For October's "Treasure of the Month", our Librarian Will Beharrell describes the fascinating private library of Alfred Russel Wallace and efforts to reunite it in one space after more than a century
Published on 10th October 2023
One of the Linnean Society’s greatest treasures has been hiding in plain sight for over a century. The personal library of Alfred Russel Wallace was deposited at Burlington House in 1915, and comprises over 300 volumes on all manner of topics (with many items copiously annotated). And yet in the ensuing decades this monument to a lifetime’s reading has kept a remarkably low-profile; the books interfiled among the general collections, and many readers, Fellows, and even staff members largely unaware of their existence. Now, as we celebrate the bicentenary of Wallace’s birth, his entire library is being reunited in once space for the first time in over one hundred years.
The collection came to the library by a rather circuitous route. Many books are deposited with the Linnean Society following the death of their owners—either via probate, sale, or gift from family members—but Wallace’s books appear to have been bought by a third party before making their way to our shelves. Looking inside a Wallace volume, readers will find a striking Edwardian bookplate affirming that the item was presented to the library—not by Wallace’s descendants—but a somewhat mysterious figure called Thomas Henry Riches.
A few details can be cribbed from the documentary record. Riches was a native of Aberdare, Glamorgan, but his birth was registered in Merthyr Tydfil in the summer of 1865. He led a somewhat itinerant life, moving to study in Cambridge in 1883, and marrying his first wife, Mary, in St Pancras, London in 1889. By the time of the 1891 census the couple were living in Tavistock, West Devon, and by the 1901 census employed a respectable household of six domestic staff. Riches married again in 1909, to Katherine Anne (née Maclean), and by 1911 had returned to London. The family’s fortunes had clearly flourished, as they’re recorded as living in a sizeable property in fashionable Chelsea, and with an increased domestic staff of nine. Further details are sparse, but the bookplate describes him as a resident of Shenley in Hertfordshire by 1915, and he was certainly buried there on September 23, 1935.
Riches acquired Wallace’s books in 1914, a year after the great naturalist’s death. A letter in the archives of the Natural History Museum (ref: WCP6091) shows Riches wrote to William Wallace (Alfred’s son) in April 1914, intimating that he had offered £200 for the library, and that this had been accepted. However, the reason for the relatively speedy disposal—the books were on the shelves of the Linnean Society less than a year later—is unclear. Perhaps Riches was disappointed with his purchase, or had always intended to make of it a philanthropic gesture? A letter to Linnean Society President E.B. Poulton in June 1914 (ref: WCP6988) records the initial offer, but gives no clues as to why Riches surrendered his prize so briskly. Sadly, the archives of the Linnean Society are otherwise silent on this point, although the Librarian’s report of April 1915 usefully records:
"During the year the Library also received by donation from Mr. Thomas Henry Riches, E.Z.S., 509 volumes, among them being many welcome additions, which had belonged to the late Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, O.M., F.R.S., F.L.S. […] New shelving for the accommodation of the books presented by Mr. Riches has been provided in the Residence at the expense of Sir Frank Crisp, Bart."
The books themselves are a varied bunch. Many focus on biological topics—as one might expect—but there are eye-catching diversions into memoir, gardening, and the arts and culture. One of the most heavily annotated volumes is a two-volume biography of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a hero of 18th and 19th century science, whose wide-ranging travels were an inspiration to both Darwin and Wallace. Wallace’s copy is black with marginal scrawl, with almost every page lovingly—perhaps obsessively—annotated.
Other highlights include items apparently adapted for use in the field. One of the older books in Wallace’s collection, Charles Bonaparte’s Conspectus Generum Avium (1850-1856), features a scale marked on the inside front board (perhaps as an impromptu ruler for the measuring of drawings or specimens) and is stuffed with field notes and sketches on Wallace’s signature lightweight paper.
