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Darwin's Scientific Neighbour
   

Darwin's Scientific Neighbour


Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury) and High Elms Estate

This large estate of about 370 acres comprises a golf course and a Local Nature Reserve which is a mosaic of woodland (semi-natural ancient) and species rich chalk grassland. It is important within the World Heritage Site not only for the fauna and flora studied or observed by Darwin there, but also because of friendship between the Lubbocks and Darwins. A mansion was completed here in 1842 for John William Lubbock, the 3rd Baronet, a mathematician and astronomer whose work on tide tables earned him the Royal Society's Gold Medal.

The Lubbocks were a successful banking family from Norfolk, who bought the estate in 1808. When Darwin moved to Downe it was reported that the 3rd Baronet told his son (also John Lubbock) that he would have a great surprise and that the 8 year old, thinking the surprise might be a pony, was disappointed to find his father was only referring to Charles Darwin coming to live nearby.

In the event Darwin persuaded the 3rd Baronet to buy his young son a microscope and the young John Lubbock, a budding naturalist in his teens used to visit Darwin frequently for help and advice. He helped Darwin illustrate his great work on barnacles and grew up to be a naturalist in his own right, writing a monograph on springtails and bristletails in which he described several new species found at High Elms and a book, 'Ants, Bees and Wasps'. Still important reference works today, they demonstrate how Lubbock's careful observation and experimentation owe much to Darwin's influence. Like Darwin he was interested in geology and archaeology and how humans had changed over time and he wrote a book 'Prehistoric Times' in which he introduced the terms Neolithic (Old Stone Age) and Paleolithic (New Stone Age).

In the storm of controversy following the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species', Lubbock staunchly supported Darwin, speaking after Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker in the famous Huxley versus Wilberforce debate of 1860 during which Wilberforce sought unsuccessfully to discredit Darwin's work.

They remained close friends, demonstrated for example in this extract of a letter from Darwin to Lubbock written in September 1862, when Darwin took his family to Bournemouth some to recover from and some to avoid scarlet fever:

"I write now in great haste to beg you to look (though I know how busy you are, but I cannot think of any other naturalist who would be careful) at any field of common red clover (if such a field is near you) and watch the hive-bees: probably (if not too late) you will see some sucking at the mouth of the little flowers and some few sucking at the base of the flowers, at holes bitten through the corollas. All that you will see is that the bees put their heads deep into the [flower] head and rout about. Now, if you see this, do for Heaven's sake catch me some of each and put in spirits and keep them separate. I am almost certain that they belong to two castes, with long and short proboscids. This is so curious a point that it seems worth making out. I cannot hear of a clover field near here."

When Lubbock became a politician in 1870, Darwin commented,

"Many men can make a fair politician, but how few can work in science like him."

As a politician and social reformer he sponsored 30 bills through Parliament which passed into law including:-

The Bank Holiday Act (1871)
Shop Hours Regulation Act (1886)
The Sunday Closing (Shops) Bill (1908)
Wild Birds Protection Act (1880)
The Bill for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments (passed 1882)
The Open Spaces Act (1896)

John Lubbock also wrote books seeking to popularise natural history and the relationships between insects and plants which Darwin had introduced him to as a child. As with many of his publications, he sought to share his enthusiasm for the natural world and in the preface to 'British Wildflowers considered in Relation to Insects' he says,

"My observations and notes on this subject were originally prepared with the view of encouraging in my children that love of natural history from which I myself have derived so much happiness…."

After Charles Darwin's death in 1882, Lubbock wrote of him,

"An hour with him…. proved a wonderful cordial and brushed away the cobwebs of the imagination like a breath of fresh air."

John Lubbock was elevated to the peerage in 1900 and took the name Lord Avebury. When developers had threatened to build at Avebury stone circle some years previously, he bought the land which he later gave to the nation. Avebury is now a World Heritage Site.

John Lubbock died in 1913 and the High Elms Estate was sold to Kent County Council in 1938. The mansion burned down in 1967 and in 1968 the London Borough of Bromley took over the estate, opening some of it as a country park. Part of it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest with important populations of plants, including orchids and a good population of the endangered dormouse.


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