Books: Archive Origin of a Scientist; Charles Darwin Is One of the Midlands' Most Famous Sons. Chris Upton Examines His Early Life and Education

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

Two years ago, when a poll was taken of the most influential figures of the millennium, two men from the Midlands dominated the vote. It was not unexpected that a certain Stratfordian playwright should win it, but he was given a run for his money by a Victorian scientist from Shrewsbury.

One hundred and fifty years after he published his theory of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin continues to attract admiration, loyalty and, in some parts of the Bible Belt, fierce hostility. His studies may have concentrated on botany and biology, but Darwin's influence runs far deeper than this. The economics of the free market could hardly have been created without him. Nobody - not even his contemporary, Karl Marx - has affected the modern world as much.

The man who put intellectual dynamite under Victorian society could hardly have come from a more quintessentially English background. Early 19th-century Shrewsbury was full of the values of 'Olde England' - agricultural, half-timbered and Tory.

The Industrial Revolution that was under way at Ironbridge and Birmingham was no more than a distant rumble to Shrewsbury. The River Severn, that ancient washerwoman of the Midlands, lapped the gardens of the house where he was born, and the view from the window was of medieval church spires, public school and Norman castle.

But there was something odd about that garden. Where one might have expected a rose there was a fly-catcher and not far from the camellias grew an opium poppy. Not what you might expect in a genteel Shrewsbury garden.

But then, the Darwins were not what you would expect of a genteel Shrewsbury family. Charles's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was the man whose unusual plants had found their way into the garden at The Mount. Long before his time, Erasmus had pondered the origins of life and the evolution of species. His son, Robert Darwin, had followed his father into the medical profession, a job that provided steady income and time to pursue other hobbies. But, whereas Erasmus had put that time to use in botany and mechanical experiment, Robert had been speculating and accumulating everything from property and land to industry and canal companies. When he died in 1848 it was said that Dr Darwin owned three-quarters of Shrewsbury and knew the medical secrets of the rest.

Not that all of Dr Darwin's wealth was self-generated. The tradition of Darwins marrying Wedgwoods had redirected plenty of money from the Potteries into the family coffers. Robert's wife, Susanna Wedgwood, had been left pounds 25,000 and a fifth of the Etruria works on her father's death. The family could hardly have been more comfortable. …