The Darwin Shopping Centre in Shrewsbury has no direct connection with Charles Darwin except his name. Darwin Gardens in Mountfields, on the other hand, is a different story, having been built on the site of much of the Darwin family garden.
Charles Darwin’s father, Dr Robert Darwin (1766-1848) was the son of another doctor, Erasmus (1731-1802). Erasmus Darwin was a man of extraordinary intellect, whose evolutionary ideas paved the way for his grandson. (His house in Lichfield is open to the public, for details click here) Robert Darwin moved to Shrewsbury in 1786 to set up in practice, and he quickly became very successful, making a lot of money along the way. His fortune greatly increased when he married his childhood sweetheart Susannah Wedgwood (1765-1817) in 1796. Susannah was the oldest daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the world-famous pottery firm. Josiah died just before Susannah and Robert were married, so she inherited the enormous sum of £25,000 (nearly £1 million in today’s money).
With this money Robert and Susannah were able to build The Mount House, situated at the top of The Mount, the road leading out of Shrewsbury to Welshpool. The whole plot covered over seven acres, with access to the River Severn. On this plot the Darwins built a house to demonstrate, as Robert said, that he was ‘a person of eminence’. On the ground floor the principal rooms were a dining room, drawing room, morning room (which opened into the conservatory), library and doctor’s surgery. Upstairs there were 14 bedrooms, some with dressing rooms. A butler’s chamber, coachman’s room, valet’s room, servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room, housemaid’s closet, butler’s pantry, scullery, larder, boot room and cellar give an indication of the number of staff employed. Outside, extensive outbuildings were grouped around a well in the yard.
Both Robert and Susannah had inherited a love of gardening, but it is likely that Susannah did most of the planning, perhaps with the help of her brother John, who was the first secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society. There were lawns covered with crocuses in spring, extensive flower beds, greenhouses, a vinery, and a large kitchen garden. The steep bank to the river was terraced, and a walking circuit was created. Robert Darwin called this ‘the Thinking Path’, and encouraged Charles and his brother Erasmus to walk it every day before breakfast and spend time in reflection. Charles had his first lessons in botany from his mother in the garden, which he always remembered with deep affection. When he was on the Beagle voyage he wrote to his family, “I often think of the garden at home as a Paradise: on a fine summer’s evening, when the birds are singing, how I should like to appear like a Ghost amongst you.”
When Charles’ two unmarried sisters died in 1866, the Mount House and all the contents of both house and garden were sold at a knock-down price. The gardens never regained their former glory, and most were sold off for development in the 1930s. Recently, a part of the garden, including the Thinking Path has been offered to the Shropshire Wildlife Trust for purchase. For news of this click here. There is also much more information about the Darwin family in my book The Darwins of Shrewsbury, which is available at a special price in the shop.