top of page

A dear and good child: the story of Annie Elizabeth Darwin

By Keith Hayward

Keith is a member of Farnham Humanists committee. He is a retired motor engineer and he currently runs a retail garden nursery in Bisley, Surrey. In this article, he tells the touching story of Charles Darwin's favourite child.

This is the story of Annie Darwin, a daughter of Charles Darwin, who died at the age of ten in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, where she was buried. Charles was so deeply affected by Annie's death that it that it marked the time that he ceased to attend church. My wife Christine and I made two visits to Great Malvern and I took these opportunities to track down Annie's story.

Charles and Emma Darwin were married in 1839. Darwin was already famous from his voyage on HMS Beagle, and well-known as a scientist and author. They had ten children. Their second child and eldest daughter was Anne Elizabeth, known as “Annie”, who was born in 1841.

This is a daguerreotype photograph of Annie, aged about eight, in 1849. At that time photography was quite new, having been invented around 1840. Several studios in London produced daguerreotype photographs (invented by Louis Daguerre in the early 19th century, they involved capturing images on a light-sensitive silver-coated copper plate). For this photograph she would have had to remain perfectly still for one minute. Often a hidden bracket behind the sitter held the head steady. It was quite an expensive process, each photograph costing over £100 in today’s equivalent. The photographic surface was very delicate, like the powder on a butterfly’s wing.

Annie died when she was ten years old. Charles was devastated by her death. He confessed to his cousin, William Darwin Fox, that she was his favourite child. More than any of the other children she treated him with a spontaneous affection that touched him deeply; she liked to smooth his hair and pat his clothes into shape, and was by nature neat and tidy, cutting out delicate bits of paper to put away in her work-box, threading ribbons, and sewing small things for her dolls and make-believe worlds.

Annie’s illness began in October 1850, with fevers and a general feeling of being unwell. She got progressively worse. In March 1851 Darwin took her to Great Malvern in Worcestershire, to be treated by Dr James Manby Gully, who had founded a very successful “hydrotherapy” clinic. They were accompanied by Annie’s younger sister Henrietta, known as Etty, then aged eight, and their nursemaid Brodie. Darwin’s wife Emma stayed at home, being heavily pregnant.

Charles himself had a lifetime of ill-health, and was already a patient and friend of Dr Gully. Besides being a specialist in “water treatment”, Dr Gully was also a homeopathy practitioner and a clairvoyant.

Dr Gully's patients at Malvern were woken at 5 o'clock in the morning and wrapped in wet sheets. Buckets of cold water were poured over them, and they then went on a five-mile walk, stopping at wells to drink the waters. They returned to the Malvern Pump Room for a breakfast of dry biscuits and water. They then had the day to spend bathing with various kinds of cold baths and dousings, and being rubbed with cold wet towels. Dinner was usually boiled mutton or fish.

Annie commenced the water treatment on 24th March 1851. This was a cold time of the year to endure such spartan treatment. She died 30 days later. There were days when hopes were raised of a recovery, followed by days of further decline. Dr Gully gave the cause of death as “Bilious fever with a typhoid character”. This has been criticised on the grounds that it is a statement of symptoms, and not a statement of a cause of death. At the time the cause of death was simply spoken of as “fever”. Later medical opinion has decided that she probably died of Scarlet Fever followed by abdominal tuberculosis.

Following her death, Charles Darwin felt that he should write a memorial to Annie for his own future benefit. This is the first paragraph: “Our poor child, Annie, was born in Gower Street on 2nd day March 1841 and expired at Malvern at midday on the 23rd day of April 1851. I write these few pages, as I think in after years, if we live, the impressions now put down will recall more vividly her chief characteristics. From whatever point I look back at her, the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness tempered by two other characteristics, namely her sensitiveness, which might easily have been overlooked by a stranger & her strong affection”. The pages of this memorial end with the paragraph: “We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age:— she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her”.

“After Annie's death, Darwin set the Christian faith firmly behind him. He did not attend church services with his family. He walked with them to the church door, but left them to enter on their own, and stood talking with the village constable or walked along the lanes around the parish.” (Randal Keynes, page 222.)

Annie was buried in the churchyard of Great Malvern Priory. During our first visit to Great Malvern we found her grave. This photograph (above) shows it in relation to the priory. Annie’s grave is in the foreground, with the flowers.

The gravestone simply reads “A dear and good child”.

At that time we heard from people in a cafeteria nearby that there is a villa in Great Malvern with a blue plaque where Charles stayed with Annie. So, on our second visit, I set out to find the villa with the blue plaque. Its address is 44 Worcester Road, which is the A449. It is high in the Malvern Hills with a very impressive view of the patchwork of fields in the Severn Vale below.

The plaque on the gatepost reads: “In 1851 Charles Darwin stayed with his daughter ANNE ELIZABETH who was being treated by the pioneer of the Malvern Water Cure, Dr James Manby Gully”.

I could see though the gate that an elderly gentleman was working in the garden by the front door. I went up to him and asked him if he lived here. He stood up and yelled at me “I am extremely deaf”. I yelled back at him “I am also extremely deaf”. We then had a conversation yelling at each other. At one point his wife appeared to see what all the noise was about, and then retreated back into the house, no doubt deciding she would leave these two silly old men shouting at each other. He confirmed that this was the house where Annie had died, and he pointed to a first floor window to the room where he said she had died. I asked him if I could photograph that room and he said that the villa was now divided into flats, and so he couldn’t do that. He also described the Dr Gully Water Treatment. We talked for quite a while and he let me take photos of the outside. At one point I happened to say that I was an atheist. He yelled at me “You have made a very great mistake”, so we then had a yelling conversation on the pros and cons of atheism. But we parted on good terms.

Later on, I discovered that a book has been written about Annie Darwin. The title of the book is “Annie’s Box”. This title refers to Annie’s work-box, which has been preserved by the Darwin family. The author is Randal Keynes, who was Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson (he died in 2023). I found this book very interesting as it deals with both Darwin’s professional life and also his domestic life, as well as his daughter Annie. I am grateful for extracts from this book.

Further reading

  • Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter and Human Evolution (2001) by Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great-grandson

  • Full memorial of Annie Darwin is here

95 views0 comments


bottom of page