Alfred Russel Wallace – Local Hero

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace, O.M., L.L.D., D.C.L., F.R.S. © DCM

A two-part series on BBC 2 Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero’, 21st and 28th April at 8.00pm. Will see comedian Bill Bailey head to the jungles of Indonesia in the footsteps of his hero, Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, to understand how he came up with the theory of evolution independently of Darwin. These programmes coincide with this years events held at the Natural History Museum –  Wallace100: a celebration of his life and scientific legacy in 2013, the centenary of his death.

As Wallace, was an Honorary member of the Dorset County Museums’ Dorset Natural History and Archaeolgical Society.  An obituary was published in the DNHAS proceedings Vol XXXV, 1914

Anniversary Address of the President by Nelson Moore Richardson, Esq.,BA (Read May 12th, 1914.)

“Of our Honorary Members, a most distinguished man, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was for some years after he came to live in Dorset an Ordinary Member of our Club, and was elected an Honorary Member in 1909, has passed from amongst us. His life and work have been so fully set forth in so many scientific and other publications, and also in a short memoir by our Vice-President, Mr. E. R. Sykes, which will be printed in the same Volume of Proceedings as this Address, that I do not propose to enter into it here. I will only add that we mourn his loss in common with scientists all over the world, and feel that our Club has been honoured by his connection with it.”

Alfred Russel Wallace A Memoir by E. R. Sykes.

By the death of Alfred Russel Wallace the last link with the great workers on evolution, whose names adorn the mid-nineteenth century, is broken. One by one, Darwin, Hooker, Huxley, &c., they have passed away, and now death has taken from us the last, and one of the greatest. We, of the Dorset Field Club, have a special interest in Wallace ; he was an Ordinary Member of the Club for some years, and in 1909 became one of our Honorary Members; to many of us he was personally known, and not a mere abstract personality.

Flying Frog

An illustration from The Malay Archipelago depicts the flying frog Wallace discovered.

Born on January 8th, 1823, at Usk, in Monmouthshire, he was educated at Hertford Grammar School, and for a short time assisted his brother as a land surveyor. Later, he became a schoolmaster at Leicester, and there, about 1845, he became friends with H. W. Bates, whose works on the Amazon Region are so well-known. This was a turning point in his career for, in 1848, he and Bates, both already keen students of nature, went out together to study and collect animals and plants in South America. After a short time they separated, and Wallace spent four years in the country, exploring the Rio Negro. Unfortunately the bulk of his collection was lost, owing to fire on the ship by which he returned home. In 1854 he started on his classic expedition to the Malay Archipelago, then but little known ; this lasted no less than eight years, and he brought back the vast store of over 125,000 specimens. On the materials so collected and his geographical studies were based his ”Island Life ” and “Geographical Distribution of Animals,” while we may also note his discovery of what has been called “Wallace’s line,” dividing the Archipelago into two distinct regions, with entirely different faunas.

A exotic bird specimen from the Wallace Collection

One of the many exotic bird specimens from the Wallace collection held by the Dorset County Museum © DCM

We may now turn to his epoch-making work, by which the name of Wallace will ever be remembered. While still in the Malay Archipelago he sent home to Darwin his essay ” On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type,”which, to the latter’s amazement, proved to be in theory and reasoning precisely similar to the great work on which he himself was then engaged. It was eventually arranged that a joint paper by Darwin and Wallace should be read at the Linnsean Society, and in 1858 this was done.After a stormy controversy the great theory of the survival of the fittest has met with universal acceptation, and the foundation-stone of modern biology stands firm and secure. To us of the present day it is hard to realise that what has been well called one of the driving forces of the world, and which seems to us but a simple truth, should have been found so hard to accept. Incidentally, we gain some insight into the working of Wallace’s mind, into which, after a long period of, no doubt, unconscious preparation, decisions flashed. The above conclusions came upon him suddenly,and we know that he said of himself  “I am a believer in inspiration. All my best theories have come to me suddenly.”

Characteristic of his enquiring mind was it, that he never considered the details of the theory as finally settled. He was far from accepting the whole of the “Origin of Species” verbatim, and, in later years, he endorsed the somewhat diverging views of Weissman. Finally, in his “World of Life,” he expressed his disagreement with the view attributed  to Darwin, that man, like all other animals, has been produced by the unaided operation of natural selection.

