Where it all started: Alfred Russel Wallace in Cwm Nedd

February 24, 2023 2 Comments

On Sundays I would stroll in the fields and woods, learning the various parts and organs of any flowers I could gather, and then trying how many of them belonged to any of the orders described in my book.  Great was my delight when I found that I could identify a Crucifer, an Umbellifer, and a Labiate; and as one after another the different orders were recognized, I began to realize for the first time the order that underlay all the variety of nature.

Alfred Russel Wallace in 1842 or 1848

You could argue this youthful enchantment with nature in Cwm Nedd, recalled a lifetime later by Alfred Russel Wallace, was the seed of a revolution in thinking about the role of evolution in the natural world.

Wallace was born 200 years ago, on 8 January 1823, in Usk.  He was brought up in England – in London he was exposed to the radical political views he kept throughout his long life –  but returned to the Welsh borders in 1839 to live in Kington under the wing of his older brother William, while they both found work as land surveyors in Radnorshire.  The work involved much walking:

But the surveying was interesting work, as every trickling stream, every tree, every mass of rock or boggy waterhole, had to be marked on the map in its true relative position, as well as the various footpaths or rough cart-roads that crossed the common in various directions.

In his free time Wallace enjoyed roaming over Radnor Forest and in the country near Rhayader.  The brothers moved to another surveying job in Breconshire before returning briefly to Herefordshire.  Then, in 1841, when Wallace was 18, they moved south to Neath, where they were engaged to survey and map Cadoxton-juxta-Neath, a huge parish taking in almost the whole of Cwm Nedd.


The brothers lodged for a year in Bryn-coch, a farm just north of Neath, with David Rees, ‘a rather rough, stout Welshman’, his monoglot wife and their two daughters, who had some English (Wallace never mastered the Welsh language but was sympathetic towards it).  He enjoyed the food, ‘home-made bread, fresh butter and eggs, unlimited milk and cream, and cheese made from a mixture of cow’s and sheep’s milk, having a special flavour, which I soon got very fond of.’  In a pool nearby Wallace managed to overcome his fear of water.  When working in Cwm Dulais he stayed in Creunant, with a woman who kept ‘a small beershop’, a microbrewery that served ‘very palatable’ beer. 

Once the survey was finished Wallace was occupied with smaller commissions and had enough time to teach himself new skills: how to use a sextant to navigate and a telescope to identify stars, how to design Gothic buildings, and, above all, how to appreciate ‘the vegetable kingdom.’  Self-taught and never well-off, he found it difficult to get hold of books that would help him identify species.  In 1841 he acquired a ‘shilling paper-covered book’ published by the Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.  ‘This little book was a revelation to me, and for a year was a constant companion.’  When there was no work or his brother was away, Alfred would wander over the hills and streams, finding flowers and trying to identify them.  But the SDUK book proved inadequate, and he looked for better ones.  Lindley’s Elements of botany, for him an expensive buy at 10s 6d, was a disappointment, but Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of plants, which David Rees lent him, allowed him to make sense of not only flowers, but also local ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi.

In a flower show in Swansea Wallace spotted an orchid, Epidendrum fragrans, belonging to John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penllergare, who had built the first orchid house in Wales.  He felt ’a thrill of enjoyment’. Orchids came to have a ‘weird and mysterious charm’ for him, responsible for planting in his mind a curiosity that drove him to the Amazon in later years.  He also started an herbarium, taking long walks over the mountains to collect specimens.  Finding a new one gave him the joy and rapture ‘which I afterwards felt at every capture of new butterflies on the Amazon, or at the constant stream of new species of birds, beetles, and butterflies in Borneo, the Moluccas [Malaku], and the Aru Islands.’

It was in the Malay archipelago, where species had evolved differently according to their geographical position across the hundreds of islands, that Wallace developed his own theory of evolution during his travels and studies there in 1854-62.  Looking back in the autobiography he published in 1905, Wallace was in doubt where the journey to his evolution theory began:

Now, I have some reason to believe that this was the turning-point of my life, the tide that carried me on, not to fortune but to whatever reputation I have acquired, and which has certainly been to me a never-failing source of much health of body and supreme mental enjoyment.

By the time Wallace left Neath, aged 21, the systematic study of the natural world had been lodged permanently in his mind.  He had begun to give lectures on botany and other subjects at the Neath Mechanics’ Institute, and published an article about a rare beetle he’d discovered in Cwm Nedd (he also wrote, but failed to publish an article on ‘the south-Wales farmer’, based on his experience of Bryn-coch and other farms).  After his brother’s death in 1845 he returned briefly to Neath in the following year, to survey the route of a railway line from Neath to Merthyr Tydfil.  It was a happy period:

This was, I think, about mid-summer, and I was hard at work till the autumn, and enjoyed myself immensely.  It took me up the south-east side of the valley, of which I knew very little, along pleasant lanes and paths through woods and by streams, and up one of the wildest and most picturesque little glens I have ever explored.  Here we had to climb over huge rocks as big as houses, ascent cascades, and take cross-levels up steep banks and precipices all densely wooded.

Alfred Russel Wallace in 1913

Two years later Wallace set sail for Belém and the Amazon, and his journey towards a theory of evolution was truly under way.

According to one of his biographers, a few weeks before his death at the age of 90 Wallace wrote to the family living at Bryn-goch asking whether they could give him a supply of ‘sucan blawd’ (flummery) and ‘bara maen’, foods he had taken a liking to more than sixty years earlier, in the hope that they might mend his ill-health.

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  1. Gill Lewis says:

    How lovely. A knew a little of Wallace, so it’s great the learn a little more. How amazing and daring his travels to such exotic destinations must have been.

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