People and places of historical interest in Thurrock
Alfred Russel Wallace and The Dell, Grays.
Alfred Russel Wallace is chiefly remembered for his association with Charles Darwin in proposing the theory of the evolution of species by natural selection. He lived in Grays from 1872 until 1876.
Wallace was born on the 8th January 1823 in Usk, Monmouthshire, the fifth of six children, four boys and two girls. The family moved to Hertford when he was three and he received his formal education in the town, leaving school when he was fourteen.
In 1837 he was apprenticed as a surveyor and worked for over six years on surveys for the Tithe Awards and the new railways. Any spare time was spent in training himself as a naturalist by reading and correspondence, by attending lectures at "Mechanics Institutes" (the Workers Educational Association of the time) and by observation and collecting in the field.
At the age of twenty-five and with £100 saved from earnings as a surveyor he set off for South America with a like minded friend, Henry Bates. They were to collect botanical specimens for sale to museums and private collectors. He returned home after four years with a growing reputation.
After a year or so he set out again this time to the Malay Archipelago arriving in Singapore in April 1854. For eight years he travelled through the islands collecting and identifying countless species previously unknown to the scientists of Europe.
Early in 1858 he wrote to Charles Darwin from a small island in what was then the Dutch East Indies, enclosing a paper entitled "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type". The similarities with Darwin's own, as yet unpublished, ideas were startling. Darwin wrote to a friend "Your words have come true with a vengeance that I should be forestalled". After much anguish on Darwin's part it was decided by the eminent scientists of the day that the paper by Wallace and one by Darwin should be read at a meeting of the Linnean Society on 1St July 1858. It is difficult today to imagine the impact on a general public that was barely accepting the idea that every species had not literally been created during a single week in 4004 BC.
Wallace, still in the East, only learned of the meeting after the event. His reaction as a comparatively young man of 35 with only distant acquaintance with the scientific establishment, can perhaps be judged from a letter to his mother. He reported that he had received letters from
" . . . two of the most eminent naturalists in England, which have highly gratified me. I sent Mr Darwin an essay on a subject upon which he is now writing a great work. He showed it to Dr Hooker and Sir Charles Lyell, who thought so highly of it that they had it read before the Linnean Society. This insures me the acquaintance of these eminent men on my return home. "
It was 1862 before Wallace was back in England.
For the next few years Wallace was busy writing, lecturing and attending meetings, much of his time being spent in support of the "Darwinian" theory of evolution.
In 1866 he met and married Annie Mitten. For some years the couple lived mainly at Annie's parents house in Hurstpierpoint, Sussex. During this time a son, Herbert Spencer was born in June 1867, and a daughter, Violet, in January, 1869.
Two months later his account of his journeys in the East, The Malay Archipeligo was published, considerably enhancing his reputation.
The possibility of securing the directorship of a proposed museum to be built at Bethnal Green caused him to look for a house in Essex. He moved temporarily to Holly Lodge in Barking - "a miserable kind of village, surrounded by marshes and ugly factories". His second son, William, was born there in December 1871.
These brief notes have been compiled largely by reference to a recently published biography "Alfred Russel Wallace, A Life" by Dr Peter Raby. Anyone wishing to find out more is recommended to obtain a copy.
John. B. Webb 12.09.02
See also: A Victorian Scientist at Grays: 1872 - 1876 by Malcolm Chase. Panorama 22 and Alfred Russel Wallace: A Victorian Spiritualist at Grays by Alan Leyin, Panorama 37.
Return to top of page