Broadstone’s celebrated naturalist - Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace - Credit: Archant

This year marks the centenary of Dorset’s own ‘Charles Darwin’ Alfred Russel Wallace - the first honorary member of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society

When Alfred Russel Wallace was writing his memoirs My Life: A Record of Events and Opinion, he could see Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island and the Purbeck Hills spread out below him. Wallace and his wife Mary Anne had moved to Dorset from Godalming in Surrey because the trees around their house had grown so much. ‘The view was almost confined to the small garden, the south sun shut off by a house and several oaks’ wrote Wallace. Wishing to find a generally milder climate, he spent many weeks exploring the country between Godalming and Portsmouth, and then westwards to Bournemouth and Poole: ‘We were directed by some friends to Parkstone as a very pretty and sheltered place, with an abundance of great bushes of evergreen purple veronicas and large specimens of eucalyptus’, he wrote. They had found their new home.

When the couple moved to Parkstone in 1888, they had lovely views from their new house but these didn’t last long either: ‘Our house at Parkstone became no longer suitable owing to the fact that building had been going on all around us and what had been open country had become streets of villas, and in every direction we had to walk a mile or more to get into any open country’ recalls Wallace.

So, at the age of 78, he began seeking a new home. After nearly giving up they stumbled upon a spot just four miles from their Parkstone home which Wallace described as having ‘pleasant surroundings, and about half a mile from a station. The main charm was a small neglected orchard with much-gnarled apple, pear and plum trees, in a little grassy hollow with a view over moors and fields towards Poole Harbour and the Purbeck Hills’. So, at the end of 1901, they bought three acres high on Broadstone’s south-east edge and built a fine new house ‘Old Orchard’ where the steep slopes would preserve their view.

Wallace & Darwin

Writing in his greenhouse at ‘Old Orchard’ in 1906, Wallace thought fondly about his friend Charles Darwin who had died in 1882. He recalled their separate contributions to the study of natural sciences, and the differences between their characters. Darwin, born in Shrewsbury 1809, was more singular and methodical than Wallace, and his ground-breaking theory of evolution through natural selection was always the most important part of his life’s work.

For Wallace, his work on the same theory was just one part of his lifetime’s vast output. It had come to him quickly and it soon gave way to his next totally absorbing interest. Over the course of his long life, Wallace studied innumerable subjects, wrote hundreds of papers, treatises and books, gave lectures both here and in America, and wrote countless articles in scientific, political, social, and spiritualist publications. His books ranged from The Malay Archipelago, The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise to Is Mars Habitable? A Critical Examination of Professor Percival Lowell’s Book “Mars and Its Canals” with an Alternative Explanation’

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Darwin studied medicine and natural history at Edinburgh University and for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Christ’s College, Cambridge where he also studied botany. He married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, grand-daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, in 1839. Wallace was a Hertford Grammar School boy who made his way variously as teacher, self-taught railway architect and explorer. Award-winning writer A. N. Wilson said of the two great men: ‘Unlike Darwin, who was always rich, thanks to the Wedgwood inheritance, Wallace had to work his way through the world’. Darwin always had plenty of funds while Wallace financed his trips by selling the specimens he collected. Surprisingly, Darwin only left England once, on his Galapagos expedition, whereas Wallace spent many years exploring South America and the Malay Archipelago, now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

One Theory, Two Men

In 1858, the 49-year-old Darwin, had been working on his theory of evolution by natural selection for 21 years. He said that, between 1837 and 1844, he ‘allowed himself to speculate on the subject’ and ‘enlarged some short notes into probable conclusions’ but he agonised over his theory’s possible repercussions all the time. Meanwhile in the same year while 35-year-old Wallace was lying sick with a fever in the Spice Islands, he worked out the complete theory in two hours, wrote it down in two days and sent it to Darwin to ask what he thought about his conclusions. Darwin had resisted publishing his theory for two decades until he received, ‘that memoir from Mr Wallace who has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species’.

