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Record number: WCP460

Sent by:
Frederick R. ("Fred") Birch
Sent to:
Alfred Russel Wallace
16 November 1899

Sent by Frederick R. ("Fred") Birch, Wavertree, Liverpool to Alfred Russel Wallace Corfe View, Parkstone, Dorset on 16 November 1899.

Record created:
01 June 2002 by Lucas, Paula J.


Thanking Alfred Russel Wallace for past help and reporting on his own life and thoughts over the past year including a camping trip in Llanferris, flora and fauna near River Alyn, geology of local rivers, collecting moths and mosses; cycling in Pennine hills; visit from Harold Sayler; winter clothing and exercise; L S Mosley's Economic Museum in Huddersfield, Mosley's involvement with Naturalist's Journal; camping and collecting insects in Delamere Forest Cheshire, names of some beetles and moths collected; trips along Welsh rivers; reading on ethnology and the tropics in anticipation of going there, lists authors including Humboldt, Bell, H. H. Higgins, Ernst Haeckel and Huxley, praises Mary Kingsley; praises practical learning and self-sufficiency; desire to learn, frustration of work restricting time available; a friend at Ladysmith, (Boer) war; secretaryship of Lancs and Cheshire entomological Society; photography of natural objects.; Also stamped envelope addressed to Alfred Russel Wallace at Parkstone, postmarked on front Wavertree Liverpool 21 Nov 1899 with an illegible postmark on the back; annotated [in Alfred Russel Wallace's or William Greenell Wallace's hand] "Fred. Birch Interesting letter - thoughts &c &c."

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  • letter (1)
  • envelope (1)

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LETTER (WCP460.460)

A typical letter handwritten by author in English and signed by author.

Held by:
Natural History Museum
Finding number:
NHM WP1/6/1(1)
Copyright owner:
Copyright of the Frederick R. ("Fred") Birch Literary Estate.

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23 Oxford St. Mavertree

L. pool Nov. 10th 99.

Dear Mr. Wallace

It is so long since I last wrote to you that you will scarcely remember me amongst the multitude of your friends & acquaintances yet I ever remember with gratitude what you have done for me & feel that the least I can do is to let you hear of me occasionally. This letter was to have been an account of my holiday in Wales during last August, but it has developed into an account of earlier occurrences, & the Low[?] will have to form the subject of another letter. This is rather long I find on reading it over before re-writing (It has been written at intervals during last 3 weeks & I feel rather ashamed to say so much about myself, so please do not feel compelled to read it. Even if only lightens what might be an hour of tiresome writing I shall be glad. Of, to me, noteworthy incidents the following have occurred since I wrote last. A year last September I went on my first camping journey to Llanferres. Had three nights in the open air, couldnt sleep for cold, rain, & novelty. Returned home with heavy eyes but a lot of notes on birds & mammals. Rabbits there live in holes in the limestone cliff bordering River Alyn. There is a heronry in one [[2]] of the tributary glens, the first I have seen & nearest to Lpool I should think. A curious botanical freak Salix caprea bearing both male & female catkins, occurs in the main valley. The river (Alyn) here exhibits the phenomenon of disappearing down a swallow & not reappearing till it reaches the big north turn 2 ½ miles further, still in Limestone. All this stretch of the valley S.E. to N.W. is called the Leete & is the floweriest place I know of, a wonderful sight from April to August. On this occasion (Sept. 98) squirrels stole my nuts quite complacently. though I was sitting by my fire only 4 or 5 yds off pressing mosses. I took a few good moths on this trip.

