Randal Keynes Obituary

Randal Hume Keynes (LI 1961-65), OBE, FLS, was born on 29 July 1948 to a Cambridge academic family. In 1966 he won a scholarship to New College, Oxford to read English with a special interest in Icelandic Literature followed by a further degree in Social Anthropology. Randal had a distinguished career in the Civil Service based in London. He was also a conservationist, a campaigner, a collector and a historian.

At Oxford, Randal and his friend Caspar Fleming (Ian Fleming’s son) became interested in and shared a strong interest in antiquities and Mesolithic flint arrow-heads, which they sought in long walks on the Wiltshire Downs. Later he took a course in how to make flints. Randal was an avid collector of ceramics. He delighted in bringing back to London giant earthenware pots from the rainforests of Ecuador. He collected old master prints and antiquarian books having been greatly influenced by his grandfather, the bibliographer Sir Geoffrey Keynes. In 2020, Randal donated to New College his entire collection of over 250 works by Robert Lowth (1710-87), a fellow of New College, a biblical scholar and later a bishop of London and Oxford Professor of Poetry.

In 1986 Randal bought a house in Keystone Crescent, built in the 1840s within the South Caledonian area at King’s Cross. It was here that he became involved in the campaign against British Rail to save the area from compulsory purchase and demolition to make way for a new Channel Tunnel rail terminal. Randal became secretary of the South Caledonian Community Association and a member of the King’s Cross Railways Lands Group and together with other community organizations, their local solicitor and the championing of their local MP Chris Smith, they successfully fought off British Rail. The campaign lasted almost six years.

Randal’s paternal grandmother Margaret was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin. When in 1996 English Heritage restored the house and grounds of Down House, Darwin’s home, Randal helped to detail aspects of family life. In a chest of drawers full of family papers that had belonged to Margaret but was now in the possession of Richard, Randal’s father, Randal came across what was known in the family as ‘Annie’s Box’. Annie was Charles and Emma Darwin’s eldest daughter who died when she was ten. The box was Annie’s writing case, filled with keepsakes, odds and ends and a note headed ‘Annie’s Illness’ in Charles Darwin’s handwriting. Randal’s book Annie’s Box, Charles Darwin, his Daughter and Human Evolution was published in 2001 to critical acclaim. It brings to life Charles Darwin as a family man but as Randal wrote there was ‘one idea at the heart of my account. Charles’ life and his science were all of a piece’. In 2009 Annie’s Box was adapted into the feature film Creation.

Randal was passionate about conservation and science education. He served on the board of the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Research Station. He helped the Galapagos Conservation Trust with the development of their educational websites and with the restoration of Floreana Island. He was Chairman of the Charles Darwin Trust and fully embraced its mantra of ‘Darwin-inspired learning’: an approach to teaching and learning about the natural world in the spirit of Darwin’s method of careful observation and elegant experiment, inspired by curiosity and a sense of wonder. In his leadership position with the Charles Darwin Trust Randal also worked tirelessly toward the UNESCO World Heritage Site bid for Down House and environs, “Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory”, the derailing of which was one of his great disappointments. But his enthusiasm for personally advancing the public understanding of evolution and Darwin never waned, and he pursued this cause in myriad ways such as joyfully engaging with students at Cudham School and elsewhere; generously gifting or facilitating the long-term loan of books and manuscripts to Down House, the Linnean Society of London, and Cambridge University Library; and helpfully contributing to the Down House Stakeholders, an informal group that assists in education and interpretation at Down House. Randal was also a supporter and advisor to the Darwin Correspondence Project based in Cambridge. In 2012 the University of Birmingham conferred on him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contribution to the history of science.

Randal was a skilled raconteur and generous with his knowledge. He greatly enjoyed travelling around the world making friends and talking about Darwin. Randal passed away on 3 March 2023. He is survived by his wife Zelfa, his daughter Soumaya, his son Skandar and his grandson Caspar.