From this time onwards Wallace occupied his rightful position as one of the leaders of scientific thought ; slowly, but steadily, recognition and honours poured in upon him; and he held his place till death, on November 7th, 1913, in his ninety first year, removed him from amongst us.

It is impossible in a brief memoir like the present to give any real survey of Wallace’s scientific or other work. An author who dealt with such widely – sundered subjects as Island Faunas and Spiritualism, the theory of evolution and State ownership of land, is not to be summarised in a few paragraphs. For a moment we may turn to his ” Island Life,” a summary it may be said, but a summary welded by a master-hand. Here, after a brief essay on distribution, he points out that the key must be sought in evolution ; and after dealing with glacial epochs and changes of climate, he gives a detailed survey of the fauna and flora so far as known, the result being a book of great value, not only to the specialist, but also to the general reader. In his ”Malay Archipelago,” again, we find most valuable observations, not only on the animals and plants, but also on the native races and their history ; and that he risked many dangers in the cause of science, the mere account of his voyage from Waigiou to Ternate, in 1860,is sufficient to show.

The influences which lead men to become what they are,though often apparently small in themselves, afford an interesting study. In the case of Wallace, his taste, already slightly developed, for zoology and botany, no doubt received a great stimulus from his friendship with Bates. This association largely led to the first expedition to South America, and, gradually, the collector became the master mind, using his collections in the way they should be used — as materials for study.

To take another instance, his views on the State ownership of land may be traced to his association with his elder brother, a surveyor, and to the experience this gave him. Patient, industrious, broad-minded, with wonderful powers of concentration, the world has lost a great naturalist and philosopher.”

– Alfred Russel Wallace in Dorset

  • 1889 – June: Rented the house at Parkstone
  • 1890 – Bought the house, having decided to settle in Dorset because of the “rich golden clumps of the dwarf gorse and because rhododendrons and water-lilies could be grown in the garden New edition of ‘Malay Archipelago’, ‘Human Selection’ in Fortnightly Review
  • 1891 – Two articles on the American flora New editions of ‘Natural Selection’, ‘Tropical Nature’ and ‘English and Flowers’ in Fortnightly Review
  • 1892 – Review articles (in Studies Social and Scientific)
  • 1893 – Australia for Compendium of Geography ‘Ice Ages‘ ‘Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics’ in Nature
  • 1894 – ‘What are Zoological Regions’ in Nature
  • 1895 – ‘The Palearctic and Nearctic Regions Compared as regards the Families and Genera of their Mammalia and Birds’, emphasizing all animals and absence as important criteria as presence (bears and deers for example).   An answer to Newton, who wanted a Holarctic Region. ‘Spines and Prickles in Flowers’ in Studies Social and Scientific ‘The Method of Organic Evolution’ (against Galton and Bate son) ‘Anarchy, Education, Expressiveness of Speech’ New edition ‘Island Life’
  • 1896 – ‘Ice Ages’
  • 1898 – ‘The Wonderful Century’
  • 1900 – Third edition ‘Darwinism’, ‘Studies Social and Scientific’,’His New Zealand and Zoological Region’  in Nature
  • 1901 – Bought three acres of land at Broadstone ‘The Wonderful Century Reader’ and ‘Vaccination a Delusion’
  • 1902 – Christmas: moved into Old Orchard, Broadstone
  • 1903 – ‘Man’ s Place in the Universe’
  • 1905 – ‘My Life’ 2 vols
  • 1907 – ‘Is Mars Habitable?’
  • 1908 – ‘Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes’ by Richard Spruce edited by A. R. Wallace ‘My Life’ revised in one vol ‘Darwinism versus Wallaceism’ In Contemporary Review
  • 1910 – ‘The World of Life’
  • 1913 – ‘Social Environment and Moral Progress’, ‘The Revolt of Democracy’  Many articles on social and political questions during this period. Wallace dies at his home at Broadstone on 7th November 1913.
  • 1916 – ‘Alfred Russel Wallace:Letters and Reminiscences’ by James Marchant

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A Fisherman’s Tale: The Monster Fish of the River Frome

Monster Fish - The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum

Monster Fish – The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum © DCM

Visitors to the Dorset County Museum may have noticed the large fish suspended in the Victorian Gallery. Believe it or not this is a Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus), is one of the largest fish ever to be caught in an English river using a fishing rod. Nearly three metres in length and weighing 92 kilograms, this fish was caught by Major Charles Robert Eustace Radclyffe of Hyde House, Bere Regis in the River Frome at Bindon Mill on 2nd July 1911.