On Dec. 23rd I rode 65 miles on the bicycle to my aunts home at Oxenhope (Worth Valley) amongst some of the wildest of the Pennine hills. Had to pass through the heart of work a day Lancashire & had my eyes opened to the lamentable fact that the road for 35 miles from St. Helens to Roendale is almost all one long town, & a dirty town too! Soon the few open places left will be filled up, for they are building fast. I saw more of the open country between Havertree & St. Helens a distance of 8 miles than between St. Helens & Rochdale!! No wonder they say that Manchester & Lpool will meet. What a relief it was to enter Yorkshire via the lovely valley of the Calder. The day had been a frosty [[3]] throughout, & towards evening a biting S.E. wind blew. After leaving Hebden Bridge this was in my favour & I sped it for 4 miles over an exposed moorland a thousand feet above sea-level. During this last part of my ride a bright half-moon illumined the forested moor which stretched like dim silver away & away for miles. How delicious the keen clean air felt after all the smoke! How it invigorated me, & what an appetite it gave me!! I had been 8 ½ hours on the road from 9 to 5:30 & had only partaken of food once (at Bolton) so you may imagine I was ready for tea, especially a Yorkshire tea! Harold Tayler came over by train the next day, & we had a jolly Christmas time together visiting many of my aunts Yorkshire friends. In the afternoon of the 25th we climbed Nab Hill the highest hereabouts. I admired afresh the sturdy mountain plants. Calluna, Erica, the two Vacciniums (myrtillus & vitis idasa) the cotton grass & the rest, standing even on the most exposed ridges, braving the bitter Siberian wind which was doing its best to sweep everything before it & almost freezing the blood in our fingers. I wished that I could emulate the plants & wrestle with the wind naked like Longfellows Indian! Though, as it was, I was [[4]] very thinly clad all last winter, for I had taken to wearing only a singlet & jersey; (instead of single shirt, vest, front, & tie) pants socks shoes cap & a very light jacket completed my attire. The latter was more for carrying things than for warmth as I almost always had it open. The cold winds had free access to my skin through the all wool (knitted) garments. Yet I never felt a chill. I could feel my body give out a warm wave all over to combat the cold air (a most pleasurable sensation) & Ive not had more than one slight cold (of two days duration) since I adopted this attire. Glad am I to have escaped the trivialness of collars & ties, now my neck is so used to freedom that I could not bear a collar & wonder that men ever invented them. Even on Sunday I dispense with one & wear a beautiful finely knitted grey jersey which fits like another skin & gives me the utmost freedom. Ive lived down the censure which nearly everyone thought my conduct deserved & now I even hear my friends wish they could abjure collars & wear jerseys, but there are mothers & sisters to please, & nothing stays progress so much as prejudice! Though, I do not want everyone to be like me nor do I want to be different from everyone else about me, but Im placed in that position through daring to think for myself. For the summer just past I wore the lightest singlet & jersey I could buy & am going to try to go [[5]] through this winter without putting the thicker ones on, thus I may become as hardy as a pine tree or any other evergreen. One thing Ive found out, i.e. the best protection for the animal is an animal & not a vegetable product. A piece of linen or cotton against my skin now gives me gooseflesh, but under the thinnest of wool my pores do their duty quite healthily. But I must stop. Im digressing terribly. I can scarcely help it though -- I inhabit my body with so much pleasure.

Before leaving Yorkshire we visited Mr. S. L. Mosleys Economic Museum, Huddersfield, & saw something of the vast amount of work done by him in connection with it & the Naturalists Journal. Hes a busy man & a happy one, & is much beloved by all who know him. An all-round naturalist & glad to impart information to any one whenever it lies in his power. I rode home along fearful roads, the thaw having set in. I notice, nearly every window, that an east wind, however bitter it may seem, soon brings the thaw, & that if a frost is to last long it must come in with a light air from the N or N.W. I wonder if this holds good all over the British Isles. In March (99) when we had some very mild weather, I went camping to Delamere Forest (Chesire), my principle object being to take Nyssia hispidaria. I built a sort of horseshoe enclosure of pine sticks interlaced with heather & a couch of the latter, stayed Saturday [[6]] Sunday & Monday & searched the oaks every day for the moth but in vain. Went again on the 24th of April. Walking from Easiham[Eastham?] to Delamere (18 mls) in order to explore that part more thoroughly. By so doing I added many good Coleoptera to the collection. Found my camp undisturbed, made it comfortable & after sugaring (which produced nothing) lay down to court sleep. Sleep would not come for a long time the night being so cold. Managed to doze at last but awoke about 3.30 to find my teeth chattering & body shivering. How I longed for daylight! When it came after nearly two hours of the weariest waiting I ever remember I saw how it was I couldnt sleep. All the herbage was covered with hoarfrost & on the most sheltered pools there was an eight of an inch of ice! This on the 25th of April! The tender young leaves were all blackened & crimped by it. I thought after this I could stand a journey over the polar ice with Nansen if I had a thicker sleeping bag. The day turned out a grand one & I took[?] nice series of Brephos parthenias, Lorophora lobulata, S. crepuseularia etc., also plenty of beetles. Did not venture to stay another night without more clothing. My next visit was in the second week in June--a delightful contrast to the earlier excursions. [[7]] Insects abundant both by beating[?] & al sugar[?]. Days hot, nights warm. Of Coleoptera I took the very local[?] Donacia cinerea from the reed-mace growing round Hoten[?] Mere, in the intervals between the rowing & the baling of an old tub of a boat which took most of my time to keep it afloat, for the water fairly rushed in at half a dozen places, in spite of the rags with which I stuffed the seams. Many other exquisite species of the genus occurred their glowing colours making me constantly exclaim Oh! how lovely! what a beauty! etc. If the gems of England can move me like this what ecstasies must the glorious tropical fauna provoke! I noticed that D. cinerea was confined to the reed-mace. Although I searched reeds & the other water plants most carefully, I could not detect a single cinerea upon them. It bends its tarsi under the edge of the narrow strap like blade of the mace which is then a bare half inch wide & holds right. It appears to be the only Donacia with pubescent elyssa. I took a splendid lot of moths & beetles on this trip, becoming acquainted with the economy before my chief summer holiday. Between it & July 27th my walks were limited to the Liverpool district, & were nearly always along the clayey banks of one or other of our slow-flowering South Lancashire brooks. I always had a penchant for following streams. [[8]] This is was[sic] which was partly determined my route through Wales. For rivers are the natural highways. They are the keys which unlock a country & set the land in order in ones mind, & along their banks life flourishes best. The old, wild, primitive life still lingers, on some of them bravely battling against cultivation & I am happiest when I find myself in the midst of such a fauna & flora. How then can I do better than wander by them & learn all they have to teach me? I mapped out the [1 word illeg.] of a nameless one, (which I christened Tarbock Brook after the prettiest place its flows through) for 8 miles on a scale of 3 inches to the miles; put down all the formations it flows through from examinations & measurements on the spot; the fish mollusca & insects in it; the mammals birds mollusca & insects which frequent its banks & the plants which grow upon them. This has been an education to me, & is what I should like to do with all the principal rivers in the Brit. Is. if I had the time! Thus would I fit myself to make the most of the tropics that I might not waste a moment there. During this year I have of course read all I could about that region of life.

