Maer Hall and Environs—Monuments to Intellectual History

© John H. Wahlert, 5 July 2007

In June 2007, Mr. Kenneth Hancock asked me to write about the connection of Charles Darwin to Maer as part of an effort by townspeople to save the area from inappropriate development, such as, the erection of wind turbines. It is interesting for me to revisit Darwin from a new point of view—to search the published record (including the web) for information about the role that Maer played in the life and science of Charles Darwin.

Introduction—Encountering Maer

On Sunday, 5 July 1998, Emily and Robert—my daughter and son-in-law—drove us to Maer. Tarik Cherkaoui and I had traveled to England to photograph sites associated with Charles Darwin, a trip funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our goal that day was to photograph the house where Charles Darwin spent some of the pleasantest and most significant times of his life and the church across the road where he and Emma Wedgwood were married.

It was a magnificent morning, and the church service was in progress. We strolled about the churchyard and admired the view of the landscape spread below and rolling to the horizon—a quiet, peaceful scene enhanced by the muted sound of the church organ. When the service ended and the congregation departed, we were welcomed by the Warden and permitted to take photographs inside the church. The day marked the end of the spring flower festival, and mannequins of Charles and Emma sat sedately in the chancel. They were married here on Tuesday, March 29, 1839, with only family members in attendance; Allen Wedgwood performed the service.

Darwin’s uncle Jos (Josiah Wedgwood II) and Elizabeth, his wife, are buried in front of St. Peter’s Church overlooking Maer Hall and grounds. I wondered, childlike, if Jos occasionally tipped up the stone and peeked out to see how things were going at the place he loved so dearly.

History of Maer Hall and Estate

“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” (St. Peter’s Church, Maer, 1998). Another suggestion for the name is that it comes from the situation of the house on a lake or mere (Moore, 1957: 40). The Hall is referred to as an Elizabethan manor house in many sources, though the date places its actual construction later, during the Restoration era.

In 1803, Robert Darwin (Charles’ father) lent Josiah the money to purchase Maer, an estate of about 1,000 acres, nine miles from Etruria; the thirty-year leasehold cost £30,000 (Wedgwood, 1980: 132). Jos and Bessy (Elizabeth), with their seven children, moved into Maer Hall in 1807; their eighth child, Emma was born at Maer (Healey, 2001: 57). “The favourite among all family houses and the most frequent gathering place was Maer. A large Elizabethan house set on a slight hill overlooking a small lake, it was approached by a long, curving drive lined with rhododendrons. Extensive gardens, originally laid out by Capability Brown and recently altered by John Wedgwood, stretched down to the lake and were bordered on either side by acres of woods. Here partridge shooting, fishing, skating, boating, riding, gardening and walking were enjoyed by three generations of Wedgwoods...” (Wedgwood, 1980: 136). Following Bessy’s death in 1846, the house was sold to the Davenport family (ibid: 246). “The Hall (which has passed through several owners) and the gorgeous estate on which it sits have changed little since the Wedgwood days, except that much of the surrounding land no longer belongs to the owners of the manor. Seen form the churchyard on the hill across the street it gives the impression of enormous wealth and good living, testimony to the highly privileged segment of society from which Charles Darwin derived” (Tanford and Reynolds, 1995: 179-180).

Edna Healey in the biography of Emma Darwin (2001: 63-64), captured the special magic of Maer that is encountered in written memories of Wedgwoods and Darwins: “The childhood, spent lapped in love, gave Emma a stability and tranquility that marked her all her life. For Emma, no flowers would ever bloom, no birds ever sing, more beautifully than they did at Maer. After morning lessons with her mother or Elizabeth she was free. She could rattle away on the old piano, or sit on the curving steps that swept down from the porch to the terrace and look out upon a landscape that bore the hallmarks of Capability Brown. Below the stone balustrade the still lake stretched, to a child’s eye as wide as the sea, to its marshy end. Beyond, sheep grazed the steep, green meadows between wooded slopes. From the stone boathouse below the terrace Fanny and Emma and their brothers rowed to the world’s end at the far shore, or ran the mile-long sandy path around the lake. Emma never forgot that sandy walk, and took the idea with her to Down many years later. She always remembered the picnics at the Roman fort on the hills above Maer, and the pony rides across the heath.”

Maer Hall was seldom without visitors, many of whom stayed a week or more. The Darwin cousins frequently made the trip from Shrewsbury. The autumn hunting was a favorite with Charles. In his autobiography, Darwin lovingly recalled: “My visits to Maer during these two or 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. I was also attached to and greatly revered my Uncle Jos; he was silent and reserved so as to be a rather awful man; but he sometimes talked openly with me. He was the very type of an upright man, with the clearest judgment. I do not believe that any power on earth could have made him swerve an inch from what he considered the right course. I used to apply to him in my mind the well-known ode of Horace, now forgotten by me, in which the words ‘nec vultus tyranni, &c.,’ come in” (Darwin, F., 1929: 19).

