[Shrewsbury in 1830]

Charles Darwin

Growing up in


© John H. Wahlert
27 August 1998

Charles Robert Darwin was born at The Mount House, Shrewsbury Parish of St. Chad, on February 12, 1809, the second son and fifth child of Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, physician, and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin. A daughter was born the following year.

Susannah Darwin was a Unitarian and attended the Rev. G. Case's chapel in the High Street. Francis Darwin commented: "My father as a little boy went there with his elder sisters. But both he and his brother were christened and intended to belong to the Church of England; and after his early boyhood he seems usually to have gone to church and not to Mr. Case's. It appears (St. James's Gazette, December 15, 1883) that a mural tablet has been erected to his memory in the chapel, which is now known as the 'Free Christian Church.'" (F. Darwin, 1995: 6)

[St. Chad's Church, erected 1791] Charles was baptized on 15 November 1809 at St. Chad's Church. The original font, described as a silver 'christening basin', stood in the very center of the nave; it was replaced in 1843 by a large marble font (Charlesworth, 1997). The Shopshire Records & Research Centre searched for and provided Tarik and me with a copy of the page in the St Chad's Christening Register for November 1809.

In the spring of 1817, Charles, age 8, was sent to be tutored by the Reverend George Case, the Unitarian minister (Bowlby, 1990: 61). Susannah Darwin died at age 52, when Charles was 8 years old, and Charles' older sisters assumed her role in his upbringing. At age 9, he entered Shrewsbury School, which the Reverend Samuel Butler, headmaster, had so improved that it had become one of the leading schools of England. Although the school was hardly a mile from the Mount, Charles was a boarder. He spent seven years in attendance.

Charles said the following about the Shrewsbury School (C. Darwin, 1985:27-28):

[Shrewsbury School engraving]Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler's school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught except a little ancient geography and history. ... Much attention was paid to learning by heart the lessons of the previous day; this I could effect with great facility learning forty or fifty lines of Virgil or Homer, whilst I was in morning chapel; but this exercise was utterly useless, for every verse was forgotten in forty-eight hours. ... When I left the school I was for my age neither high nor low in it; and I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.

Charles was an avid hunter and collector throughout his childhood and teen years. These skills would stand him in good stead as a naturalist.

In the latter part of my school life [Dr. Butler's school in Shrewsbury] I became passionately fond of shooting, and I do not believe that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds. How well I remember killing my first snipe, and my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands. This taste long continued and I became a very good shot. (C. Darwin, 1958: 44)

With respect to science, I continued collecting minerals with much zeal, but quite unscientifically-all that I cared for was a new named mineral, and I hardly attempted to classify them. I must have observed insects with some little care, for when ten years old (1819) I went for three weeks to Plas Edwards on the sea-coast in Wales, I was very much interested and surprised at seeing a large black and scarlet Hemipterous insect, many moths (Zygæna) and a Cicindela, which are not found in Shropshire. I almost made up my mind to begin collecting all the insects which I could find dead, for on consulting my sister, I concluded that it was not right to kill insects for the sake of making a collection. From reading White's Selborne I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on the subject. (C. Darwin, 1958: 45)

Darwin and his family were regular visitors to their Wedgwood relations at Maer Hall, about 24 miles NE of Shrewsbury and within a day's ride; the estate of 1000 acres had woods, a lake, and sporting facilities ample for the young Charles.

Robert Darwin expected his sons to follow in his footsteps and become physicians. Both studied medicine, but ultimately Erasmus lived a leisured life in London. The subsequent choice of clergyman, after Charles rejected medicine, may seem odd considering the vein of skepticism in the Darwin family, but it was a respected vocation with the leisure time for study of natural history.

References cited:

  • Bowlby, John. 1990. Charles Darwin, a new life. New York, W. W. Norton & Co. 513 pp.
  • Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. 606 pp.
  • Charlesworth, Michael L. 1997. St. Chad's Church. Much Wenlock, RJL Smith & Assoc. for St. Chad's Church. unpaginated.
  • Darwin, Charles. 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. New York, W. W. Norton & Co. 153 pp.
  • Darwin, Francis. 1995 (first published in 1902). The life of Charles Darwin. London, Senate. 348 pp.

A special thank you:

We are very grateful to the personnel of ABBEYCOLOR LIMITED, 101 Frankwell, Shrewsbury SY3 8JS. Adrian Madin (Managing Director), Giles Madin, Robert Evans, and the staff provided rapid processing of slides and made available their archive of negatives of historical illustrations of the town. It was a pleasure to do business with such helpful and friendly people. The images on this page are from their archive.

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Last updated 27 August 1998 (JHW)