John H. Wahlert

Color images © September 1, 1998, John H. Wahlert & Tarik Cherkaoui

[view of Maer countryside  from churchyard]

View of Maer countryside from the churchyard

Essay on “Maer Hall and Environs—Monuments 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.

[Maer Hall] “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].
‘I never saw anything pleasanter than the ways of going on of this family, and one reason is the freedom of speech upon every subject; there is no difference in politics or principles of any kind that makes it treason to speak one’s mind openly, and they all do it. There is a simplicity of good sense about them, that no one ever dreams of not differing upon any subject where they feel inclined. As no things are said from party or prejudice, there is no bitterness in discussing opinions. I believe this could not be the case if there was a decided difference of party principles in the members of a family. It is greatly desirable that should not happen.’” (Litchfield, 1915, p. 59)

“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 Doctor’s 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)

[cypress tree] “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 Hall] “Maer was her [Elizabeth Allen Wedgwood, Josiah II’s 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 fish’s 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 Wedgwood's drawing of Maer]Charlotte Wedgwood’s drawing of Maer.
(Litchfield, 1915, facing p. 52)

“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)

[Maer Hall and surroundings]

History of the Hall

[Maer Hall before restoration] “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. Peter’s 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.

[grave of Josiah II and Elizabeth]Josiah Wedgwood II and his wife Elizabeth are buried on the hillside in front of St. Peter’s Church. The grave overlooks their favorite dwelling.

[The Moat House Hotel and Etruria]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.”

“The appearance in all the above cases was, as if (in the language of the farmers, who are acquainted with these facts) the fragments had worked themselves down. It is, however, scarcely possible that cinders or pebbles, and still less powdered quick-lime, could sink through compact earth and a layer of matted roots of vegetables, to a depth of some inches...

“The explanation of these facts, which occurred to Mr. Wedgwood, although it may appear trivial at first, I have not the least doubt is the correct one, namely, that the whole operation is due to the digestive process of the common earth-worm. On carefully examining between the blades of grass in the fields above described, I found scarcely a space of two inches square without a little heap of the cylindrical castings of worms...

“Although the conclusion may appear at first startling, it will be difficult to deny the probability, that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasture land springs, has passed through the intestines of worms...”

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).

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References cited:

  • Darwin, C. 1840. On the formation of mould. Trans. Geol. Soc. London, 2d ser., pt. 3, 5 (1840): 505-509. [Pp. 49-53 (vol. 1) in P. H. Barrett, ed. 1977. The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Chicago, Univ. Chicago Press. vol. 1: 1-277; vol. 2: 1-326.]
  • Darwin, C. 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin, with original omissions restored (edited by Nora Barlow). New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 253 pp.
  • Gould, S. J. 1985. "Forward," pp. v-xxi, in Darwin, C., 1985, The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, Chicago, Univ. Chicago Press, 326 pp. [Facsimile of 1881 edition, London, John Murray]
  • Harrison, R., and J. Wild. 1989. Maer, a guide to the village and church. Maer, John Porter. 32 pp.
  • Litchfield, H., ed. 1915. Emma Darwin, a century of family letters, 1792-1896, in two volumes. London, John Murray. V. 1, 289 pp., V. 2, 326 pp. [Henrietta Litchfield was a daughter of Charles & Emma Darwin]
  • St. Peter’s Church, Maer. 1998. Flower Festival, ’For the beauty of the Earth,’ Friday 26th, Saturday 27th & Sunday 28th June 1998. Not paginated.
  • West, G. 1938. Charles Darwin, a portrait. New Haven, Yale Univ. Press. 359 pp.

Last updated 23 June 1999 (JHW)