Pearl of the Midlands

In a bit of a break from the revision, Jas and I went up to visit Lichfield last weekend. It’s not somewhere I’d ever been before, just a place I’ve driven through when the M6 is like a car park. So I didn’t know too much about it.

Turns out that it’s quite a nice town (sorry – city) with a rich history, which hasn’t completely been ripped apart to build a shopping centre. It was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson and home to his friend David Garrick. It was also where Erasmus Darwin spent much of his career as a doctor.

Erasmus is a fascinating bloke. Much less well known than his grandson Charles, he was not only a well-respected medical expert and generous local doctor. He actually came up with a very good description for evolution*. What’s more, he did it in the form of decent poetry in The Temple of Nature. He had written an earlier poem in The Botanic Garden which described the structure of many species of plant and then in footnotes explained in great detail what the allegorical word meant, how there were variations between species and how insects interacted with them.

As well as medicine, zoology, botany and poetry, he dabbled in engineering. He invented a horizontal windmill for his friend Josiah Wedgewood (whose daughter married his son Robert, making him Charles Darwin’s other grandfather). He created a handwriting copier. He build a model to copy the human voice organs that could be made to say ‘mama’. He designed a canal lift and a new kind of artesian well. Most significantly, he devised a new front axle for carriages to stop them from tipping over when steering. This mechanism went on to become the basis for front steering in modern cars. He never profited from such inventions because he refused to patent them, and allowed others to.

He also was a strong supporter of the education of women, writing a treatise on the matter which became the basis for public girls schools in the 19th Century. Indeed, he set up a school for girls in which his two illegitimate daughters were educated and then taught. Oh, he did like the ladies. He had five children with his first wife, Mary Howard before she died. The governess who was hired to educate his children, Mary Parker, who became the mother of the aforementioned daughters. Later, he fell in love with a married woman, Elizabeth Pole, and wooed her in poetry for five years before she became a widow and he could publicly declare his love. They went on to have seven children together, making him father to 14 kids (and step-father to more that Elizabeth had from her first marriage).

Erasmus was active in the Lunar Society, which was based nearby in Birmingham and brought together some of the foremost minds of the Industrial Revolution and progressive thought. He became a lifelong friend of the American radical and polymath Ben Franklin. He also wrote in opposition of slavery. His work on electricity and the animal nervous system was one of the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He even speculated on the beginning and end of the universe, with ideas similar to the later theories of the ‘Big Bang’ and ‘Big Crunch’.

What I didn’t realise is that when living in Lichfield, his house was under the shadow of the cathedral. He’d been invited by the rector, Thomas Seward (whose daughter Anne was a poet who worked with Erasmus), and the house backed on to the cathedral close itself (today, the cathedral’s gift shop can be accessed from the herb garden of Darwin’s home). So, a man who arguably is an influence on humanism and atheism was also closely linked to the church.

Lichfield Cathedral

Lichfield Cathedral

The cathedral itself is pretty impressive. It is dedicated to St Chad, who was the bishop of the kingdom of Mercia when it was converted and moved it’s capital to Lichfield. So he likely founded the original church on the site. It has three spires, which is very unusual, and was the site of tit-for-tat battles during the Civil War in the 1640s that meant it needed a huge amount of work doing (which would have been completed shortly before Erasmus Darwin arrived). While it dominates the skyline, it is actually delicate in appearance.

*a common misconception is that Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution, when that was already out there thanks to Erasmus and others – what Charles devised was the theory of how evolution worked through natural selection.

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