Celebrate the great naturalist’s 199th birthday with a tour of the London he knew.
Click image for a larger Google Map. Key places in the text are marked with a blue pin. Additional places of interest are indicated with a house icon.
Charles Darwin, born 199 years ago today, was in and out of London throughout his life, but his presence was particularly strong between 1836 (after his return from the Beagle voyage) and 1842 (when he and his wife Emma moved to Downe in Kent).
In September 1831, Darwin walked into the Admiralty Building on Whitehall to hook up with Captain Robert Fitzroy. Darwin’s brother Erasmus (Ras), with whom he often stayed when in London, was not in town so he took lodgings at 17 Spring Gardens. This kept him close to FitzRoy and the Admiralty as he prepared for the forthcoming Beagle voyage, splashing out on a telescope, compass, a rifle and a pair of pistols “to keep the natives pretty quiet”.
Passing through Admiralty Arch, it’s a quick walk along The Mall to Waterloo Steps and up to the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall. With some assistance from geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin became a member on 21 June 1838. “I go & dine at the Athenæum like a gentleman, or rather like a Lord, for I am sure the first evening I sat in that great drawing room, all on a sofa by myself, I felt just like a duke,” he wrote to Lyell. “I am full of admiration at the Athenæum; one meets so many people there, that one likes to see.”
Looking back to the south is The Royal Society at 6–9 Carlton House Terrace. Darwin was elected as a fellow on 24 January 1839. A quarter of a century later, after the publication of On the Origin of Species, he was awarded the Society’s presitgous Copley Medal, though he stayed away from the ceremony. Darwin’s friend, the surgeon and zoologist George Busk, collected the medal on his behalf and sauntered up Regent’s Street to drop it off with Ras, who found it “rather ugly to look at, & too light to turn into candlesticks.”
Walking up Lower Regent Street you might want to take a detour into Leicester Square. In Darwin’s day, No. 28—on the eastern side of the square—was the headquarters of the Zoological Society of London and the site of a zoological museum. On 4 January 1837, Darwin handed over 80 mammals and 450 birds collected during his Beagle trip. These included the now-famous Galapagos finches, specimens that ornithologist, artist and taxonomist John Gould was quick to describe as “an entirely new group, containing 12 species.”
Next head to Piccadilly Circus and along Piccadilly to Burlington House, where you can tick off two institutions with strong Darwinian ties. Standing beneath the entrance archway, the Geological Society of London is to your right. It’s here, after delivering his zoological specimens to Leicester Square, that Darwin read out his paper on Chile’s coastline. His debut went so well that he felt “like a peacock admiring his tail.” Darwin was elected to the Council of the Society on 17 February, a meeting at which Lyell showed off some of the Beagle fossils.
Opposite the entrance to the Geological Society is the Linnean Society of London, where the secretary read out a joint paper by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on 1 July 1858. It comprised extracts from a sketch of the Origin Darwin penned in 1844, part of his 1857 letter to American botanist Asa Gray and a letter from Wallace that had reached Darwin just a couple of weeks earlier. On the right-hand wall of the Meeting Room, you can see John Collier’s brooding 1882 painting of Darwin alongside Roger Remmington’s bright 1998 portrait of Wallace. Neither man was present for the delivery of their joint paper 150 years ago.
At 50 Albemarle Street, you’ll find the home and office of Darwin’s principle publisher John Murray. Further on at No. 33 there’s Brown’s Hotel (formerly St George’s Hotel), where the influential ‘X-Club’ convened their first meeting on 3 November 1864. The elite dining club eventually contained nine key supporters of Darwin’s Origin, including Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, John Tyndall, George Busk and Herbert Spencer. On the other side of the road, you’ll pass The Royal Institution, where Huxley delivered a sensational lecture in March 1858. He drew attention to the anatomical similarities between the baboon, gorilla and man, concluding that “to the very root & foundation of his nature man is one with the rest of the organic world.”
Weave your way to Great Marlborough Street, where Darwin often stayed with his brother Ras (No. 43). In March 1837, he took lodgings at No. 36, remarking how “very pleasant” it was to be neighbours with his brother.
In 1839, Charles and Emma moved into No. 12 Upper Gower Street, “a small common-place London house, with a drawing-room in the front, and a small room behind, in which they lived for the sake of quietness,” as their son Francis described it in the edited version of Darwin’s Life and Letters. “In later years my father used to laugh over the surpassing ugliness of the furniture, carpets &c., of the Gower Street house. The only redeeming feature was a better garden than most London houses have, a strip as wide as the house, and thirty yards long. Even this small space of dingy grass made their London house more tolerable to its two country-bred inhabitants,” he wrote. It is now occupied by the Biological Sciences building of University College London and home to the Grant Museum of Zoology containing the teaching collection of Darwin’s Edinburgh mentor Robert Grant.
Head down to the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where Darwin handed over his fossil specimens from the Beagle voyage—“the most important part of my collections”—in 1836. The recently redesigned Hunterian Museum is well worth a visit.
Finally, it’s a short walk to the Freemason’s Tavern (now the Freemason’s Arms) at 81 Long Acre. It’s here that Darwin attended the annual meeting of the Philoperisteron Society of pigeon fanciers on 8 January 1856 and became a member later that year. By this time, he’d wound up his barnacle work and was juggling dozens of lines of investigation in an effort to drum up concrete evidence for his revolutionary evolutionary ideas. Reward yourself with a pint.
Images on Google map by Matt Brown