Alfred Russel Wallace : biography
Alfred Wallace was born in the Welsh village of Llanbadoc, near Usk, Monmouthshire.Wilson The Forgotten Naturalist p. 1. He was the seventh of nine children of Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell. Thomas Wallace received a law degree, but never actually practiced law. He inherited some income-generating property, but bad investments and failed business ventures resulted in a steady deterioration of the family’s financial position.
His mother was from a middle-class English family from Hertford, north of London. When Wallace was five years old, his family moved to Hertford. There he attended Hertford Grammar School until financial difficulties forced his family to withdraw him in 1836.Wilson pp. 6–10.
Wallace then moved to London to board with his older brother John, a 19-year-old apprentice builder. This was a stopgap measure until William, his oldest brother, was ready to take him on as an apprentice surveyor. While there, he attended lectures and read books at the London Mechanics Institute. Here he was exposed to the radical political ideas of the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen and of Thomas Paine. He left London in 1837 to live with William and work as his apprentice for six years.
At the end of 1839, they moved to Kington, Hereford, near the Welsh border before eventually settling at Neath in Glamorgan in Wales. Between 1840 and 1843, Wallace did land surveying work in the countryside of the west of England and Wales.Raby Bright Paradise pp. 77–78.Slotten The Heretic in Darwin’s Court pp. 11–14. By the end of 1843, William’s business had declined due to difficult economic conditions, and Wallace, at the age of 20, left in January.
One result of Wallace’s early travels has been a modern controversy about his nationality. Since Wallace was born in Monmouthshire, some sources have considered him to be Welsh. However, great efforts, rarely seen in terms of other historical characters have in modern times attempted to re-attribute his nationality elsewhere, mainly due to the misinterpretation of being referred to as ‘English’ [speaking] rather than English Nationality. As an Anglicised Welshman, one historian has even tried to establish that he was an Englishman born in Wales. However, historians are subject to questions regarding their impartiality on the subject.
After a brief period of unemployment, he was hired as a master at the Collegiate School in Leicester to teach drawing, mapmaking, and surveying. Wallace spent many hours at the public library in Leicester: he read An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus, and one evening he met the entomologist Henry Bates. Bates was nineteen years old, and in 1843 he had published a paper on beetles in the journal Zoologist. He befriended Wallace and started him collecting insects.Shermer In Darwin’s Shadow p. 53.Slotten pp. 22–26. William died in March 1845, and Wallace left his teaching position to assume control of his brother’s firm in Neath, but he and his brother John were unable to make the business work. After a couple of months, Wallace found work as a civil engineer for a nearby firm that was working on a survey for a proposed railway in the Vale of Neath.
Wallace’s work on the survey involved spending a lot of time outdoors in the countryside, allowing him to indulge his new passion for collecting insects. Wallace was able to persuade his brother John to join him in starting another architecture and civil engineering firm, which carried out a number of projects, including the design of a building for the Neath Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1843. Swansea University. Retrieved 21st April 2013. William Jevons, the founder of that institute, was impressed by Wallace and persuaded him to give lectures there on science and engineering. In the autumn of 1846, he, aged 23, and John were able to purchase a cottage near Neath, where they lived with their mother and sister Fanny (his father had died in 1843).Slotten pp. 26–29.Wilson pp. 19–20.