Charles Darwin and the Lost Coffin
02 Feb 2022
With the DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival on the horizon (Feb 7-13) Shropshire Archives have been doing some digging and unearthed this amazing story about the famous naturalist's coffin. Research and story by Elena Leith

February 12th is known as Darwin Day, as it's the day that the famous English naturalist was born in Mount House, Shrewsbury in 1809. It's the reason we have the DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival this month, when the whole town joins together in celebration of the great man and his publication of On the Origin of Species.

To coincide with the festival's many brilliant events, which you can find HERE, Shropshire Archives have put together a new Darwin guide with information about what people can find out at Shropshire Archives and other places. 

Whilst intern Elena Leith was doing some research for the guide, she came across this amazing story...

Darwin's Funeral in Westminster Abbey

A Matter of A Missing Coffin

Darwin's funeral was held in Westminster Abbey on April 26, 1882 and he was buried in the Abbey with full pomp and circumstance, following a letter signed by twenty members of Parliament sent to the Dean of Westminster. The family had wished Darwin to be buried in the village of Downe, in Orpington, Kent, where he had lived for most of his life, but it was seen as more fitting for our 'illustrious countryman' to be laid to rest in the company of our nation's greatest scientists, statesmen, writers and musicians. 

Darwin is buried a few feet from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton, with a stone bearing the inscription: "Charles Robert Darwin, Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882".

According to a newspaper clipping dated April 15, 1896, which has turned up in Shropshire Archives, Darwin had two coffins. The one he was buried in at Westminster Abbey and another coffin, which was built by his servant John Lewis, at Darwin's own request. 

John Lewis, who had served as a page for two years, was instructed to build 'something very plain and (Darwin) didn't want it polished' - Lewis was told to leave the coffin 'just as it comes from the bench'. The resulting vessel was carefully constructed nonetheless, with some brass work, including six brass handles and a brass inscription plate. 

It was a journalist for The Sketch magazine who discovered the second coffin, which was by 1896 displayed in John Lewis' carpenter's workshop. 

The enormous coffin was described as “a solid oaken structure, over six feet long, with a brass plate in the centre bearing this inscription —

Charles Robert Darwin
Died 19th of April
Aged 73 years

It turned out that Darwin had lain in the coffin for about thirty and a half hours before being moved to Westminster Abbey. The coffin was returned to Mr Lewis, who is quoted in The Sketch article: “I was paid for my work, but, some time after, the family said I could have the coffin back. I fetched it here, and here it has remained ever since, a matter now of fourteen years”. 

A second article about the coffin appeared in the London Evening News in 1909, just over a decade later, on the 100th anniversary of Darwin's birth. A journalist had visited Downe village and spoken to some of the naturalist's old friends, including John Lewis, now 75. 

When quizzed about the coffin, Lewis is said to have replied: “I sold it for ten pounds to a young chap that kept a beerhouse out at Farnborough. He’s dead since then.”

Lewis resisted cash offers of up to £200 and kept the coffin close by at The New Inn, Rocks Bottom, Farnborough, but news of it travelled across the globe. Lewis received offers from America and Germany, including a strange request from Professor Arthur Edwards of New York, who wanted the carpenter to send him 'a bit o’ the coffin, some leaves off sandy-walk, and some o’ the sand'. 

The coffin was rediscovered in 1925, having been forgotten in the former coach house of The New Inn years before. Following extensive reporting from newspapers and huge international interest, Leonard Darwin purchased the coffin for his family. It was burned at the wishes of the family just a few months after resurfacing.

Pictured below are images from Shropshire Archives of Charles Darwin Ref: PH/S/14/8/3 and an admission card for Darwin's funeral Ref: MI6662/1

Charles Darwin
Newspaper notice of Darwin's funeral