Chief among the books being Mr. Bells work on Guatemala, Mr. Batess Naturalist in the Amazon [[9]] for a second time, a small "Life & Travels of Humboldt," Ernest Haeckels "Visit to Ceylon" H.H. Higginss (Liverpool) "Notes by Field Nat. in Western Tropics," & last but perhaps best of all Miss Kingsleys "West Africa." This is a marvellous record of work on the great rivers of that region. How she accomplished what she did, I scarcely know; it seems too much for a man to have to go through, but a woman - ! well, it shows how brave science can be & is when put to the test. Theres not a dry page in the book, its full of wit from beginning to end, & she describes things wonderfully. What a word-painter! When you lend her your ears, you receive in exchange her eyes & so, the mammal, bird, reptile, insect, plant, scene, or incident grows into life before you as your gaze! It is marvellous to me how she has managed to give her readers so much information about her travels without appearing egotistical. She is exceedingly modest, or if she brags it is on account of science & not for herself. How lightly she talks of the discomforts & yet makes one feel their reality at the same time. Patient endurance is written on her face; for I have had the happiness of seeing her & hear her lecture. A noble head she has, with fine intelligent eyes, a firm mouth & squarish chin; tall, slim, wiry, such a lady-scientist as is only met with [[10]] once or twice in a generation, I should think. But perhaps you know all this better than I do. Huxleys "Mans Place in Nature" & Miss Kingsleys "West Africa" with others have introduced me to the study of Ethnology, & this, perhaps, will prove the greatest & most attractive of all tropical studies. For after all, the question of questions for me I find is, What am I? Whence have I come & wither going? Why have I this thinking brain with its thoughts annihilating space & presenting to me places here & there, where my body has been or will be? Why is my thought pent up in a body which cannot move as fast as it, which cannot do as it dictates? It is when I ask myself these things that I being to fell the burden of my ignorance & I want to work, work, work. To clear off some of the mist, to learn all I can about this wondrous complex nature of which Im a part. To live so that when I come to die or change, I shall feel that I have not been placed on this planet in vain. Yet, with all its improvement? modern civilisation seems to have made this life of learning more difficult of attainment? It says -- [[11]] If you will keep your body alive you must slave 10 hours a day at whatever uncongenial employment you find yourself in. You must waste the bright hours of sunlight poring over columns of figures or sweating with mowed head at a bench or in a mine. I ask, - how can this division of labour be right & natural? I am sure we are not made with all these various faculties only to be tied to the use of one set. Instead of earning money for my living why shouldnt I sometimes earn my living itself. My bread & sleep would be the sweeter. Instead of making vehicles for everyone but myself, why should I not make my own & have done with it & then enjoy that "truest rest" which comes from change of work, in the making of my boat, or my house, or my clothes, or digging my ground, sowing seed, & reaping its produce, or shooting & fishing for a change? I am filled wit shame when I think of how little I know practically about the way my clothing is made. How can I be said to be educated? how much truer an education it would be if we were to feed, clothe, & house ourselves first-hand! I honor the farmer above most [[12]] workers & feel that his is a much nobler way of getting a living than mine. He is if I may so speak nearer the trunk of the tree of life (better grounded) than we who depend on a particular trade for a livelihood. The hunter is nearest. The simplest stands firmest & attracts me most. At present I am one of the great army of twigs nearest the top which know no rest. I feel that I want to get down to the root of my life, to have all the primitive experiences, to work my own way to the present high standard! Having had it all done for me through the preceding centuries does not satisfy me. But, I reflect, if everyone did this men would never get any "forwarder." No, not if they did it all their lives; but then, I dont mean that they should devote their whole life to it but that it should form a part of it, preferably, that between the ages of 16 & 30, when the desire is strongest. I have not read any work on political economy so that I may be saying what has already been better said, I dont know, but it seems to me that men made a mistake when they gave up the [[13]] farming for some special branch arising out of it. The farming should have been retained as a basis & the special work tacked on as a hobby. This appears to be what the Scandinavian farmers have done. Then if the special work is disliked there is no need to follow it up; if it is liked & followed exclusively it should be so remunerative that a man does not need to work more than 6 or 7 hours a day at it, so that he may have some of the daylight to himself, to be "absolutely free from all worldly engagements in" if he so pleases. In a word that he should be master of his work & not the work master of him. I should like two afternoons a week of (Tues. & Thurs.) yet I scarcely dare ask my father for an hour off, though I should of course lose the wage. Being bound thus makes me wild; to think that the precious hours in which I could do & learn so much are flying past never to return. You may ask: why not work piece work & so be master of your time? I answer, because I long to do my work well, this necessarily takes twice as long as to do it carelessly as the majority of piece work is done Im sorry to say. & therefore I cannot compete, for masters dont seem to take quality into account as well. Piece-work is often only another name for scamp work. I know that I know this, from sorrowful experience, having [[14]] had to do a mans work once again.

