A Humanist Birthday for Charles Darwin!

A Humanist 208th Birthday for Charles Darwin!


Celebrating Charles Darwin’s birthday at his home at Down House was always going to be special. Indeed, it had been an ambition of mine that I never thought would be realised. But it was – and in the end the event was even more memorable than I expected.

Darwin is one of many heroes along the path to the scientific respectability of Natural Selection. But he is the one we remember most, because The Origin of Species was Darwin’s book that – in the 19 th Century – exploded ideas about divine creation throughout the civilized world. He lived at Down House from 1842 until his death in 1882, and his widow, Emma, remained there until her death in 1896. It was soon offered for rental, and in 1900 – leased to a Mr Whitehead – who stayed there until 1906, after which it became a girls school until it was bought – in 1927 – for the British Association for the Advancement of Science as a memorial to Darwin. It was only in May 1954 after the property had been donated to the Royal College of Surgeons – that it was designated as a Grade 1 listed building. Its current owners, English Heritage, acquired the House as recently as 1996 – and opened it to the public two years later.

It has proved very popular since, with visitors from all over the world, so the idea of a small Humanist group actually holding a private event there to celebrate the great man’s birthday seemed impossible. After all, if the BHA hadn’t organised an event there, how on earth could little Basingstoke Humanists? I mentioned it at a committee meeting around March last year as a passing pipe dream of mine, and it was other Committee members – not me – who insisted that exploring the possibilities might be worthwhile. And so it was that last April we contacted the Manager of Down House to suggest a private Humanist event there – and I think we were all very excited when they expressed their interest. We later met, and they offered us the exclusive use of a private room the day before his Birthday, plus a full buffet, and a guided tour of the gardens including Darwin’s famous Sandwalk.

It would not be cheap … But it was doable. Moreover, the BHA’s advice on prices to charge for places proved invaluable, and enabled us to lay on extras for food, a bespoke Happy Birthday cake for Darwin (decorated with his famous tree of life sketch), and champagne to toast the great man. The only problem was to find a Humanist with the appropriate profile and gravitas to offer a talk and offer a toast to Darwin…

Enter Professor Grayling, who – when I asked him last June – immediately agreed to come along! A kind and generous response that was very much appreciated by everyone!

Down House is just a few miles from Orpington, but nevertheless set
in the middle of some beautiful Kentish Countryside. However, on February the 11 th , the snow lay deep and crisp and even, changing the scenery into a beautiful  winter wonderland!

The Garden walk came first, and as there were nearly 30 of us, our guide took us in two groups – one after the other – and spent time   to give us nuggets of information that you just don’t find in guidebooks.

It’s well known, for example, that Darwin lined up five stones on his Sandwalk circuit, and as he passed by he would kick one of the stones aside so that he knew when his daily exercise was over. Less well-known, is that his children often replaced the stones he kicked aside, and their absent minded Dad  immersed into his own thoughts – would lose count, and walk much further than he ever intended!

… And also his many experiments with plants were explained in some detail in his large greenhouse, that still exists …

Then we toured the house with our radio headsets, before gathering for the buffet and Professor Graylings talk entitled Humanism, Darwin, and the Animal Kingdom before calling the toast and cutting the cake …

Graylings talk was instructive, thoughtful, wise and peppered with that gentle humour of his throughout.  It was nothing short of inspiring… And it ended with a champagne style toast that everybody stood up for and enjoyed.

Then there was the ceremonial cutting of the cake, before everybody retired downstairs to the main bedroom – set out as it was in Darwin’s day – for a group photograph!

For those present, it was an inspiring and fascinating day … For Humanism, it was the first ever event of it’s kind at Down House … And for me nothing less than a dream come true that I will remember for many years to come. It was a wonderful moment and one that I know English Heritage would be very keen indeed to repeat.

This can only be done once every few years by any Humanist group, and Basingstoke Humanists won’t return for a long time. But if you think your group might be interested in doing something similar in 2018, please do email us at basingstoke@humanistgroups.org.uk and we’ll give you all the information you need to get started yourself … It might be easier to arrange than you think!

David Brittain, Group Secretary, Basingstoke Humanists

A Rational Way to a Better Life