In 1651 Thomas Manning sold a parcel of land including most of the current property to John Know the elder, from a Kentish yeoman family, for £345. It has been debated whether this price is likely to have included a house, but, if not, it was Know who built the first farmhouse on the property: some surviving flint walls may date from this period. The property was acquired by the businessman and landowner George Butler in 1778, and it is thought that he rebuilt and enlarged the house: in 1781 he paid the highest window tax in Downe. Around this time it was apparently called the Great House. The Darwin family in 1841 was finding their London house increasingly cramped: both Charles and his wife Emma preferred living in the countryside, as they were disturbed by the constant noise and severe coal smoke air pollution of central London, and they had two young children, William (b. 1839) and Anne (b. 1841). Darwin approached his father Robert Darwin for financing, and with the caution that he should try living in an area for some time before being committed to a move, was given approval to start house hunting. On Friday 22 July 1842, Charles and Emma visited Down House. They slept at "a little pot-house" in the village, which was also "a grocers-shop & the land-lord is the carpenter", and returned to London on Saturday afternoon, then on the Sunday Darwin wrote to tell his sister of their first impressions. Though there were plenty of trains on the 10 miles (16 km) line from London to the nearest station, from there it was a long, slow and hilly 8.5 miles (13.7 km) drive to Downe. The small quiet village was away from main roads, and though local scenery was beautiful on a good day, the house "being situated on rather high table-land, has somewhat of desolate air ... The charm of the place to me is that almost every field is intersected (as alas is our's) by one or more foot-paths— I never saw so many walks in any other country". The three story house itself stood "very badly close to a tiny lane & near another man's field", and was "ugly, looks neither old nor new" but on the ground floor it had a "Capital study" and a dining room facing east, and a large drawing room facing west, with plenty of bedrooms upstairs. Darwin believed that the price was about £2,200 (equivalent to £184,965 in present-day terms) and he could lease it for one year to try it out.
Much of the significance of the house lies in the authenticity of the rooms, of which Darwin’s Old Study is the best example. The room as it is seen today remains structurally unaltered from Darwin’s time. It was restored to the original 1870s arrangement and decoration in 1929, based on a detailed photograph taken in the 1870s together with information from Darwin’s surviving son, Leonard (1850–1943). The wallpaper and fixtures of that early recreation have been preserved, and the room contains almost every original piece of furniture and dozens of Darwin’s possessions, including some dating from his time on HMS Beagle. The greenhouses today are stocked with the same plant specimens that Darwin cultivated for his botanical research projects, many of which stemmed from subjects that had first pricked his interest elsewhere. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, for example, Darwin had studied the reproductive biology of orchids. He then collected rare specimens during his voyage on HMS Beagle. Among the critical findings that stemmed from his research in the gardens at Down House was that diverse and beautiful forms of different species of orchid have evolved to attract specific insect pollinators. The results of his research were published in 1862 in On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, which made a major contribution to the study of orchid anatomy and plant reproduction.
Darwin’s next work, On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865), developed from his examination of certain climbing-plant species that he had grown in pots in the greenhouse and winding through the trelliswork fixed to the back of the house. By dedicated observation and copious note-taking Darwin was able to detect what he called circumnutation – the gyrating movements of the plant stems as they searched for support on their upward climb. He noted their responsiveness to different light conditions, exploring the notion that plants ‘sleep’ in darkness. Another important area of research Darwin carried out in the gardens at Down House was on insectivorous plants, in particular a sundew Drosera rotundifolia, which he had first spotted in Sussex in 1860. Darwin cultivated dozens of specimens in terracotta pots on his greenhouse benches, noted the gradual curling of the Drosera’s sticky tentacles around an unsuspecting fly or gnat, and fed his plant specimens specks of raw meat, egg white and even nail clippings. The illustrations in the resulting work, Insectivorous Plants (1875), show the relationship between insect and plant predator that he observed in the greenhouses at Down. There is wheelchair loan available and accessible toilets. Braille Guides and Audio Tours are available, the gardens are an excellent sensory experience. Assistance dogs welcome.
Location : Luxted Rd, Downe, Kent BR6 7JT
Transport: Orpington (South Eastern). Bromley South (Thameslink). TfL bus R8 from Orpington passes (except Sunday); TfL bus 146 from Bromley North & South terminates in Downe village 1/2 mile from property.
Opening Times: Monday to Thursday 10:00 to 16:00.
Saturday / Sunday 10:00 to 16:00
Closed Weekdays in January
Tickets : Adults £10.60, Children (5 - 15) £6.30
Concessions £9.50, Carers Free
Prices exclude 10% voluntary donation.
Tel: 0370 333 1181. Text Telephone: 0800 015 0516.