The ambitious plans to transform Shrewsbury's Mount House
There’s certainly no denying that the plans for the future of Mount House are ambitious.
Two American billionaires have put aside £250 million each – creating a total pot worth almost a twelfth of Shropshire’s entire annual economic output – to drive research projects at the childhood home of Charles Darwin.
But Louis-James Davis, a Mancunian cyber-security entrepreneur, insists that the aims for the transformation of the grade II* listed Georgian mansion are realistic.
“The fund itself will receive all the money,” he insists.
“But it will be dispersed as and when people apply to do projects.
“It might be there for 100 years if nobody applies for it, but there will be a board in place to decide how to disperse the money.
“It seems like a lot of money to you and me, but a company like IBM wouldn’t bat an eyelid at spending £100 million in a year on research, and that’s the kind of calibre I’m looking at.”
Mr Davis recently emerged out of the blue as the man to take on one of the most important buildings in Shrewsbury’s history, partnering with co-ordinator and curator Mike Marchant on the project development of the project.
Mount House was built by Darwin’s father Robert Darwin in 1800, and Charles was born there in 1812, remaining in Shropshire until he went to medical school in Edinburgh in 1825.
It plays a substantial and significant role in the growth of the man who transformed our understanding of the world in which we live forever.
Darwin’s later achievements in establishing the theory of evolution are widely recorded in museums in London and Cambridge, where he studied zoology, but there had been talk about transforming his childhood home into another museum to Shropshire’s most celebrated son.
While the new plans do not suggest that there is any intention of turning Mount House into a full-blown commemoration of the famed naturalist, his legacy will be recorded if the current plans to transform it into a £100 million research centre for universities come to pass.
“We are going to strip it down as much as we can while retaining the character,” says Mr Davis, whose background is in programming software which can be used for improving cyber security.
“There’s a lot of asbestos in there, so it’s going to take a lot of money to get it to the right level.
“It’s HMRC’s offices on the ground floor, and the rest of the rooms seem to have basically been left in disrepair.
“There’s about 10 rooms per floor, although the ground floor has more.
“The aim is to have a museum in there paying tribute to Charles Darwin, and his birth room will be for whoever is the visiting professor at the time.”
He adds: “The backers are billionaires from America who want to give back to the world.
“One has a heavy interest in Darwin and has other things around the world that relate to Darwin.”
The plans for the building have yet to be finalised, but are expected to see research areas such as laboratories built on each floor of the six-storey mansion.
What is currently a courtyard at the back of the building could be replaced by a botanical garden covered with a glass roof, allowing plants to be grown under different conditions – also for research purposes.
“The aim is to run a competition for an architect to design it,” continues Mr Davis.
“There’s a prime opportunity to put a glass roof on top of the courtyard and create a garden, to change the environment and study plants in different habitats.”
The initial announcement of the deal for the remodelling of the historic building talked of it as a location which could be used to help support the development of young scientists, with a particular focus on environmental issues, although the research that goes on could be more varied than that.
And Mr Davis adds: “The University of Chester is already interested, we met them beforehand, and there’s a botanist in Shrewsbury who is interested in coming and working in the botanical garden.
“Mike also has interest from Australia that will send field trips back here.
“We would expect 50 people to be working here at any one time.
“I’m excited about finding new talent, grassroots talent, getting the pick of the crop and helping them along.”
He continues: “I have been involved in universities for the last 10 years, and have written white papers for the UN and EU.
“We have also just become ambassadors of a coding organisation in Manchester called Code Nation. That’s in Manchester, Chester and Cambridge, and we planned to expand it into this as well.
“We have been thinking about the expansion of Code Nation, but I have also been monitoring this for the last few years and thought that if the time was right we could do something like this.”