18 September 2019

Reminders of the role
Erasmus Darwin played
in the life of Lichfield

Lichfield Cathedral reflected in a window of Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I have been staying overnight in Lichfield, having spoken last night at the invitation of Lichfield Civic Society on the Comberford Family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth.

I am staying in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, on the northern fringes of Lichfield, with views across the open countryside, and a glimpse of the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral in the distance.

My room in the Hedgehog is named Erasmus Darwin, after the physician who lived in Lichfield for much of the 18th century and who was one of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment.

As I walked in out of Lichfield a few times yesterday, along Stafford Road and Beacon Street, I also visited the grounds of Erasmus Darwin House, close to the Cathedral Close, where Darwin lived and raised many of his children, and enjoyed some time in his gardens between the house and Vicars’ Close.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) is best-known as the grandfather of Charles Darwin, the naturalist, but in his own right he was also a physician, a natural philosopher, a physiologist, and an inventor, and he was also an advocate of the abolition of slavery and a poet, whose poems included a discourse on evolution and the relatedness of all forms of life.

He was a member of the Darwin-Wedgwood family nexus that includes his grandsons Charles Darwin and Francis Galton, and he was a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers. On one occasion, it is said, he turned down an invitation from George III to become a physician to the King.

Erasmus Darwin House between Beacon Street and the Cathedral Close in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Erasmus Darwin was born on 12 December 1731 at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire near Newark-on-Trent, the youngest of seven children of Robert Darwin (1682-1754) of Elston, a lawyer and physician, and his wife Elizabeth Hill (1702-1797). The name Erasmus had been used by a number of members of his family and derives from an ancestor, Erasmus Earle, Common Sergeant of England under Oliver Cromwell.

He was educated at Chesterfield Grammar School and then later at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. However, it is not known whether Darwin ever obtained the formal degree of MD.

He started working as a physician at Nottingham in 1756, but he met with little success. He moved to Lichfield the following year to try to set up a practice in this cathedral city. A few weeks after his arrival in Lichfield, he used a novel course of treatment and restored the health of a young man whose death seemed inevitable.

This ensured his success in Lichfield, and for more than 50 years Darwin was a highly successful physician in the Midlands.

Erasmus Darwin lived in Lichfield from 1758 to 1781 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In Lichfield, he wrote ‘didactic poetry,’ developed his system of evolution, and invented amongst other things, a carriage steering mechanism, a manuscript copier and a speaking machine.

Darwin married twice and had 14 children, and also had two illegitimate daughters with his children’s governess, and he may have had at least one other illegitimate child.

He married Mary (Polly) Howard (1740-1770) in 1757, and they were the parents of four sons and a daughter, including Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), the father of the naturalist Charles Darwin.

In the gardens at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

When Polly died in 1770, Darwin employed Mary Parker as a governess to look after young Robert. By late 1771, Erasmus and Mary were intimately involved and they were the parents of two daughters, Susanna and Mary, who later set up a boarding school for girls. Erasmus may have fathered another child with Lucy Swift, a married woman.

Darwin met Elizabeth Pole in 1775. She was a daughter of Charles Colyear, 2nd Earl of Portmore and wife of Colonel Edward Pole (1718-1780), which led to a family connection with Comberford Hall. But, as Elizabeth was married at the time, Erasmus could only make his feelings known for her through poetry.

When Edward Pole died in 1780, Erasmus and Elizabeth were married and they moved to her home, Radbourne Hall, 6 km west of Derby. In 1782, they moved to Full Street, Derby, and they were parents of four more sons.

Darwin’s personal appearance is described in unflattering detail in his Biographical Memoirs, printed by the Monthly Magazine in 1802. He is described as ‘of middle stature, in person gross and corpulent; his features were coarse, and his countenance heavy; if not wholly void of animation, it certainly was by no means expressive. The print of him, from a painting of Mr Wright, is a good likeness. In his gait and dress he was rather clumsy and slovenly, and frequently walked with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.’

Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, weeks after having moved to Breadsall Priory, north of Derby. He was buried in All Saints’ Church, Breadsall.

Erasmus Darwin is commemorated on one of the Moonstones, a series of monuments in Birmingham, and Erasmus Darwin House, his home in Lichfield, is now a museum dedicated to Erasmus Darwin and his life’s work.

Erasmus Darwin remembered in a room at the Hedgehog Vintage Inn in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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