Saturday, 14 December 2013

Speaking Machines, Mechanical Birds, and Evolution!

A spectacular view of Lichfield Cathedral
from a window at Erasmus Darwin House -
imagine enjoying that view ever day!
A couple of weeks back  my Younger Daughter popped home on a flying visit, so on the Friday morning we decided we wanted to go out, but we’re both a bit short of cash at the moment, so it had to be somewhere near, easy to get to, and cheap - plus it had to be an ‘inside place’ because it was pouring with rain! Erasmus Darwin’s House, at Lichfield, fitted the bill on all counts, and we had a lovely time learning about the man who was Charles Darwin’s grandfather, followed by tea and cake in one of the city’s cafes (home-made strawberry cheesecake and tea in a china pot – Lichfield is very civilised like that!). 
Afternoon Tea then (above) and now (below). Things
haven't changed that much, but in Erasmus Darwin's
time tea was very expensive - if you look carefully you
can see a metal caddy, where tea was locked away.
And, since people outside Lichfield never seem to have heard of Erasmus, I thought I’d share some photos on Saturday Snapshot, because he’s a fascinating character who really does deserve a wider audience. And today seemed a good time, because Thursday (December 12) was the anniversary of his birth in 1731, and there are all sorts of activities going on there all weekend.
A portrait of Erasmus Darwin, taken off the
Erasmus Darwin Foundation website.
Erasmus was one of those 18th Century polymaths who seemed to be an expert at everything – the extent of his knowledge and expertise just takes my breath away. He was a physician (I love that word, it sounds so much better than a plain old doctor), scientist, inventor, poet and philosopher, and wrote about evolution long before his grandson got in on the act! He had great curiosity in the world around him, and observed and recorded things in a very detached and methodical way.
He was a newly qualified physician when he moved to Lichfield in 1756, aged just 25, and quickly became renowned for his ideas and skills. George III asked him to be the Royal Physician, but Erasmus turned the offer down, preferring to remain independent.
Darwin House: The posh front entrance! The white,
 ghostly shape in the top, left-hand window, is a model
of Erasmus.
He was a leading member of the Lunar Society, a group of Midlands-based friends, whose work gained them national acclaim and helped power the industrial revolution. The circle included James Watt (the steam engine man) and pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, and the informal club (a kind of ‘think-tank’ I guess) gathered once a month, when the moon was full, so they could see their way home! And they called themselves ‘lunaticks’! Anyway, Darwin and his wife bought an old Medieval house, and he promptly embarked on an improvement scheme, enlarging it and building a stylish new frontage looking out on to Beacon Street. I believe the correct term for it is Palladian, but I always say Georgian – all symmetrical, with steps and big windows.
Steps up to the door - I'll bet it it seemed a long, steep
climb after a night out with the 'Lunatiks'.
The back part of the house remained unchanged, and is less imposing, but much nicer, and this is where the entrance used by visitors. You reach it along a little alley from The Close (the area around the Cathedral –I’ll put up some more pictures from around there another day, because it really is very beautiful, and very historic). 
This is my Daughter in the alley which runs
along the back of historic old houses and
leads to Erasmus Darwin House.
The little gardens have been planted out into areas with sweet-smelling medicinal and culinary herbs, and are absolutely glorious in the summer. On a nice day you can sit there with a good book, soaking up the sunshine and inhaling the fragrant air, and it’s absolutely idyllic.
At the moment the garden is a shadow of what it is like
in summer.
Once you’re inside the house, doesn’t seem as big as you expect (it’s the opposite of the Tardis), but I think the back bit is deceptive, because it's joined up to other buildings. When I worked in Lichfield, in the 1990s, the house was empty and terribly dilapidated, and I think most people had forgotten all about Erasmus. But a group of enthusiasts got together and campaigned, and raised money, and won Lottery finding and other grants, so everything could be put into good order. They carried out research, acquired exhibits, and finally opened to the public in 1999.  
The back door - in the window you can see
 the  reflection of one of the Cathedral spires
Now visitors can see Erasmus Darwin's parlour, his library, an inventions room, and a study and consulting room, and there is also a seminar room where it is thought the Lunar Society met, as well as an exhibition room, with a display showing how his poetry influenced Coleridge and Southey. It’s all very hands on, with videos and recordings of people trying out his inventions, reading his poems, and telling you about his life, as well as some really clear information bards. And, best of all, you can try on reproduction Georgian clothes – and play with models of some of his inventions!
A view of the upper stories at the back - from these
windows you can see the Cathedral.
My Daughter and I loved the speaking machine, which says ‘ma’ and ‘pa’ and is not a recording device, but a man-made version of a human mouth, nose, lungs and larynx! Emily, who is studying to be a speech therapist, was fascinated to see how Erasmus had observed the way sounds (and speech) are formed, and documented his findings, detailing what he learned about phonetics. The machine he made actually said 'mama' and 'papa' and, as you can imagine, it was an absolute sensation. 
 The model of a speaking machine created
by Erasmus.The bellows at the bottom
represent the lungs, and there are holes
for the mouth and nose.
He also invented a horizontal windmill (for Wedgwood's factory), a turning mechanism for coaches which is still used in vehicles today, and a copying machine - a sort of hinged, swivelling arm, fixed in the middle, with a pen at one end which wrote as a marker at the other end traced a signature. There used to be a children's plastic toy which worked along similar lines, but I don't know if it's still made.
Erasmus highlighted many of the medical, environmental
and scientific issues which are still being discussed today.
I expect that for many visitors it's the information about evolution which is most fascinating. Charles Darwin may have been credited with proving the theory of evolution by natural selection, but Erasmus published the idea some 70 years earlier (in verse!). He knew humans were descended from ape-like creatures, and traced the origins of life back through amphibians and fish to specks in primeval seas. He took the words 'E conchis omnia' (everything from shells) as his personal motto, and even had it painted on the side of his carriage - but painted it over following criticism from the Canon of the Cathedral, who denounced Darwin for blasphemy. There is a new statue of him (which I've managed to miss each time I've been up to the house) holding a shell, which references his comment, and his theories on evolutionary development.
'Erasmus Darwin' at his writing desk.
He was, apparently, a devoted family man. He and his first wife Polly had three sons who survived, Charles, Erasmus and Robert (who was the father of Charles, of evolution fame). When Polly died in 1770 he employed Mary Parker to look after the children, and had two daughters by her. Then he fell in love with Elizabeth Pole, who was married (you can listen to one of his love poems to her) and married her after the death of her husband in 1781, and had another seven children with her. However, Erasmus left Lichfield at that point because she insisted that they move to Derby.
Daughter and Friend... Emily, peering
through a window alongside a figure
of Erasmus.
His house isn’t a grand place, and it’s not all that big (if you’re in Lichfield you could easily visit Erasmus’ home and Samuel Johnson’s birthplace on the same day, and have time to mooch around in the Cathedral as well). Anyway, Erasmus is such an extraordinary man I am delighted that Lichfield celebrates his life and achievements this way, and I think the Erasmus Darwin Foundation, which runs the place, needs support, because members work so hard to preserve the building, and to ensure Erasmus is not forgotten. Their website is brilliant (I've stolen most of my information from it) and you'll find it at   
A spectacular mechanical bird designed by Erasmus.
*(Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mummy - click to follow the links to other participants).

