Sunday 7 August 2011

The Darwin tobacco jar

Portuguese Palissy majolica ware by Manuel Cipriano Gomes Mafra  1853
The Darwin tobacco jar was inherited by my paternal grandmother from her childless aunt.  Her aunt was married to Francis Darwin Huish, whose grandfather was Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin, and great grandfather Erasmus Darwin, the eminent physician/all round scientist/Lunar Society founder and FRS.
Sir Francis was half uncle to Charles Darwin, however, the age difference was only 23 years.  It is always said in the family that the jar had belonged to Charles Darwin, and it is true that Charles Darwin had a large oil painting of Sir Francis hanging in his dining room at Down House, Kent, it hangs there to this day.  However, that is a questionable assumption, and I am of the opinion that it is most likely that the tobacco jar had belonged to Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin, grandfather to Francis Darwin Huish, husband to my grandmothers childless aunt.
Francis Darwin Huish's grandfather - Sir Francis Sacheverel Darwin via Wikipedia
Sir Francis was Erasmus Darwin and Elizabeth’s most unruly, wild child.  He went to Emanuel College, Cambridge and became a doctor.  After Cambridge, in 1808, he embarked on an adventurous two year journey via Spain to Greece and Turkey.  He started out with four companions, all of whom died en route.  In his diary he tells the story as if it were quite normal to spend a small fortune on almost suicidal voyages and expeditions, interrupted by fatal and near fatal illnesses, in a war zone where every ship sighted was a threat. He loved adventure for its own sake, but was a born naturalist. His pencil followed a keen eye, where rock and mineral, plant and beast were concerned as readily as when it portrayed an archaeological site or displayed the costumes of Greece or Turkey.  Arriving in Smyrna at the height of the plague gave him the opportunity to watch the progress of the disorder in several English sailors who had been on shore.  He visited the local Armenian and Greek hospitals, where numbers were dying daily.  At a later date, Sir Francis, wanting more experience of the plague took charge of several Smyrna hospitals.
When Sir Francis returned home he practiced as a doctor.  He married and had 10 children.  He was knighted in 1820 possibly because he resuscitated the Prince Regent after he had passed out during a drinking bout.  He loved country life and aged 36 he gave up working as a doctor in 1822 to live for 25 years at Sydnope Hall in a remote area of north Derbyshire.  He kept wild pigs in the woods and tame snakes in the house.  Before he died, he moved to Breadsall Priory, near Derby, which had been the home belonging to his father, Erasmus Darwin.


Could it be that Charles Darwin found his half uncle to be an interesting character, and did they know each other well?  In the 19th century friendships were strong within the family.  Cousin marriage was not uncommon in Britain at that time though why is debated: poorer communications, keeping wealth within the family.

There are several letters in the Cambridge University Darwin Correspondence Project to and from Charles Darwin and W.D. Fox, a fellow student, regarding visits they made to Sir. Francis’s home at Sydnope Hall.
Letter extract from Charles Darwin to W.D. Fox –
"Secondly I have been struck with surprise in comparing my memoranda how often crossed animals are said to be very wild, even wilder than either parent: I have thought I would just put a foot-note to this effect, giving my cases: my memory, which I dare not trust, tells me that the cross from wild Boar and common pig at Sydnope Hall was wilder than the wild Boar: do you remember anything of this? I refer to our, very memorable visit to Sydnope Hall".


  1. Hello Rosemary:
    What an intriguing jar which looks to be Majolica ware to us. And, what a fascinating glimpse in to the interconnectedness of various branches of your family. It is so interesting to trace back these links and to begin to form pictures of what life was like then and how things have developed to the present day.

    As we are the only Hattatts in Britain, we feel that we should,perhaps, continue the work started by an uncle of the family genealogy but whether we will or not is another matter.

  2. Dear Jane and Lance - I had intended to give some information about the jar, but in my haste forgot - I will correct that situation. It should be relatively easy for you to investigate your family with such an unusual surname. I would urge you to give it a go.

  3. Your jar is charming! Until I saw your caption that it was Portuguese. I thought that it might be a piece by Wedgewood. I remember reading that Josiah Wedgewood was a member of the Lunar Society, and one of Charles Darwin's grandfathers. Wouldn't it be interesting to know if Wedgewood had ever studied this? It's such an interesting piece that I'd bet it had been shown to him.

  4. Hi Mark - Portuguese Palissy ware produced in the 19th century was actually a reproduction of a style of ceramics made by a famous French potter Bernard Palissy in the middle of the 16th century. You are correct Josiah Wedgwood was a member of the Lunar Society. His daughter Susannah married Erasmus Darwin's son Robert, making him Charles Darwin's 'other' grandfather. Wedgwood and Minton did make a form of majolica based on Palissy but not so grotesque as the Portuguese ware.

  5. How wonderful to have that connection!

  6. Mark the connection is tenuous

  7. Dear Rosemary,
    In doing research for a paper on European majolica ware I am preparing, I accidentally came across your blog with the history of the Darwin Tobacco Jar. Most interesting, indeed. May I take the liberty to ask you to please let me know if your jar has a mark on the bottom, and if so would you be kind enough to let me have a photo of such mark? Also, may I refer to your jar and its history in my paper? That would be of great help to me. I can be contacted by e-mail . I thank you in anticipation. Kind regards Sergio

    1. Dear Sergio - I am happy for you to refer to the jar and its history. It does not have a mark on the base but it has one in the lid - it shows the Mafa triangular mark. I will send you a photo in a few days.

  8. Dear Rosemary
    I am so very glad you answered my appeal that I am at a loss for words to thank you! I can't wait for your kindness in making the photo of the mark on the lid available to me. From that, together with the expert friend I am working with, we hopefully can pinpoint other details of the history of your Manuel Mafra jar. Bless you. Sergio


❖PLEASE NOTE❖ Comments made by those who hide their identity will be deleted

“You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you - you have to go to them sometimes”

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh