Born near Usk in Monmouthshire in 1823, Wallace lived in Neath for several years while he and his brother John supervised the building of the town's Mechanics' Institute, completed in 1847.
He saw this time in Neath as ‘the turning-point of my life, the tide that carried me on, not to fortune but to whatever reputation I have acquired.’ That reputation was as one of the world’s great scientists. It was in Neath that he developed his fascination for the natural world. He later wrote that, ‘I took long walks over the mountains with my collecting box, which I brought home full of treasures’. These paths now feature in a Wallace walking trail. Why not try them out – you might find they offer a turning point in your life too? As Wallace wrote, 'I cannot call to mind a single valley that in the same extent of country comprises so much beautiful and picturesque scenery, and so many interesting special features, as the Vale of Neath'.
In 1847, he travelled to Brazil to collect specimens of insects, birds and animals. He hoped to find evidence for evolution and try to discover how it worked. Even though his ship caught fire on the voyage home and he narrowly escaped with his life, Wallace soon set out exploring again, spending nearly eight years in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. His book about these explorations, 'The Malay Archipelago', was one of the most celebrated scientific travel books of the century.
During this time, Wallace formulated his ideas of natural selection. He wrote: ‘in every generation, the inferior [of each species] would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain – that is, the fittest would survive’. The naturalist Charles Darwin developed a similar theory and their ideas were published together in 1858. A year later, Darwin published his book, 'On the Origin of Species', and it is Darwin we remember today. But at the time, Wallace was just as famous, receiving numerous awards and the highest honour from Queen Victoria, the Order of Merit. He published over a thousand articles, 22 books, and corresponded with some of the greatest scientists, thinkers and politicians of his day. And it all started in the Vale of Neath!
Where to Visit?
In the early 1840s Wallace and his brother William lodged at Bryncoch Farm on the banks of the river Clydach near Neath.
Wallace designed and built the Neath Mechanics' Institute which you can see at 4 Church Place in Neath. The Archives of the Neath Antiquarian Society are held here.
Alfred Russel Wallace Trail
A trail that takes you to the places linked to Russel's time in Neath