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This month’s letter was written was written by Wallace to his good friend Edward Bagnall Poulton (1856–1943) on 28 May 1889 and it is a letter that reveals much about Wallace’s character. The main reason for Wallace sending Poulton this letter was to inform him he had declined an honorary D.C.L. (Doctor of Civil Law) from Oxford University which he had been informed of by Professor Price. Wallace writes:

"You will probably be surprised and disgusted to hear that I have declined it."


He gives his reasoning for declining the D.C.L. to Poulton as a "profound distaste for all public ceremonials" and says that attending such a ceremony would be "positive punishment". He explains that health problems, work commitments and moving to a new cottage in Parkstone, Dorset all mean he is unable to "rush away to Oxford" to receive the honorary degree.


Wallace’s language may seem quite ungrateful to what is in reality a huge honour which reflected his reputation in the wider academic community, but I think this is a good example of how humble and in a way dismissive Wallace was about his achievements in the academic world. In all of his extensive scientific work he didn’t need honours bestowed on him from institutions or societies; he was more interested in using his work to educate others.

He ends his letter to Poulton by writing; "really the greatest kindness my friends can do me is to leave me in peaceful obscurity, for I have lived so secluded a life that I am more and more disinclined to crowds of any kind."


And that, you may think is the end of that little story. Not so, however. Sadly, we don’t have Poulton’s reply to this letter but we do have the next letter Wallace sent to Poulton on 2 June 1889. It’s obvious from Wallace’s first paragraph that Poulton has tried to convince Wallace to accept the honour and whatever he wrote obviously worked as he writes,


"I am exceedingly obliged by your kind letters, and I will say at once that if the Council of the University should again ask me to accept the degree to be conferred in the Autumn as you propose, I could not possibly refuse it."


Although somewhat a reluctant acceptance, it is at least an acceptance. Wallace goes on to write, in a typical self-deprecatory fashion,   


"I really feel myself too much of an amateur in Nat[ural] Hist[ory], and altogether too ignorant (I left school - a bad one - finally, at 14) to receive honours from a great University. "


When I first read this sentence, it truly astounded me to think that Wallace saw himself as merely an "amateur". Education or not, Wallace did so much to change our view of the natural world; he was a visionary of his age. Later letters to Poulton in November 1889 discuss arrangements for the D.C.L. ceremony which was officially awarded to him on 26th November.


Whilst researching this blog, I came across a passage in Wallace’s autobiography My Life, volume 2 (p. 201-202) which recorded the event. He wrote,


"In the autumn of this year the University of Oxford did me the honour of giving me the honorary degree of D.C.L., which I went to receive in November, when I enjoyed the hospitality of my friend Professor E. B. Poulton."


No mention is made in his autobiography of his initial refusal of the honour or of not feeling worthy enough for such an accolade and this is one the reasons why the letters are so important to the study of his life. They give a more honest representation of emotions and opinions. Of course, I’m sure he wouldn’t lie in his autobiography but one could infer after reading that passage, Wallace was nothing but delighted at such an honour when initially that couldn’t be further from the truth. Either that or he simply forgot he was very wary about accepting the D.C.L. in the first place! 


Wallace wrote extensively to Poulton and you can read the letters here. If you don’t already, then follow the Library and Archives on twitter, where we’re tweeting weekly about Wallace as part of the Wallace100 celebrations. Also watch out for the next instalment of Letter of the Month in June.


Caroline Catchpole, Wallace Correspondence Project


Wallace’s Hut Lives!

Posted by George Beccaloni May 18, 2013

By Tony Whitten, Regional Director, Asia-Pacific, Fauna & Flora International


Included in the Waigeo chapter of The Malay Archipelago is an engraving of a hut Wallace lived in whilst staying at Bessir (now Yenbesir) village while he was focusing on collecting the Red Bird of Paradise. During the first ‘In the Wake of Wallace’ cruise in January 2012, I paid a visit to this village to present a copy of the Indonesian-language edition of Wallace's book – Kepulauan Nusantara - to the Head of the village. I started to think how it might be possible to reconstruct the hut and during the following year I worked with the cruise owners and Rosita ‘Mona’ Tariola of Conservation International who occasionally visited the village in the context of a marine conservation programme.


43.jpgIllustration of the hut in 'The Malay Archipelago'


We ensured that the reconstruction was as faithful as possible to the measurements in Wallace’s text and to the illustration, and by Christmas 2012 it was ready. On the following cruise shortly after this I took the first group of visitors to see it. The exact location of the original hut is in doubt, but we are told that the grandfather of the man on whose land the hut was built used to say that a European lived in the spot where the new hut stands.


