British Museum Collection Database. ‘Drawing by George Scharf of the Hospital soon after its completion’ (circa 1834) is located in UCL Special Collections: College Archives Photographs (PID=33447) and is reproduced in Cain (2011) and Harte and North (1991: 55), as well as online via UCL Library Digital Collections.

10. Huxley and Kettlewell (1965: 58) labels the photograph as ‘12 Upper Gower Street, London: the Darwins’ first home’ and credits his image to Whiffin Collection, London County Council Photo Library. This is misleading as the building in the frame is the entrance to 112 Gower Street (the Shoolbred sign is missing, suggesting this is after the company left the property after 1911) and the 1906 commemorative plaque is in view. Chancellor (1973: 102-103) credits his image to Hulton Picture Library, dates it to 1909, but wrongly attributes in the picture as ‘Maroon Cottage’. The Darwins called their home ‘Macaw Cottage’ in 1838-39 owing to decoration by a previous tenant: yellow curtains, blue walls, and red sofa.

11. Census records list the Shoolbreds men’s lodging as 106-118 Gower Street, sometimes called a ‘Drapery Est. Boarding House’. The records also list 98-102 Gower Street as lodging for female employees, none in 1891, 35 females in 1901, and 24 females in 1911. The census lists 104 Gower Street as a private residence.

12. Reports of Air Raid Occurrences by the London Fire Brigade. London Metropolitan Archives file: ‘Original Fire Reports’, LCC/FB/War/02/044.

13. In 2011, I submitted the Maer information to ODNB, and corrections to their online edition have been made.

14. Emma Wedgwood (born 2 May 1808) was baptized at St Peter’s Church, Maer on 22 May 1808.

15. Anne Jane Wedgwood (1841-1877) was the daughter of Henry Allen Wedgwood (1799- 1885) and Jessie Wedgwood (1804-1872). Henry Allen was Emma’s brother.

16. Charles Robert Darwin to William Darwin Fox, 23 August 1841. Darwin Correspondence
Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-606 accessed on Sat 23 Mar 2013.

17. Staffordshire Record Office (Stafford), microfiche F3635/1/4 Maer Baptisms 1813-75
(here, SRO), page 52. no. 413.

18. Rev John Allen Wedgwood (c1796-1882) served as Perpetual Curate at St Peter’s Church,
Maer, during 1825-63. He stopped performing baptisms at Saint Peter’s in July 1849.

19. SRO page 54. no. 425.

20. Local Studies Library and Archives in Bromley Central Library (LSL) St Mary the Virgin Parish registers. Baptism Register 1813-83 P/123/1/10.

21. Here, I prefer ‘Down’ to ‘Downe’. The former is in use until approximately 1870, compare 1867 Post Office Directory and 1874 Kelley’s Directory.

22. Reverend John Willott (c1814-1846) was Principal Curate at St Mary the Virgin, Downe 1841-46, according to ACAD, A Cambridge Alumni Database, 1200-1900.

23. SRO page 59. no. 467.

24. SRO page 61. no. 486.

25. LSL St Mary the Virgin Parish registers. Baptism Register 1813-83 P/123/1/10.

26. Reverend John Brodie Innes (1817-94) served as Principal Curate until approximately 1874.

27. Francis Darwin’s baptism record has not been located. It is not included in SRO or LSL. His birth is registered in Bromley, the civil registration district for Down. There is no mention in the Darwin Correspondence Database.

28. LSL St Mary the Virgin Parish registers. Baptism Register 1813-83 P/123/1/10.

29. Reverend Joseph Oldham (c1821-96) served as Curate at Down 1848-51, according to ACAD, A Cambridge Alumni Database, 1200-1900.

30. LSL St Mary the Virgin Parish registers. Baptism Register 1813-83 P/123/1/10.

31. The spelling is hard to decipher. Day could equally be Way or Dey or Wey. His role appears an anomaly. This name does not recur from 1840 to 1860.

32. LSL St Mary the Virgin Parish registers. Baptism Register 1813-83 P/123/1/10.


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