Here is his amusing fisherman’s tale taken from the Dorset Year Book 1918 -1919 from Major C.E. Radclyffe’s article ‘My Years of Sport in Dorset’:

“And now we tune to the gentle art, so well beloved by Issac Walton.  Here again in Dorset rich in rewards for those who frequent the banks of her silvery streams.  True it is that the River Stour is not so noted for its pellucid waters as for the size of the great course fish which frequent its dark and deep pools.  But in the clear waters of those beautiful streams, the Frome and the Piddle, which teem with all kinds of fish from salmon and trout to grayling pike, roach and dace, an angler must be hard to please if he cannot there find anything to amuse him.  No two men beautiful streams are to be found in England than these which meander over their winding courses and glide gently into Poole Harbour by two months situated a short distance apart.

The Frome in its upper reaches yields magnificent trout fishing, whilst in its lower stretches salmon run up to 50 lbs. in weight, and enormous pike and countless coarse fish, and a few sea trout, frequent its waters.  The Piddle is without doubt one of the best trout streams in England, and teems with fish for many miles.

Born and bred on the finest stretch of the latter river, it is not to be wondered at that in early youth I took fishing as a duck takes to waters to their mouths, that I have not explored and fished in the past 35 years, and during that time have taken from them many hundreds of fine trout, and many scres of salmon.

An angler is always expected to have some great yarn to tell of each river he has fished, and the writer does not plead to be an exception to this rule; in fact he could fill a book of yarns on Dorset angling.  The difficulty is to get people to believe them all.  But the following is a well authenticated event which happened seven years ago.

Radclyffe Family and the Sturgeon

The sturgeon after its capture, on top of the roof of Major Radclyffe’s Daimler. In front are his four daughters © DCM

Early in the season I was fishing the lower waters of the Frome for salmon with a friend. Shortly after we had started, my friend came running wildly towards me across the meadows, as if chased by a mad bull. Breathlessly he explained that he had seen the biggest salmon in the world I reasoned with him that even a 40-pound salmon looked ‘some fish’ in a small river like the Frome. Whereupon he swore solemnly that this fish was at least 140lbs. As the old saying goes ‘seeing is believing’, so we went to the spot, and soon in the centre of the pool appeared a huge back fin shaped like that of a shark. A closer inspection showed the back of an enormous fish, which my friend had clearly underestimated at 140lbs. But this great back with scales like armour plating was familiar to me, since I had killed sturgeon in Russia, and hence was able to say at once that my friend is a sturgeon, and a big one; but how to land him on our light tackle is more than I can say. Repeatedly the monster rolled on top of the water close between our feet, and finally we decided to borrow a gun from a neighbouring farm and shoot the fish.

The gun having arrived we waited until the fish again showed on top of the water, and then gave him both barrels in the head at a distance of five yards. The only result was to make him take a series of wild rushes across the stream, where he began to roll about as before, apparently none the worse for a double dose of No. 5 shot.  Seeing that big things required strong measures, I sent my car home for an elephant rifle, and we waited. Just before the rifle arrived the fish disappeared in a deep pool, and although we patrolled the river, and had scouts out looking for him for days afterwards, we did not then find further traces of the fish, and decided he must have returned to the sea.

Two months later, a man arrived from Bindon Abbey with a request that I would go next morning to try, and catch the biggest salmon in world, which was then in a big weir pool. From the man’s description I had no difficulty in deciding that here was our long-lost sturgeon.

Early next morning, armed with the strongest rod and line I possessed, and having rigged up a grappling tackle of the largest-sized salmon flies, a party of five of us stood watching the weir pool. After an hour’s waiting, there suddenly appeared the great shark-like fin, and then the back of our friend the sturgeon.

Major Radclyffe and Sturgeon

Major Radclyffe (right) and his Gillie with the 230lbs. Sturgeon, caught by the Major near Bindon Abbey. The largest fish ever caught in fresh water in England. © DCM

Since a sturgeon belongs to the family of bottom-feeding fish, it was obviously impossible to hook this one with any form of bait. Hence it became a problem of casting over the monster and trying to get the hooks to grapple in some soft spot. This was no means easy owing to the thickness of its skin and armour-plated scales. Finally, however, I grappled the fish under the jaw, and then the fun began. For one hour and forty-five minutes I and a friend took turns at the rod, as the continuous strain on one’s arms was more than one man could stand for long; and at last it felt like trying to hold or turn a motor car with a rod and line.

