The Darwin-Wallace Collection: Notes from the Private Lives of Naturalists

Archivist Alex Milne examines the lesser known interests of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace though correspondence held in the Linnean Society Library

Published on 23rd November 2021

The Linnean Society's library and archive holds a wealth of material relating to Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s work on evolution and natural sciences. However, the latest addition to the archive catalogue (a donation from the Charles Darwin Trust) also gives glimpses of their lives outside of their work.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was best known as a naturalist and explorer but outside of this he had a keen interest in spiritualism. Wallace visited mesmerists and séances and this interest eventually lead him into his involvement in the famous Colley v. Maskelyne case.

Letter from Alfred R. Wallace to Mr Skeels (DWC/1/7)
Letter from Alfred R. Wallace to Mr Skeels (DWC/1/7, The Linnean Society of London)

In 1876 a clergyman and spiritual medium named Francis Ward Monck was exposed as a fraud and sentenced to three months in prison. However, in 1906, the Archdeacon Thomas Colley defended Monk. He offered a £1000 reward to anyone who could recreate Monks' work through illusion. He was taken up on the offer by John Maskelyne, a well-known Illusionist. But when Colley refused to accept Maskelyne's work as proof of Monk's fraud, Maskelyne made comments on the validity of Colley's status as Archdeacon.

Colley took offence and claimed damages for libel against Maskelyne and Maskelyne counter-claimed for the reward he had never received. Wallace was called to testify on behalf of both Colley and Monck and he mentions this case in two letters in the Society's collections.

In DWC/1/7 Wallace writes to Mr E. R. Serocold Skeels giving him a definition of a 'medium' to be used as part of his testimony. Wallace adds some of his own thoughts on the afterlife, 'There is there, as here, an illimitable universe to be studied before it can be understood. There as here, it is only the few that study such things, or even begin, dimly to understand them.'

Not long after, Wallace wrote to Colley himself (DWC/1/8/2). The trial lasted less than a week and Wallace wrote to congratulate Colley on winning £75 from Maskelyne for the libel case. Colley was well-known in the spiritualist community and counted Arthur Conan Doyle among his friends. He was also said to frequently break out into a baritone solo or bugle recital from the pulpit and, according to local lore, once climbed into a glass topped coffin and had himself carried around the church to demonstrate his lack of fear at the prospect of dying.

Letter from Alfred R. Wallace to unknown correspondent (DWC/1/5)
Letter from Alfred R. Wallace to unknown correspondent (DWC/1/5, The Linnean Society of London)

Wallace himself was no stranger to lawsuits. In DWC/1/5 he recounts his plans to create an experiment in order to win a wager with John Hampden in 1870. Hampden was a flat-Earth proponent who had offered to pay £500 to anyone who could demonstrate convex curvature. In the letter Wallace includes a diagram for the experiment he planned to prove the curvature of the earth. He placed two objects along a six-mile stretch of water, both at the same height above the water, then he placed a telescope on a bridge at the same height. When seen through the telescope, one object would be higher than the other. But Hampden refused to accept Wallace's evidence, and the resulting court case ended up costing him more than he hoped to have won at the outset.

Letter from Charles Darwin to Vernon Lushington (DWC/1/22/1)
Letter from Charles Darwin to Vernon Lushington (DWC/1/22/1, The Linnean Society of London)

Meanwhile, Darwin's attentions outside of his work as a naturalist were somewhat less spiritual than Wallace. However, that is not to say he never considered the topic, more that, as he states in DWC/1/25 (a letter to John Fordyce), he believes that his own spiritual beliefs should be of, 'no consequence to any one except myself.'

Mostly Darwin enjoyed sharing his time with his family and the letter DWC/1/22/1 reflects his fondness for them. In it, Darwin writes to his long-time friend Vernon Lushington discussing his daughter Henrietta’s upcoming marriage to Richard Buckley Litchfield. Lushington introduced the pair, and while Darwin is clearly sorry to be parted with his daughter, he seems pleased with the match.

In the same letter Darwin thanks Lushington for the delivery of some, 'official turtle soup'. He mentions that some of the family had not had it for a long time (most likely himself), and some had tried it for the first time. Clearly, he enjoyed being able to share one of his experiences from his time as an explorer with them.

Letter from Charles Darwin to Charles Whitley (DWC/1/1)
Letter from Charles Darwin to Charles Whitley (DWC/1/1, The Linnean Society of London)

Before he started his family, Darwin had close ties with friends that he regularly corresponded with. In DWC/1/1 he writes to his school friend Charles Whitley, on the prospect of the Beagle voyage. Darwin had clearly been dashing across the country to get his affairs in order for the journey as he mentions he may have missed letters Whitley has sent his way. He seems excited, and even faced with the prospect of leaving his friends, family and country behind for years, he can only say, 'I have sealed away about half a chance of life. - If one lived merely to see how long one could spin out life, -I should repent my choice. - As it is I do not.'

The Darwin-Wallace collection can be found on the catalogue under the reference DWC and contains letters, manuscripts and associated materials. More archival and published material relating to both, including a copy of On the Origin of Species and the letter dedicating it to Alfred Russel Wallace, can be found on the library and archive catalogues.

Alex Milne, Archivist