When Wallace sent his essay to Darwin, he asked him to pass it on to Sir Charles Lyell, President of the Geological Society; Lyell persuaded both men to let him read their papers jointly to the Linnean Society in London. The date was set for 1 July 1858 but, sadly, that day Darwin and Emma were burying their son Charles who had died of scarlet fever. Shortly after Lyell’s July presentation, Wallace set out for the Malay Archipelago once more, leaving Darwin to publish the finished work, and it was two years before he actually read Darwin’s Origin of Species. When he returned to England, Wallace married Annie Mitten, the daughter of his good friend and fellow naturalist William Mitten.

In 1870, responding to requests from many people struggling to understand some of Darwin’s book, Wallace published Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection which offered further explanations. He took this chance to acknowledge in print that he and Darwin had reached their conclusions completely independently of each other. By then, Darwin’s version was well established, and Wallace had been well away from the furore, debates and arguments which followed the original publication.

Wallace’s Broadstone Years

Alfred Wallace never really retired. He kept up with all the latest developments and, surrounded by the plants he loved, some from his travels, and some given to him by fellow collectors, explorers and admirers, he kept writing articles for scientific and political journals. When he died on 7 November 1913, some of his closest friends wanted him to be buried in Westminster Abbey but Annie respected his wish to be buried in Broadstone Cemetery. His prominent grave features a 7foot tall fossil tree-trunk from Portland mounted on a Purbeck limestone block. Annie died on 10 December 1914. A committee of British scientists arranged for a medallion of Wallace to be placed in Westminster Abbey near Darwin’s tomb. This was unveiled on 1 November 1915.

Wallace and his extraordinary contribution to our understanding of the natural world and our origins was not forgotten by the people of Dorset. Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club’s Proceedings of 1914 included a glowing appreciation by E.R. Sykes of the life of Alfred Russel Wallace, O.M., LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., an Honorary Member since 1909, ‘known personally to many of us, and not a mere abstract personality’. Clearly, Wallace was a regular at Dorset County Museum and a contributor to the Field Club’s programmes. Members remembered Wallace as ‘Patient, industrious, broad-minded with wonderful powers of concentration, the world has lost a great naturalist and philosopher’.

A Centenary Celebration (Until 4 January 2014)

To celebrate Wallace’s centenary Dorset County Museum is displaying Alfred Wallace’s collection of over 80 bird skins, (see above and below) purchased from William Wallace by Edward Harker Curtis in 1919 and presented to the Museum. Most were collected during Wallace’s 1854-1855 Malay Archipelago trip. They are in excellent condition and as beautifully coloured as they were in life.

Remembering Wallace

Broadstone remembers its celebrity naturalist in ‘Wallace Road‘, ‘Wallace Court’ apartments, and the sign ‘Footpath 109 to Wallace Road’. To mark Wallace’s centenary, Broadstone Chamber of Commerce is issuing a commemorative philatelic envelope which will be available to the public, Broadstone residents, local philatelic societies and national philatelic magazines. The beautifully designed envelope will have information about Wallace on the reverse, and a printed insert card. For further details contact David J Morris: or 01202 642840.

Alfred Wallace & Bournemouth Natural Science Society

Bournemouth Natural Science Society (BNSS) started with just six people meeting in 1903 above a boot-shop in Christchurch Road. They asked Wallace to become their first Honorary Member, mainly because they wanted a natural sciences celebrity to be their ‘figurehead’. Wallace would certainly have been an impressive name for their letterheads. He agreed, but he doesn’t appear to have ever attended any meetings or lectures, or given any lectures himself. He later proposed that his son William become the Society’s first curator. After the First World War the BNSS moved to its currently home in Christchurch Road which houses its impressive collections and is the venue for its many fascinating lectures.

Visit the BNSS: The Society is open to the public every Tuesday and 2nd Saturday every month 10.30am to 12.30. Drop in to look around the building, explore its many rooms and take a peek at the collections. Bring any items you would like identified. You’ll be heartily welcomed at 39 Christchurch Road, Bournemouth, BH1 3NS. Telephone 01202 553525 or visit to find out more.