The Role of Maer in the Life and Science of Charles Darwin

Nora Barlow (1946: 7) described the difference between Robert Darwin’s household at the Mount in Shrewsbury and Jos and Bessy’s household at Maer. At the Mount, Robert Darwin “was apt to hold the field on every kind of subject.” At Maer, “the talk was more lively and the atmosphere altogether freer.” Henrietta Litchfield (1915: 59) quoted an “Extract from a Journal of Emma Caldwell, afterwards Mrs Henry Holland [July 10th, 1819] about the Wedgwoods. ‘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.’”

“Many of the spacious rooms were lined with books, which were read and discussed” (Moore: 40). It is easy to imagine that the Wedgwood home provided Charles the freedom to ask questions and to develop his own ideas.

Charles Darwin did not proclaim the influence of the Maer estate on his development as a scientist and theorist, but that influence is not deeply buried and it is inseparable from the openness to ideas of the Wedgwoods and Uncle Jos in particular. Darwin noted the many visits to Maer in his journals—often for shooting and for the company of others his age. His delight in natural history was not limited to school or university and his observations of animals at Maer came to mind as he compiled notes for his books. He mentioned in passing in a letter to W. D. Fox (July 18, 1829): “I am going to Maer next week in order to entomologise, and shall stay there a week…” Darwin’s notebooks contain observations made on animals and plants at Maer (Barrett, et al., 1987).

It was at Maer in 1827 that the historian James Mackintosh famously remarked of Charles, “There is something in that man that interests me.” Healey (2001: 108-109) continued, asking: “Was it from him, perhaps, that Charles first heard the theories of Malthus, Sir James’s fellow lecturer, that would later influence him? Did he talk to Charles about intelligence in higher animals—the subject of his thesis when a student?”

A visit by Charles to Maer and Josiah’s intervention determined that Charles could accept the position of companion to Captain Fitzroy and naturalist on the Beagle voyage. Darwin summarized events in his diary (Keynes, R. D., 1988: 3):

“I had been wandering about North Wales on a geological tour with Professor Sedgwick when I arrived home on Monday 29th August. My sisters first informed me of the letters from Prof. Henslow & Mr Peacock offering to me the place in the Beagle which I now fill.—I immediately said I would go; but the next morning finding my Father so much averse to the whole plan, I wrote to Mr Peacock to refuse his offer.—On the last day of August I went to Maer, where everything soon bore a different appearance.—I found every member of the family so strongly on my side that I determined to make another effort.—In the evening I drew up a list of my Fathers objections, to which Uncle Jos wrote his opinion & answer. This we sent off to Shrewsbury early the next morning & I went out shooting.—About 10 oclock Uncle Jos sent me a message, to say he intended going to Shrewsbury & offering to take me with him.—When we arrived there, all things were settled, & my Father most kindly gave his consent.—”

On returning from the voyage, Darwin acknowledged the critical role played by Josiah: “At the first possible moment that day Charles dashed off a note to his Uncle Jos, Josiah Wedgwood at Maer: ‘My head is quite confused with so much delight....I am anxious once again to see Maer and all its inhabitants so that in the course of two or three weeks, I hope in person to thank you, as being my first Lord of the Admiralty’” (Moore, 1957: 86). At Maer, the Wedgwoods and Charles’ sisters convinced him to publish his Beagle journal separate from the professional papers, and Charles decided to spend evenings working on his journal (ibid., 87).

In 1837, Darwin read his paper on the role of worms in the formation of vegetable mould (the superficial layer of earth) at the Geological Society of London (published 1840). “My attention was called to this subject by Mr. Wedgwood, who showed me, whilst I was staying at Maer Hall, in Staffordshire, several fields, some of which a few years previously had been covered with lime, and others with burnt marl and cinders...” “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. It is well known, that worms, in their excavations, swallow earthy matter, and that, having separated the portion which serves for their nutriment, they eject at the mouth of their burrows the remainder in little, intestine-shaped heaps. These partly retain their form until the rain and thaws of winter, as I have observed, spread the matter uniformly over the surface.” Worms were again the subject of Darwin’s final book in 1881. “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).

Charles and Emma commenced a 2-month vacation at Maer in May 1842. “With no book crying out to be finished, he turned once again to the question of species. It had never been far from his thoughts, and he had never stopped taking notes on the subject. Now he was able to sit down and arrange his ideas into a coherent shape. During those long summer days, in the idyllic setting of his uncle Jos’s estate, he began to put together the outline of the theory that had taken shape in his mind over the previous five years” (Aydon, 2002: 152-153). The argument of this outline, written in pencil, is familiar to anyone who has read On The Origin of Species. The thesis leads from the familiar domestic animal breeds and human selection of heritable variants to variation in nature and the natural means of selection. The sketch refers to Malthus and describes the enormous geometrical power of increase in every organism; Darwin introduced the metaphor of “wedges being forced into the economy of nature” (Darwin, C., 1842). Four years later, Maer Hall was sold.

Details of the Maer estate were recreated at the Darwin home in Kent: “Emma delighted in the gardens at Down House, planting climbing shrubs to mask the walls, setting out the flower beds as she and Elizabeth had done at Maer.” (Healey, Edna, 2001: 181). “One memory of Maer that Darwin particularly treasured was the mile-long Sand Walk encircling the lake. At Down, he rented a strip of land from a neighbor and, using gravel and red clay from a nearby clay pit, he had his own Sandwalk, about a quarter of a mile in length, laid alongside it. Here, rain or shine, he took daily walks...” (Aydon, 2002: 158).