As a last resource we had to requisition services of a small seine net, and floating it down stream until the fish struck into it. The fish tangled itself up like a fly in a spider’s web, and was thus hauled into shallow water. It took three men with two gaffs to land this leviathan, which measured no less than 9 feet 3 inches from nose to tail; verily the largest fish ever captured with rod and line in an English river.

According to a time honoured custom, I presented the fish to His Majesty King George, who graciously returned it to me with a request that it might be preserved in my private museum at Dorchester; all of which was done in due course.

An amusing incident occurred as the fish was landed. A local labourer arrived with a towel on his shoulder for a morning bathe.On seeing the fish he said, ‘Lord, zur, do ee think there’s another of they girt brutes about, cause if ‘tis I bain’t agoin’ to bathe in thik pool agean,’ and I don’t believe he has done so since then.

I have often heard a fine fisherman say he considrers the Frome to be the most sporting, and best all-round river in England.  And although I can claim a somewhat unique record of having caught salmon on almost every country in the world where they are known to exist, from Iceland Scandinavia and Russia, to Siberia, Kamchatha, Japan and Alaska; and from the Bristish Columbia to Newfoundland; yet I look back with great pleasure of all to the days on which I have landed my first and many subsequent great salmon, on the banks of the dear old Frome.

‘Big things with fins’

SturgeonSturgeon are rare visitors to our rivers. They have four barbels which are tactile organs in front of their toothless mouth that seek out food on murky river bottoms. Sturgeon are covered with bony plates called scutes rather than scales; the Victorians made jewellery out of these, setting them in silver and gold.

Most species of Sturgeon are highly prized for their caviar and, as they are slow growing and mature very late in life, are consequently at risk of extinction, as a result of over fishing, poaching, black market trading, and habitat loss. Caviar comes from the Persian word Khaviar which means ‘bearing eggs’ and can cost several hundred pounds for a small pot. Now the Sturgeon is protected and can no longer be caught for its caviar.

It has been suggested that sturgeon have been the origins of some sightings of the Loch Ness Monster.

In Morris Collman’s book ‘Hants and Dorset’s Legends & Folklore’, published by James Pike ltd, 1975. He mentions a local Dorchester tradition that monster fish once inhabited a lake near Poundbury Hillfort.

“Poundbury is an ancient British earthwork which the Romans adapted for their use.  It was placed on high ground above the river, and in its early days a great lake which fed by the river Frome, lay to the north of the camp. There are stories of monsters which used to inhabit this lake, but no description of them seems to have been attempted.  They were just monsters, ‘Big things with fins’ according to one old Dorchester lady.

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Events: Museums at Night in Dorchester

Museums at Night in DorchesterMuseums at Night – the national festival of museums and heritage – happens on Saturday 18th May this year. Dorchester’s six magnificent museums – The Dinosaur Museum, The Tutankhamun Exhibition, The Dorset County Museum, The Teddy Bear Museum, The Keep Military Museum, and The Terracotta Warriors Museum – have again joined together to offer a wonderful evening out. They are again joined by the Roman Town House and for the first time Max Gate.

Dorchester is probably unique as a town in having so many museums. With the other heritage attractions they make a superb offer of 8 visits for just £8.00, and that price includes a family of up to 2 adults and four children. It’s outstanding value and great fun. Museums at Night is on the evening of Saturday 18th May from 5.00pm to 9.00pm when all six of Dorchester’s museums and the Roman Town House will be open specially to visit. This year a new attraction has been added to the Museums at Night package. As a special preview event Max Gate will be open between 3.30pm and 5.30pm.

Museums at Night really does offer something for everyone whatever your interest. So whether its Tutankhamun or Romans, Thomas Hardy or teddy bears, dinosaurs or Dorchester’s local history, the Dorsetshire Regiment or terracotta warriors of a much earlier age, its there to be explored. On Museums at Night you can visit some or all of these for an extraordinary low price.

The Museums at Night ticket is just £8.00 and admits a family to all 8 heritage attractions on the evening of Saturday 18th May. This great price entitles up to a family of 2 adults and 4 children to visit when purchased in advance. Tickets can also be bought on the night at £12.

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