George Beccaloni's speech given at the unveiling of Rodney Munday's 

Wallace sculpture in Hertford 18/10/2014 


Although Wallace is not exactly a household name these days, he was

actually one of the most famous people in the world when he died in

1913 aged 90. During his long life he wrote more than 1000 articles

and 22 books on a wide variety of subjects, and in these he made

numerous important contributions to many fields of science including

biology, geography, geology, anthropology and even astrobiology –

the study of life on other planets. His work on animal distribution

resulted in the creation of a whole new field, evolutionary

biogeography, and his work on evolution led to his independent

discovery of evolution by natural selection, a theory he published

jointly with Charles Darwin in 1858.

Wallace was born on the 8th of January 1823 to a downwardly mobile

middle-class English couple Thomas Vere and Mary Ann Wallace.

Wallace's father was of Scottish descent (reputedly, of a line leading

back to the famous William Wallace); whilst the Greenells were a

respectable Hertford family. His great grandfather on his mother's

side was twice Mayor of Hertford (in 1773 and 1779). Wallace’s

father was a qualified solicitor, but he had never practised and had

been living off inherited wealth which was dwindling as his family


Wallace was born in a modest cottage near Usk, which at that time

was part of England, but which is now part of Wales. His father had

moved to the area from London in an attempt to reduce living costs.

Wallace and his family moved to Hertford in late 1828 or early 1829

when Wallace was 5 or 6 and during the time they lived in the town

they occupied 5 houses, at least 4 of which survive. It was in Hertford

that Wallace received his only formal education at Hale's Free

Grammar School. The school later became the Richard Hale School

and although it has moved site the original old building survives.

Wallace probably began his schoolling in late 1830, when he was

nearly eight – this being the usual age of young entrants to the school.

He described the school as follows:

“The school itself was built in the year 1617…[the year it]…was

founded. It consisted of one large room, with a square window at each

end and two on each side…The schoolroom was fairly lofty. Along

the sides were what were termed porches--desks and seats against the

wall with very solid, roughly carved ends of black oak, much cut with

the initials of names of many generations of schoolboys…As we went

to school even in winter at seven in the morning, and three days a

week remained till five in the afternoon, some artificial light was

necessary, and this was effected by the primitive method of every boy

bringing his own candles or candle-ends with any kind of candlestick

he liked…”

"The regime at the school was very strict and Wallace described the

headmaster, Mr Clement Henry Crutwell, as “an irascible little man

with a limp owing to one leg being shorter than the other…Flogging

with a cane was not uncommon for more serious offences, while for

slighter ones…[Crutwell]…would box the ears pretty severely. If a

boy did not obey his orders instantly, or repeated his offence soon

afterwards, however trifling it might be, such as speaking to another

boy or pinching him surreptitiously, he often, without another word,

came down from his desk and gave the offender a resounding box on

the ear. On one occasion I well remember his coming down to a rather

small boy, giving him a slap on one side of his head which knocked

him down flat on the seat, and when he slowly rose up, giving him

another, which knocked him down on the other side…Mr. Crutwell

always caned the boys himself, but the other masters administered

minor punishments, such as slight ear-boxes, slapping the palm with a

flat ruler, or rapping the knuckles with a round one.” - I’m sure the

current Headmaster is a lot nicer!

The original school building in Hale Street still exists but it has been

extended and is now used to house (or did house until recently) the

Longmore Education Support Centre .

In about 1835 Wallace’s father was swindled out of his remaining

property and the family fell on really hard times; Wallace was forced

to withdraw from school in March 1837 aged only 14, and shortly

afterwards he went to work for his brother William as an apprentice


A slump in the surveying business in 1843 led him to take a teaching

job in Leicester, where he met another budding naturalist, Henry

Walter Bates. In 1848, Wallace and Bates travelled together to the

Amazon to collect natural history specimens (mainly butterflies,

beetles and birds), which they planned to sell to collectors and

museums in Europe to fund their trip. Unfortunately when Wallace

was on his way back to England in 1852, disaster struck:- the ship he

was on caught fire and sank, together with many of his irreplaceable

specimens and notes! Luckily his agent in London had had the good

sense to insure Wallace’s collections! Wallace and the crew struggled

to survive in a pair of badly leaking lifeboats, and fortunately after 10

days drifting in the open sea they were picked up by a passing cargo

ship making its way back to England.

A few days after getting back to Britain Wallace vowed to never

travel by sea again, yet good resolutions soon fade, and two years

later he was in South-East Asia, at the start of an eight-year 14,000

mile journey of collecting and exploration that would yield an

extraordinary 126,000 biological specimens, including more than five

thousand species new to science. It was during this trip that Wallace

made his greatest scientific discovery. He was suffering from an

attack of fever on the island of Halmahera in the Moluccas in

February 1858 when suddenly the idea of natural selection as the

mechanism of evolutionary change occurred to him. As soon as he

was able to he wrote down his thoughts and sent them off to Charles

Darwin, who he knew was interested in what was then known as

“species transmutation”. Unknown to Wallace, Darwin had in fact

discovered natural selection about 20 years before, but had been

procrastinating about publishing the idea. Darwin was therefore

horrified when he received Wallace’s letter, and appealed to his

friends the geologist Charles Lyell and the botanist Joseph Hooker for

advice on what to do. To cut a long story short, Lyell and Hooker,

decided to present Wallace's essay (without asking his permission!),

along with some unpublished fragments from Darwin's writings on

the subject, to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1 July

1858. These documents were later published in the Society’s Journal

as a co-authored paper – with Darwin as the first author! Even though

Darwin’s book the Origin of Species was published more than a year

after this article, most people today mistakenly believe that the theory

was first proposed by Darwin in his book.

Wallace returned to England in 1862 and spent the rest of his long life

explaining, developing and defending the theory of natural selection,

as well as working on a very wide variety of other (sometimes

controversial!) subjects. He became very famous during his lifetime

but after his death in 1913 he was overshadowed by Darwin.

The sculpture which I am about to unveil will serve as a visual

reminder of Wallace’s link with this town. There are a few other

memorials to Wallace in the town, such as the limestone roundel in

the pavement of the Bircherley Green shopping centre (which I

actually helped to design), the 'Wallace Meets Rousseau' mural near

Waitrose, the plaque on number 11 St. Andrew’s Street, and the

evolution sculpture near Sainsbury’s, which features two images of

Wallace’s flying frog. However, this is Hertford’s first sculpture of

the great man. Indeed it is one of only a handful of sculptures of

Wallace in the world – whereas there are hundreds of Darwin!

I would like to thank all of you for turning up today. Especial thanks

go to Malcolm Ramsay for all his hard work in overseeing this project

and for helping to organise today’s event. I would also like to thank

East Herts Council, Hertford Town Council and Hertford Civic

Society for funding the sculpture; Hertford Civic Society who came

up with the idea of the piece in the first place; and the staff of East

Herts Council for their practical assistance – not least the staff of the

Theatre. I also thank the Jazz musicians of Richard Hale school for

providing the music; and last, but by no means least, we all thank

Rodney Munday for producing such an evocative artwork, which will

certainly help in keeping Wallace’s memory alive in Hertford.

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