Other items feel more immediately personal. Volney Rattan’s Popular California Flora (1887) may seem like a standard field guide, until you realise it was purchased to accompany Wallace on his two-month visit to California in the same year. This was an important journey for Wallace: as formative in some ways as his more famous voyages to the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago. Ostensibly an opportunity to visit his brother John, it also allowed Wallace to witness the “glorious” sequoia trees of Calaveras and the fabled landscape of Yosemite. It was also in California that Wallace met the godfather of American conservation, John Muir (having articulated his own views on land “nationalisation” for the common good some years earlier, in 1882). With its complex provenance, this humble field work—annotated by Wallace throughout—begins to feel like a more intimate historical artefact.
If Wallace’s library is so charismatic, why has its existence remained relatively obscure? Part of the difficulty undoubtedly lies in the decision to individually classify the 300-odd volumes and interfile them among the general holdings, rather than gather them discretely into one space. As indicated in the Librarian’s report, there do seem to have been plans to unite the Wallace Library in the past, with erstwhile Treasurer and Vice-President of the Linnean Society Sir Frank Crisp donating money for the creation of a bespoke bookcase. Sadly, the money does not appear to have been used for its intended purpose. The Linnean Society’s Honorary Archivist Gina Douglas recalls a core of Wallace material being kept together in the library during the tenure of Librarian Gavin Bridson, but these items were themselves dispersed sometime before 2008 (when the library was refurbished). The books then remained hidden in the proverbial long grass until earlier this year.
Having the books finally assembled in one spot will make them easier for staff and researchers to access and enjoy. In a neat coincidence, the books will be stored alongside our other great repository of Darwin-Wallace material: the Charles Darwin Trust gift of 2015. Gathered together, they will form one of the most important collections of Darwin-Wallace material outside of a major research library, and will provide a rich and effective centre for Darwin-Wallace studies for future generations of scholars and students.
Will Beharrell, Librarian
If you’re interested in learning more about the Wallace Library, an exhibition featuring a number of his personal books—plus other “Wallaceana” from our collections—is being held in our library until December 20.
Our opening times are Tuesday to Friday, 10am to 5pm. Entry is free and open to all.
And if you’re keen to get involved in the conservation of these beautiful books, our AdoptLINN scheme also features a selection of works from the Wallace Library is need of your support. Please email email@example.com for further information.
I’m indebted to Prof Jeb Bevers FLS for his tireless work on the Wallace Library in 2022-2023. I am also grateful to Dr E. Charles Nelson FLS for supplying useful details on Thomas Henry Riches’ life and background, and to Gina Douglas HonFLS for information on the Wallace Library’s more recent history. Lastly, my thanks to Dr George Beccaloni FLS (and the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project) and Alex Milne (Linnean Society Project Archivist) for supplying invaluable information concerning the circumstances of Riches’ purchase and subsequent donation.
All images © the Linnean Society of London.
This article was amended on 20-10-2023 to incorporate minor corrections, improved references, and new information kindly supplied by Gina Douglas HonFLS and Dr George Beccaloni FLS.
An extended version of this article will appear in the December 2023 issue of The Linnean.
- “WCP6091,” in Beccaloni, G. W. (ed.), Ɛpsilon: The Alfred Russel Wallace Collection. accessed on 20 October 2023, https://epsilon.ac.uk/view/wallace/letters/WCP6091
- “WCP6987,” in Beccaloni, G. W. (ed.), Ɛpsilon: The Alfred Russel Wallace Collection. Accessed on 20 October 2023, https://epsilon.ac.uk/view/wallace/letters/WCP6987
- Löwenburg, Julius. Life of Alexander Von Humboldt. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1873. [Linnean Society shelfmark: MSS].
- Bonaparte, Charles Lucian. Conspectus generum avium. Lugduni Batavorum: Brill, 1850-1856. [Linnean Society shelfmark: R.580].
- Rattan, Volney. A popular California flora, or, manual of botany ... especially adapted to the Pacific Coast: to which is added an analytical key to West Coast botany. San Francisco: Bancroft, 1887. [Linnean Society shelfmark: 917.94:582.4].