John H. Wahlert
View of Maer countryside from the churchyard
Essay on Maer Hall and EnvironsMonuments to Intellectual History
The Wedgwoods at Maer Hall present a sharp contrast to the Darwins at The Mount; perhaps it is to his experiences with the Wedgwoods that Charles Darwin owed his freedom of thought.
Above all there was Maer Hall, deserted for Etruria 1812 to 1819, but now once more the settled home through the twenties and thirties, the years when it meant most to Charles, of Uncle Josiah and Aunt Elizabeth and a whole host of Wedgwood aunts and cousins. It was an easy drive of just over twenty miles from The Mount, and visits both ways were frequent. (West. 1938, p. 58)
Extract from a Journal of Emma Caldwell, afterwards Mrs Henry Holland [July 10th, 1819].
The life at Maer, with its careless freedom and absence of restraint, was a great contrast to that at the Mount. There all was orderly ad correct, and everyone must conform to the Doctors views of what was right. He was extremely kind, and my mother was attached to him, but she never felt quite at ease in his presence. (Litchfield, 1915, p. 140)
He [Josiah Wedgwood] did not insist, like Robert [Darwin], upon any assent to his own views, and there was always in his house complete freedom of speech and much vigorous discussion. Moreover, Charles had the good fortune to be his favorite nephew, to whom he would talk frankly and intimately as to few. (West, 1938, p. 59)
His nieces the Darwins were, as girls, afraid of him, and I have been told that they were astounded at their brother Charles talking to him freely as if he was a common mortal, and that this trust on Charles part made his uncle fond of him. (Litchfield, 1915, p. 7)
My visits to Maer during these two [1826 & 1827] and the three succeeding years were quite delightful, independently of the autumnal shooting. Life there was perfectly free; the country was very pleasant for walking or riding; and in the evening there was much very agreeable conversation, not so personal as it generally is in large family parties, together with music. In the summer the whole family used often to sit on the steps of the old portico, with the flower garden in front, and with the steep wooded bank, opposite the house, reflected in the lake, with here and there a fish rising or a water-bird paddling about. Nothing has left a more vivid picture on my mind than these evenings at Maer. (C. Darwin, 1958: 55-56)
I can remember his description of these enchanting evenings, and his happy look and sigh of reminiscence, as he recalled the past, and told how nothing else was ever like it--what good talk there was, not the mere personal gossip which such family talk is apt to become... (Litchfield, 1915, p. 52)
Maer was her [Elizabeth Allen Wedgwood, Josiah IIs wife] daily task and joy, and she instilled into it her spirit of charm and beauty, sympathy, gaiety and generosity. (West, 1938, p. 59)
In the time of the Wedgwoods it was a large, unpretending stone house, Elizabethan in date; on the garden side there was an old and picturesque porch with its pillars left unaltered; but the latticed windows had been sashed according to the taste of the time. It stood on a slope leading down to a small lake or mere, from which it took its name. This mere was fed by springs so that the water was clear. Capability Brown, the well-known landscape gardener of those days, had turned its marshy end, next the house, into a kind of fishs tail, as my mother used to describe it. There was a boat on the pool, as they always called it, which was great joy to the young people and children, and there was good skating in the winter.
Charlotte Wedgwoods drawing of Maer.
Round it there was a delightful up-and-down sandy walk a mile in length, diversified and well wooded, which made one of the charms of the place. The garden, bright and gay with old-fashioned flowers, lay between the house and the pool, and the little church was just outside the domain. My father [Charles Darwin] used to say that our mother only cared for flowers which had grown at Maer. There was a great deal of wild heath and wood around, and the country is, even now, as rural as ever and quite unspoiled by mines and manufactories. (Litchfield, 1915, p. 51-52)
By 1282 there was a manor house in Maer owned by William de Mere. The present Maer Hall must have been built around 1680 as it appears on a 1682 map of Staffordshire, but not on the one drawn in 1679.
After a succession of owners, it was bought by Josiah Wedgwood II in 1807 and his family lived there until his death in 1843. The next owner was another pottery manufacturer, William Davenport. He added a huge clock tower and more stables, but these Victorian additions were knocked down in the 1960s and what we see now is the original seventeenth century Hall. For most of this century it was the home of the Harrison family, owners of the Harrison Shipping line. (St. Peters Church, Maer, 1998) The photo was scanned from R. Harrison & J. Wild, 1989, p. 14.
[In 1802]...Josiah, borrowing from Robert [Darwin], bought Maer Hall, seven miles from the Etruria Works and off the main road between Newcastle-under-Lyme and Market Drayton, and began to prepare it for occupation... (West, 1938, p. 35) Josiah settled at Maer in 1807.
Josiah Wedgwood II and his wife Elizabeth are buried on the hillside in front of St. Peters Church. The grave overlooks their favorite dwelling.
Etruria, the Wedgwood home, is now a part of the Moat House Hotel west of the pottery works in Stoke-on Trent. The house is on a ridge, and one can imagine the factory workers looking up to the home of the Wedgwoods. We presume that the central building is the original house.
It was at Maer that Darwin began to investigate the role of earthworms in formation of vegetable mould, and he attributed the insight of the role of earthworms to his uncle Josiah Wedgwood II.
Darwin dug in fields that had been left undisturbed for some years, and he found that cinders, marl and lime, previously spread on the surface, were now buried some inches beneath the turf. In 1840 he published the hypothesis that earthworms were the agents of burial in a paper entitled On the formation of mould.
Darwin (1881) returned to the subject in his final publication, a book entitled The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits. In this instance the subject took on a global significance: a seemingly insignificant agent can cause change of geological magnitude over the course of thousands of millennia just as natural selection produces new species. (Gould, 1985, xi).
Last updated 23 June 1999 (JHW)