Luckily we had someone (a former President of the Law Society) with us who is the same height as Wallace (6’ 1”) so we had the perfect means of imagining Wallace in and under his hut. The shape is slightly different from the illustration, but I checked the measurements and they are fine. The bindings, etc. are all done without nails and the walls are made from the leaf bases of palms as was traditionally done. The men who built it are quite proud that they now have an example of a house from former times. It is near the path to a Red Bird of Paradise viewing site so that tour groups can take in both during their visits and the owner may even let people stay in it for a consideration.


The photos show the hut and the builders. I have also included a view of Yenbesir, and also of Fruin, the village where Wallace stayed with the Chief before going across to Yenbesir.


This is Wallace's description of the hut:


"It was quite a dwarf's house, just eight feet square, raised on posts so that the floor was four and a half feet above the ground, and the highest part of the ridge only five feet above the flour. As I am six feet and an inch in my stockings, I looked at this with some dismay; but finding that the other houses were much further from water, were dreadfully dirty, and were crowded with people, I at once accepted the little one, and determined to make the best of it. At first I thought of taking out the floor, which would leave it high enough to walk in and out without stooping; but then there would not be room enough, so I left it just as it was, had it thoroughly cleaned out, and brought up my baggage.


The upper story I used for sleeping in, and for a store-room. In the lower part (which was quite open all round) I fixed up a small table, arranged my boxes, put up hanging-shelves, laid a mat on the ground with my wicker-chair upon it, hung up another mat on the windward side, and then found that, by bending double and carefully creeping in, I could sit on my chair with my head just clear of the ceiling. Here I lived pretty comfortably for six weeks, taking all my meals and doing all my work at my little table, to and from which I had to creep in a semi-horizontal position a dozen times a day; and, after a few severe knocks on the head by suddenly rising from my chair, learnt to accommodate myself to circumstances. We put up a little sloping cooking-but outside, and a bench on which my lads could skin their birds. At night I went up to my little loft, they spread their mats on the, floor below, and we none of us grumbled at our lodgings."


Lo res Wallace at work.jpgThe reconstructed hut with Wallace substitute sitting underneath
© Tony Whitten
Lo res Wallace entering hut.jpgEntering the hut
© Tony Whitten
Lo res Inside the hut.jpgThe inside of the hut
© Tony Whitten
Lo res Hut bindings.jpgDetail of the hut's construction
© Tony Whitten
Lo res Yenbesir village (1).jpgYenbesir village
© Tony Whitten


Lo Res Fruin village opp Yenbesir (1).JPGFruin village opposite Yenbesir village
© Tony Whitten

Sculptor Anthony Smith writes:


The rather spooky-looking plaster outline of Wallace shown in my last post has now been fleshed-out with a surface layer of clay and is now looking a lot more human. There are many possible sculpting materials, but I have found nothing better than a good quality water-based sculpting clay, which is similar to common potters clay, but with no grit or 'grog', which gives it a nice smooth finish.


I have begun by sculpting Wallace more-or-less nude, so that all of the limbs and muscle groups are correctly modelled, and it is onto this naked form I will soon be adding the clothes (again, all in clay). In order to get all the anatomy and the folds of the clothes correct I am working with a model with a similar physique to Wallace, who will also be wearing the same sorts of clothes that Wallace wore when out hunting specimens in the jungles of the Malay Archipelago. Quite a lot of research has gone into tracking-down the correct clothing, based on Wallace's own writings and the advice of experts, and I now have a Victorian 'hunting-shirt', just like the ones Wallace describes himself as wearing.


"To give English entomologists some idea of the collecting here, I will give a sketch of one good day’s work. Till breakfast I am occupied ticketing and noting the captures of the previous day, examining boxes for ants, putting out drying-boxes and setting the insects of any caught by lamp-light. About 10 o’clock I am ready to start. My equipment is, a rug-net [bag-net], large collecting-box hung by a strap over my shoulder, a pair of pliers for Hymenoptera, two bottles with spirits, one large and wide-mouthed for average Coleoptera, &c., the other very small for minute and active insects, which are often lost by attempting to drop them into a large mouthed bottle. These bottles are carried in pockets in my hunting-shirt, and are attached by strings round my neck; the corks are each secured to the bottle by a short string". Wallace in a letter to Stevens from Sarawak in 1855


Since the statue of Wallace is around 10% larger than life-size, I am constantly taking measurements from my model and doing enlargement calculations before making the additions to my sculpture.


We don't want to give too much of the design away at this stage, so future posts will be limited to written descriptions and perhaps a few detail shots. All will be revealed on 7 November at the unveiling!