Shropshire Star

Flashback to 2004 - and finally a festival fit to honour Darwin

For years Shrewsbury was accused of not making enough of its most famous son, Charles Darwin, whose theories changed forever mankind's place in the big scheme of things.

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Richard Jones and Mark Russell, aka Phillipe and Riccardo, at Darwin's birthplace on The Mount during the 2004 festival.

Mountain ranges, towns and countless educational and research establishments were named after him.

Yet in the town of Charles Darwin’s birth, where he spent all of his early life, he was commemorated only by a shopping centre, a pub and a couple of statues.

It did not seem much to recognise the local links of one of the most influential figures in history.

According to author and evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins: “Along with Shakespeare and Newton, Darwin is our greatest gift to the world.”

In the early years of the 21st century some folk decided to put things right. And one of the results of that was the advent of the Darwin Festival, celebrating his life and work.

BBC Radio Shropshire presenter Jon King was pivotal in founding the Darwin Festival

One of the pivotal influences in getting it off the ground was Jon King, back then a broadcaster on BBC Radio Shropshire, but also a Darwin expert. It all began modestly with a week-long Darwin Festival held in Shrewsbury in 2003. It included talks and exhibitions and ran from February 8 to 16.

The response was positive, and that initial toe in the water was to prove the springboard for greater things, and we shall shine the spotlight on the following year, when in February 2004 for the first time an entire month was devoted to celebrating the great scientist and naturalist.

Events in the programme ranged from exhibitions and talks, to live performance and children's workshops. There was comedy too, with "The Beagle Has Landed" at Owens cafe bar.

At the end of the festival on February 28 it was reckoned it had attracted over 5,000 visitors.

Why February? It was because Darwin's birthday fell in that month – February 12, 1809, to be exact.

Afterwards King, co-organiser of Darwin Month along with town centre manager Fay Easton, said: “The numbers attending each event proved that the interest in Darwin is out there.

Andrew Bannerman and Jill Teear, playing Charles Darwin and Emma at the Darwin birthday celebrations held at Darwin House on the Mount in Shrewsbury in 2004.

“We have been welcoming visitors from across the county and outside Shropshire. Both Fay and I suspected that an interest in Darwin was out there and now we know that there is.”

Fay said: “Support for establishing this brand new festival of learning and fun has been high, with businesses putting their hands in their pockets and covering some of the costs involved in the organisation of such an expansive programme.”

There was a longer term plan to build things up so that Shrewsbury was the focus of international celebrations in 2009, to mark the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth.

At this point it's probably a good idea just to recap what Darwin did to make him such a big deal.

Born at The Mount, Shrewsbury, he was educated at Shrewsbury School – now the town’s library, outside which his statue stands.

He made his name as the young naturalist on board HMS Beagle, a survey ship which went on a five year voyage to South America and then round the world. On his return he began to formulate the theory which would change our perception of man’s place in the world.

Crowds await the Darwin Lecture being given at Shrewsbury Music Hall in February 2004 by Professor Paul Pearson of Cardiff University.

His theory of evolution is one of the most profound contributions to science of all time.

Although he was careful not to say directly that man was descended from apes, the implications of his classic work The Origin of The Species were clear and caused a rumpus in Victorian Britain.

Although Darwin moved to Kent in 1842, The Mount remained in the Darwin family until the 1860s.

The efforts of those local enthusiasts in creating the Darwin Festival had a galvanising effect and in the years since there have been various other events and activities to mark Darwin's local associations, although for obvious reasons all events for this February's Darwin Festival were held online.

Among new tributes to Darwin in Shrewsbury was the Darwin Gate at Mardol Head, said to have been the first public sculpture of its kind since 1897, which was unveiled on November 24, 2004.

Designed as a monument to Darwin, it beat more than 100 entrants to win a national competition run by Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council.

And on October 8, 2009, the Quantum Leap sculpture by the riverside was officially unveiled by the great-great-grandson of Darwin, Randal Keynes, to mark Darwin's bicentenary.

There was a small protest at the ceremony over the cost, which at the time was put at £450,000 but turned out in the end to be over £1 million, which meant it had cost more than the Angel of the North (£800,000).