27 August 2022

The elusive search in Lichfield
for Darwin’s ‘missing link’ with
with the Comberford family

Erasmus Darwin House with the spires of Lichfield Cathedral … was there ever a link with the Comberford family? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Walking around Lichfield Cathedral twice earlier this week, my eyes – as always – were drawn to both the Comberford hassock in the north side aisle and the memorial to Erasmus Darwin in the south choir ambulatory, just behind the screen.

Erasmus Darwin is remembered in Lichfield for being more than the grandfather of Charles Darwin. But when I posted a photograph of a £10 note shortly before Charles Darwin was replaced by Jane Austen, another member of the Comerford family commented: ‘You look well on the tenner … I mentioned to you before about the hair and beard lines in Comerfords.’

In haste, I mentioned: ‘There is a vague link to Charles Darwin in the Comberford family … too distant to boast about, too near not to consider the resemblance.’ To which an old school friend responded: ‘The apple doesn’t fall far …’

In Darwin’s Gardens and Vicars’ Close, beside Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In a subsequent search, I realised, of course, that there was no direct link between the Darwin and Comberford families.

But I decided, nevertheless, to cross the Cathedral Close this week to enjoy some time in Erasmus Darwin’s Gardens, between Vicars’ Close and his house, and to revisit Erasmus Darwin House, where he lived and raised many of his children.

Could I find that missing link between the Darwin family and the Comberford family?

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral and Darwin’s Gardensseen from a Venetian window in Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In Lichfield, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) is remembered in his own right as a physician, a natural philosopher, a physiologist, and an inventor. 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 group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers. On one occasion, it is said, he turned down an invitation from George III to become his personal physician.

Erasmus Darwin was born at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire, and educated at Chesterfield Grammar School and Saint John’s College, Cambridge, before studying medicine in Edinburgh.

He moved to Lichfield in 1757 to set up practice in the 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.

In Lichfield, his inventions included a carriage steering mechanism, a manuscript copier and a speaking machine.

Original portrait of Erasmus Darwin by James Rawlinson in Erasmus Darwin House … reputedly the last portrait of Darwin before he died in 1802 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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.

His first wife, Mary (Polly) Howard (1740-1770), was the daughter of Charles Howard, a Lichfield lawyer, and their children included Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), the father of the naturalist Charles Darwin.

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. Erasmus may also have fathered another child with Lucy Swift, a married woman.

A portrait of Elizabeth Pole, Erasmus Darwin’s second wife, in Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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, Elizabeth was only 30. It is said, ‘half the wealthy youth of Derbyshire’ asked to marry her. Instead, Elizabeth married Erasmus, and he moved from Lichfield 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 died suddenly on 18 April 1802, only weeks after he had moved to Breadsall Priory, north of Derby. He was buried in All Saints’ Church, Breadsall.

A large family tree of the Wedgwood and Darwin families in Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A large family tree on a wall in Erasmus Darwin House outlines the nexus of connections in the Darwin and Wedgwood families, including the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who is the inspiration for many of my morning prayer diaries and reflections on my blog these days.

But when I scrutinised this family tree again this week in search of connections with the Comberford family, all I could find were very remote connections with Comberford Hall that I already knew about.

Over 100 years ago, Comberford Hall was the home of Christopher Askew Chandos-Pole from about 1912 until about 1916. Christopher Askew Chandos Pole was the great-great-grandson of Colonel Edward Sacheverell Pole (1718-1780) and his wife Elizabeth Collier, Erasmus Darwin’s second wife.

Edward Sacheverell Pole had fought at Fontenoy and Culloden. Within a year of his death, the widowed Elizabeth married the widowed Dr Erasmus Darwin, then 49 and already the father of a large family. Following their marriage in 1781, Erasmus Darwin left Lichfield and Elizabeth and Erasmus Darwin lived briefly at Radbourne Hall, the Derbyshire seat for generations of the Pole family.

The memorial to Erasmus Darwin in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Elizabeth Pole and Erasmus Darwin were the parents of seven more children, and Elizabeth was also the stepmother of his children from his first marriage. They included Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), who was born in Lichfield in 1766 and who grew up as a step-brother of Sacheverell Chandos-Pole.

This Sacheverell Chandos-Pole was the father of the Revd William Chandos-Pole (1833-1895), whose kinship with Robert Darwin’s son, Charles Darwin, was akin to them being first cousins.

A succession of Poles and Chandos-Poles were rectors of Radbourne, including the Revd William Chandos-Pole, who was appointed in 1866. He was married to Christina (Askew) and a year later their son, Christopher Askew Chandos-Pole, was born at Radbourne in 1871. In 1898, Christopher married Constance Marian Schwind in 1898, and they moved to Comberford Hall with their children, Christina and Peter, around 1912.

I have long realised that the connection between Charles Darwin and Comberford Hall is both remote and obscure … a true ‘missing link.’

The rector who was the equivalent of his first cousin but who was related only through marriage was the father of a man who had lived briefly at Comberford Hall … and that is as near as I could get, yet again, during this week’s visit to Lichfield and Erasmus Darwin House.

Comberford named on a cassock in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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