With the wonderful news that the former childhood home of Charles Darwin is to host a museum and café – My Shrewsbury editor Katy Rink recalls her own tour of the property and wonders what it will take to turn it into a visitor attraction.
Behind the lovely Georgian frontage of Mount House, little remains of Charles Darwin’s imprint here – although it was in an upstairs room that history’s most famous biologist was born on February 12, 1809.
Whilst it is great news that businessman Glyn Jones has bought the house for nearly £1 million with the intention of bringing it back to life, clearly, it will take some considerable imagination, not to mention investment, to upload any sense of Darwin here.
Although Charles went to school in Shrewsbury and acquired his love of nature here roaming the meadows along the River Severn, Charles left the town aged 22, to join HMS Beagle. It was at Down House, in Kent, that he raised his own family, living there until his death in 1882. The English Heritage property is filled with his family portraits, furniture and personal possessions, including a cloth-covered writing board, which he is believed to have used to pen his ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).
By contrast, all the contents of Mount House were sold in 1867 following the death of Charles’ sister Susan the year before.
The new owner Mr Jones wants to spend £500,000 to bring Charles’ childhood home back to life – and plans to include a café and museum as part of the renovations. A proper visitor centre on The Mount would be a fabulous asset to Shrewsbury, allowing the public to see inside this significant piece of our town’s history - we've all been hoping for this kind of rescue offer for years.
I was lucky enough to tour the house on The Mount whilst the Tax Valuation Office still occupied the building in 2018 and guided tours were occasionally permitted, although it was a dispiriting sight, to say the least.
Our guide could not say for certain which room Darwin was born in – nothing remained of the former nursery quarters, although a plaque on the door of an upstairs room confidently asserted ‘Charles Darwin was born in this room, 12th February 1809’.
The fireplaces had been changed. In other rooms, ugly strip lighting hung from boarded ceilings, whilst rows of filing cabinets and plastic furniture served the needs of the Tax Valuation Office.
Standing in front of the beautiful façade imagining Charles’ father Robert, a respected physician, receiving his patients in the hallway, I was overwhelmed with regret that our town had not made more of this tangible link with our most famous resident.
The views from the house over the river were impeded by shrubs and trees, but clearly the well-heeled Darwins must have enjoyed one of the best outlooks in the whole of Shrewsbury.
We glimpsed inside rooms on the lower ground floor where the doctor administered to his flock and pictured little Charles collecting bugs on the banks of the Severn below. In the cellar, largely free of government administrative debris, it was easier to recapture the past and envisage the doctor’s fine wines in situ.
We visited the home of the Darwin family butler, across the other side of The Mount and saw where their former gardener lived, on Boot Hill, with his secret door into the side wall of the Darwin estate. The once prolific vegetable and flower gardens used to extend down as far as Drinkwater Street, but were sold off for housing in the 1930s by James Kent Morris (for £1,200), although the terrace and bank walks directly behind the house, down to the river remain.
The former Darwin family severn-acre estate at Mount House, overlooking The River Severn
In the old tool shed, which can still be seen on Hermitage Walk, Charles would meddle with chemicals, earning him the epithet ‘pococurante’ (careless, or indifferent) from his fearsome headmaster Dr Samuel Butler, of Shrewsbury School, who thought it a great waste of time and a distraction from the Great Classics!
Charles and his family may not have left much behind them, but The Mount is spectacularly beautiful – and especially when its wonderful magnolias spring into life.
It will take a lot of inspiration and investment, but the raw materials must surely be here to give Shrewsbury the most splendid of tourist attractions.
The room where Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 and a plaque on the gateway to Mount House - very little remains to connect the English naturalist with his birthplace in Shrewsbury, but that may be about to change, now that a new owner has taken over.