Summary: Maer and Darwin

The Wedgwood family in the setting of Maer Hall and Estate had a profound influence on Charles Darwin as he matured, married and grew as a scientist. Like Josiah, Darwin’s own willingness to entertain and test divergent viewpoints led him to the theory of evolution by means of natural selection that is central to biology. Josiah showed Charles evidence and suggested that worms are responsible for vegetable mould; it is not a stretch to imagine that he and Charles discussed many scientific matters as they walked together on the grounds. Replication of the Sand Walk at Down House gave Charles Darwin for the rest of his life a direct link to the Maer he knew in his younger days. Emma, herself, was a living inheritor of the spirit of Maer and the Josiah Wedgwoods.

In discussions of Darwin’s readiness for the Beagle voyage, much is made of his education, his mentors in extracurricular activities in natural history, and his fine ability with a pistol. I wonder—had Darwin gone on the voyage with all this preparation but without the Wedgwoods and without Maer, would he have persevered and developed a theory of how species change.

Henrietta Litchfield, one of Darwin’s daughters, was quoted by John Bowlby (1990: 265): “Maer Hall...was so deeply beloved by the whole group that their children even have inherited a kind of sacred feeling about it....My father used to say that our mother only cared for flowers which had grown at Maer.”

The Future of Maer—What Can It Be?

I live in a suburb of New York City, where old, nondescript houses are torn down and replaced with condominiums and small houses that pretend to be palaces. There is very little of beauty here—just more people and fewer trees. The changes hardly matter.

Maer and the countryside surrounding it are tranquil and have a natural beauty that should be valued and preserved. But Maer is made more special by its direct connection with Charles Darwin. [Josiah Wedgwood and his family deserve recognition, too, but they are not my subject.] I have visited Down house, which preserves the memory of Darwin as family man and great scientist. Maer represents the young Darwin in the process of becoming a great scientist. Has anyone, thoroughly knowledgeable in Darwin’s writings, ever walked around the Maer Hall Estate and surrounding country and thought about the development of Darwin’s mind? On the Origin of Species ends with a famous passage (C. Darwin, 1859: 489):

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

This is not an exotic place seen by a world traveler. Perhaps it recalls a conversation with Josiah Wedgwood as he and Charles Darwin strolled along the sandy walk at Maer.

I hope that changes to Maer may be done thoughtfully and with reverence for the young Darwin becoming a scientist. A biologist might include a pilgrimage to Maer on holiday and spend time in the churchyard, as I did. Here is the place to think on the question of how great minds are made. Maer Hall and its environs are monuments to a great moment in intellectual history—the making of Charles Darwin.

References Cited

Aydon, Cyril. 2002. Charles Darwin, The Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution. New York, Carroll & Graf Publ. 326 pp.

Barlow, Nora, ed. 1946. Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle. New York, Philosophical Library. 279 pp, 1 map.

Barrett, P. H., P. J. Gautrey, S. Herbert, D. Kohn, and S. Smith, eds. 1987. Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844. Ithaca, Cornell Univ. Pr. 747 pp.

Bowlby, John. 1990. Charles Darwin, A New Life. New York, W. W. Norton & Co. 511 pp.

Darwin, Charles. R. 1840. On the formation of mould. Transactions of the Geological Society 5: 505-509.

Darwin, Charles. 1842 Sketch on Natural Selection. Reprinted in Skeptic 1(3): 68-73.

Darwin, Charles. 1964. On the Origin of Species. [Reprint of first edition, 1859, Ernse Mayr, editor] Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Pr. 513 pp.

Darwin, Charles. R. 1881. The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits. London: John Murray.

Darwin, Francis. 1929. Autobiography of Charles Darwin. The Thinker’s Library, No. 7, London, Watts & Co. 154 pp.

Gould, S. J. 1985. Forward, pp. v-xxi, in C. Darwin, 1985, The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, Chicago, Univ. Chicago Press, 326 pp. [Facsimile of 1881 edition, London, John Murray]

Healey, Edna. 2001. Emma Darwin. London, Headline Book Publ. 372 pp.

Keynes, Richard Darwin, ed. 1988. Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary. Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Pr. 464 pp.

Moore, Ruth. 1957. Charles Darwin. The Stratford Library, London, Hutchinson. 207 pp.

St. Peter’s Church, Maer. 1998. Flower Festival, ‘For the beauty of the Earth,’ Friday 26th, Saturday 27th & Sunday 28th June 1998. Not paginated.

Tanford, Charles, and Jacqueline Reynolds. 1995. A Travel Guide to Scientific Sites of The British Isles. New York, John Wiley & Sons. 344 pp.

Wedgwood, Barbara and Hensleigh. 1980. The Wedgwood Circle 1730-1897. Don Mills, Ontario, Collier Macmillan Canada, Ltd. 386 pp.

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updated: July 8, 2007