Located right in the centre of Lichfield, right by the Cathedral, Erasmus Darwin House is the former home of the English poet and physician Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of famed naturalist Charles Darwin. The Grade I listed house has been converted into a museum celebrating Dr Darwin and displaying a number of interesting artefacts of local significance.
Erasmus Darwin, a practicing doctor as well as scientist, inventor, poet, and teacher, lived on Beacon Street in Lichfield’s centre from 1758 until 1781. For 20 years, as well as being a family home, it also was the base for Darwin’s medical practice and scientific experiments, as well as hosting meetings of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the dinner club of prominent Enlightenment thinkers. From his house in Beacon Street, Darwin also planned the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal.
When Darwin first moved in, the building looked more like the original timbered buildings that are still scattered around the city. It was under the watchful eye of Darwin himself that the facade was added, and the front of the house was switched to face Beacon Street rather than towards the Cathedral.
A physician of some considerable renown in his own time, Darwin was in the sort of position to be able to decline King George III himself when he was asked to be his personal doctor. Erasmus was also a particularly popular poet during the 1790s, whose theories about natural selection were finally proven by his grandson Charles Darwin in the 1850s.
By 1994 the Georgian House was in a very poor state, and a local group of doctors and cathedral officials met to discuss what could be done to help restore Darwin House as part of a wider initiative to celebrate the genius of Staffordshire’s forgotten heroes.
It was here that The Erasmus Darwin Foundation was formed and continued to look at how to develop the museum on Beacon Street. Working with the Cathedral and with the help of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the £1.25 million project came to fruition.
Since opening to the public in 1999, the museum has undergone two further refurbishments, in order to better present the themes and display the objects. Although none of Darwin’s original furniture remains, there is a selection of 18th century furniture on display, alongside traditional art and contemporary interactive exhibits.
The refurbishment of the two main exhibition rooms took place in 2009 and 2013, including major changes to the Inventions Room, helping bring some of Darwin’s inventions to life, based on concepts in his Commonplace Book. Drawings for Erasmus’s speaking machine and flying bird were finally realised, hundreds of years after first being designed.
Keeping the Museum alive are a team of volunteers, giving back in so many ways; from admin and reception desk duties, through to costume creation and running education workshops. The enthusiastic group of volunteers are a friendly team, and many of them have been with the House since the beginning of its restoration in the 1990s.
Featuring interactive Science exhibits, Georgian dress up and games, reading area, crafts and activities, at the Erasmus Darwin House, there are also various events and workshops throughout the year for a range of ages.