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Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) was an English naturalist who famously conceived of the principle of evolution by natural selection independently of Charles Darwin in 1858 (Fig. 19.1). Wallace is often incorrectly referred to as working class. In fact, he was the son of a solicitor with inherited property sufficient to generate an income of £500 per annum (Wallace 1905,1:7). Thus, according to the conventions of the day, Wallace’s father was a gentleman. The family’s financial circumstances, however, declined so the Wallace family moved from London to a village near Usk, on the Welsh borders, where Wallace was born in Kensington Cottage on 8 January 1823. As far as Wallace could later remember, the family kept one servant. Wallace is also sometimes described as Welsh. This is also incorrect. His parents were English. As a small boy in Usk, Wallace could remember, because of his blonde hair, that “I was generally spoken of among the Welsh-speaking country people as the little Saxon” (1:29). Wallace also referred to himself as “English” or an “English naturalist” many times in his publications (C. S. Smith 1998).
When Wallace was six years old, the family moved to Hertford, north of London, where he lived until he was fourteen. Here Wallace attended Hertford Grammar School, where he followed a classical education, not unlike Darwin’s at Shrewsbury School, including Latin grammar, classical geography, and “some Euclid and algebra” (Wallace 1905). During his last year in Hertford, the family’s finances further declined so that Wallace was obliged to tutor other students to pay his fees. Wallace was deeply conscious of this fall in status before his peers. He later described the shame of this and other cost-saving measures imposed by his parents as a “cruel disgrace,” “exceedingly distasteful,” and perhaps “the severest punishment I ever endured” (1:58). Wallace left school in March 1837 aged fourteen, just as Darwin was becoming a transmutationist.