On 18th April 1802, Erasmus Darwin drew his last breath in Breadsall Priory, just outside Derby. It was supposed to be the new family home, but just weeks after moving in he passed away from a lung infection. In April 2002, the community came together to remember this incredible man.
The celebration of the bicentenary of Erasmus Darwin’s death spanned several days and several counties. The event began on 17th April with a lecture given by Desmond King-Hele, the leading scholar on Erasmus Darwin, at Derby University.
This was followed by a memorial exhibition in the university attended by over 150 people, including members of the Darwin family and descendants of Darwin’s circle of friends. The lively event can be seen in these pictures which have been uncovered during archiving work.
On the morning of 18th April, the anniversary of Erasmus Darwin’s death, there was a commemorative breakfast at Breadsall Priory and at 9am, the recorded time of death, a relative of Darwin’s unveiled a plaque dedicated to him.
The party then moved on to All Saints Church, where Erasmus was buried, for a memorial service which was specially written to reflect Erasmus’ evolutionary deist beliefs.
There was then another unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the ‘Darwin Suite’ at the Assembly Rooms in Derby near where Darwin’s house stood on Full Street.
After this, the party visited All Saints Church in Elston, Nottinghamshire, the village of Darwin’s birth. Here, a bronze bust of Erasmus Darwin was unveiled by current the Patron of the church and descendent of Erasmus, Christopher Darwin. A marble plaque underneath pays tribute to Darwin as an ‘Eminent Medical Doctor, Scientific Genius, Originator of the Biologial Theory of Evolution, Leading Poet with the gift of friendship’. The bust joins eighteen other memorials to the Darwin family that decorate the walls of the Church.
In the final event of the day, attendees gathered for a celebration at Elston Hall, Nottinghamshire, where Erasmus Darwin was born on 12th December 1731. During the event, a new edition of Darwin’s poetry, ‘Cosmologia’, collected by Stuart Harris, was revealed. Desmond King-Hele then left to give his second lecture of the day to the Lunar Society of Birmingham at Erasmus Darwin House.
The following day, an international conference on Erasmus Darwin in honour of the bicentenary was launched with a reception event, followed by a public memorial lecture in Lichfield Cathedral. The lecture was arranged by the Lichfield Science and Engineering Society with the title ‘An Examination of Wit: Erasmus Darwin’s Unwritten Book’.
After a good night’s sleep, the conference began on 20th April. It was an exciting event which consisted of over twenty papers presented on the topic of Erasmus Darwin.
If you want to learn more about the celebration of the bicentenary, as well as the life of Erasmus Darwin, you can find out more in ‘The Genius of Erasmus Darwin’, a collection of papers from the conference edited by C. Smith and R. Arnott, which is available in the Erasmus Darwin House.
Corin Peacock, Archive Intern