I do like hats - especially when they're 18th century style!


  1. Thanks for this! Just the sort of place we want to see in England. We've decided our first trip to England will have a theme about the scientific and industrial revolution.

    1. I'm sure you would enjoy it. It's only small, but very interesting, and he was years ahead of his time. Ironbridge is not too far away, and is nice to visit, and there are canals, and The Potteries, and all kinds of places connected to the Industrial Revolution and the men who made it possible.

  2. Lovely! I felt as though I was almost there!

  3. Great pictures! It looks like a fun excursion!

    1. It was great - I felt like a kid with all the 'hands-on' stuff!

  4. What a lovely journey, with gorgeous views. Thanks for sharing...and for visiting my blog.

    1. Thank you Laurel-Rain. It was an interesting couple of hours, right in the shadow of the Cathedral.

  5. How interesting! I had not heard of Erasmus Darwin. I have been to Charles Darwin's house, which was also a good day out.

    1. I only found out about him through working on the local paper - otherwise I don't think I would have known. I'd like to visit Charles Darwin's house as well.

  6. I'm so glad Erasmus' house was not left to wrack and ruin. Whenever I get to the UK next, this is definitely an area I want to explore more :-)

    1. The Midlands tends to get a bad press, but there is so much history in the area, and there are brilliant museums,art galleries & theatres, as well as lovely little towns and villages, and wonderful countryside.

  7. I especially love the photo of the cathedral through the window. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this visit.

    1. I was pleased with that one Deb - the rest are really family snapshots, but they capture the day!

  8. Thank-you for this post. I enjoyed reading it so much that my husband and I have decided to take a short break in Lichfield next spring and do what you suggest: visit Erasmus Darwin's house, Dr Johnson's house, and the cathedral. I'm indebted to you.

    1. Oh, how wonderful - I do hope you enjoy it.


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