History Centre Heroes: Charles Darwin

Although he didn’t come from Plymouth, the famous naturalist Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) will forever be linked with this city.

He was born on 12 February 1809 in Shrewsbury; the second youngest of six children. His father Dr. R. W. Darwin was a medical doctor. His grandfather Dr. Erasmus Darwin was a renowned botanist.

As a child Charles loved to explore nature. As a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge he chose to study natural history. He couldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps as apparently he wasn’t very keen on the sight of blood!

Botany professor John Stevens Henslow became his mentor. When Darwin graduated Henslow recommended him for a position aboard the survey ship HMS Beagle. Commanded by Captain Robert Fitzroy, it set sail from Plymouth (Barn Pool, Devonport) on 27 December 1831 on a five-year voyage around the world.

The trip would prove to be the opportunity of a lifetime for Darwin. The Beagle travelled to places such as Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Australia and South Africa and he collected a variety of bird, plant and fossil specimens along the way.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)

The voyage also had a monumental effect on Darwin’s view of natural history. On his return to England in 1836 he began to write up his studies and develop a groundbreaking theory about evolution.

Darwin had noticed similarities between different species all over the world, along with variations based on their locations. This led him to believe that they had gradually evolved from common ancestors. Species that had successfully adapted to fit in with their ever-changing habitats had survived. Species that had failed to evolve and reproduce had died off. He called this process ‘natural selection’.

On 24 November 1859 he published a detailed explanation of his theory in his best-known work, ‘On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection’.

Darwin’s theory was different to the popular view held by other naturalists at the time. It also conflicted with Creationism – the religious view that all of nature was born of God. DNA studies conducted in the years that followed his death have revealed evidence of his theory however, and he remains one of our most famous scientists.

Darwin died at his family home, Down House, London on 19 April 1882 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. There is a commemorative plaque dedicated to his voyage aboard HMS Beagle located at Devil’s Point, Stonehouse. The site is right opposite Barn Pool where the ship set sail from.

Charles Darwin's plaque at Devil's Point
Charles Darwin’s plaque at Devil’s Point, Stonehouse
  • Find out more about Darwin’s time in Plymouth before the voyage of HMS Beagle here.
  • Download library resources relating to Darwin here.
  • See online graphics from a former exhibition at the City Museum and Art Gallery which celebrated Darwin’s discoveries and contribution to history here.
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