But enough of this I must keep my sore covered until it is healed. I trust your sympathy will forgive this outburst. The writing of it has relieved me, though perhaps it would have been better burnt than sent. I thank you if you have read so far & will try to wind up this letter as quickly as possible. In order to fit myself for the better study of life in the tropics (& elsewhere) I have started working through Marshall & Hursts Practical Zoology, Bowers Prac. Botany with microscope, knife, etc. Am reading at present "Through the fields with Linnaeus" a splendid biography by Mrs. Caddy, "The Ent. Monthly Mag. for 1841-42". "The Naturalists Journal". "Story of Electricity". "Lifes Handicap" by our friend of the people Rudy and K. (this is one of the most sympathetic books Ive seen) & the S. African news occasionally, for an old charm of mine is a telegraph clerk in the station as Ladysmith. What have Leyds, Stein, & Co have wrought! I wonder if the combatants ever think of Russell Lowells poem on war. I often doubt [1 word illeg.] our being in the right & sometimes think it is another Jameson Raid on a Garter seale. [[15]] Last January the Lancashire & Cheshire Entomological Soc. elected me their working secretary much against my inclination as if I had not enough to do! It was only to save our hard-pressed & good friend F.N. Pierce that I consented. This takes 5 evenings a month. It has also compelled me to further private correspondence. I have to look after the Library too as the Librarian so rarely attends. What used to be the happiest night in the month is now a source of anxiety. For the last meeting, I sent out 87 circulars (for the wording of which I am responsible) & then on the night of the meeting was nearly ill with the worry etc. you see Im not thoroughly at home in this kind of work. though I supposed it is valuable practice for me. I send you an account of this meet, it being a special one. the two famous Entos. Messrs. Barret & Robson. taking part therein. [[16]] I am now allowed the use of a fine ¼ plate camera on condition that I take business photos for my father. The lens is a Ross-Avery -- a beauty & I shall be able to get grand photos of natural objects. Have had to fit up my workroom with appliances of course. The photo I will send with the Welsh Tour shows me ready to start. The idea was my sisters. She wanted some record of a journey which I "could only take once". In it I was counting the seconds & looking a bit anxious as to whether she would make the exposure right. I will give some account of my impediments when I send the tour. And now Ive really come to the end of this long letter. If you have [[17]] read so far I thank you sincerely for I know your sympathy, & that you will rejoice with one who rejoices in the glorious gift of life & the exquisite charm of nature. I feel as though I were under the direct control of the Great Spirit, for at times an unaccountable gladness takes possession of me, like a "well of water springing up unto ever lasting life."

With respectful affection | I remains yours sincerely | Fred R. Birch. [signature]

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