Blog: Alfred R Wallace


Sarawak, Spiders and a 160 year old mystery

The Naturally Wild Company visited Sarawak in 2017 and returned in 2018.We went looking for Wallace’s Spider, not seen alive since 1856.  Did we find it?

You will have to read my new blog on our trip . I can tell you that we did find some VERY interesting critters including a potential new species or even genus of cave tarantula.

THE great naturalist and intrepid traveller Alfred Russel Wallace spent over eight years in South East Asia. During that time he travelled over 14,000 miles and under took over sixty journeys often travelling alone or with one or two native guides.

DSC00519We met the 1st Minister of Sarawak and his wife at the Astana palace……..and got down deep and dirty in a cave full of bat guano and tarantulas as big as your hand.


THE great naturalist and intrepid traveller Alfred Russel Wallace spent over eight years in South East Asia. During that time he travelled over 14,000 miles and under took over sixty journeys often travelling alone or with one or two native guides.

Being an ardent admirer of Wallace, I have always considered my knowledge of the man and his work to be more than adequate. His place in history although assured has often been overlooked and his work on evolution and particularly his co authorship of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection with that other great naturalist, Charles Darwin has I am sure slipped willingly from the mind of many an academic. Never the less whilst Alfred Russel Wallace should be remembered for his great work on evolution and his ground breaking Sarawak Law paper of 1855 he is worthy of our respect due to his prolific collecting and his contribution to our knowledge of the flora and fauna of both the Amazon basin and the Indonesian archipelago. However it was the work of a colleague, on that other great naturalist Charles Darwin that made me re-assess my whole perception of not only Wallace but also my own understanding of his work. I realised that all who had gone before me had overlooked a whole area of Wallace’s work. Just has they had with Darwin.

Whilst working on spider specimens at the British Museum of Natural History, a fellow arachnologist, none other than our very own Ray Gabriel, stumbled upon a jar at the back of a cupboard. The jar was simply labeled “Darwin’s Spiders”. It was with great excitement that he opened the jar and peered inside. It is a fact that nowhere in any of the literature about Darwin and his travels does it mention that he collected spiders. There is the scant mention of spiders in passing but in truth Darwin passed them over with haste often referring to them a “brutes” or “denizens of the forest”.

Darwin’s spiders

At first this might appear puzzling, spiders are plentiful in the tropics and Darwin would have certainly encountered them on his travels, as indeed would Wallace. As to why seemingly neither collected, seemed interested in them or more importantly recorded them one can only speculate. On investigation it soon becomes clear as why this might be. The early entomologists simply lumped arachnids in with insects and it is quite possible that Darwin and Wallace did collect spiders but chose not to separate them. Of course by the 1820’s and certainly by the 1850’s the two groups had been formally separated. A more plausible explanation may be that Victorians where a discerning lot when it came to filling their collecting cabinets. Bugs, butterflies and all things entomological where fine but spiders were viewed with utter disdain. After all these vile creatures killed their prey with venom in the most revolting of manners. No it was simply, as the English would say, “not cricket dear boy”. From Darwin and Wallace’s point of view there was simply no monetary gain to be had on our eight legged friends. The early naturalists need to collect and sell on their charges quickly in order to fund their research. There is another plausible reason as to why spiders were not collected in big numbers. Spiders are in the main nocturnal and the early explorers would have found it difficult to traverse the rainforest in the dark with only oil lamps to show the way. Indeed Wallace himself declared that he had no time to collect at night, as he was busy recording his daylight finds. Beetles and butterflies were active throughout the day and one need only turn over a rotten stump in a forest to reveal a myriad of interesting creatures.

What my colleague had discovered was ground breaking. He lovingly laid out the contents and soon realized that the jar contained not only many specimens of spider but also a pair of fangs that obviously belonged to a tarantula. (Downward striking!). He had, in one afternoon, proved that not only did Darwin collect spiders but also from our point of view, tarantulas. It was a pivotal moment. He published his work in “The Journal Of The British Tarantula Society” (Volume 24 No 3 pp. 90-93) and it was on reading his article that I resolved to prove a similar “modus operandi” for Wallace. In the world of evolutionary science there is much rivalry between the Darwinians and the Wallacites and, albeit it friendly, it nevertheless exists. Many an argument as to whom, when and why as been settled or rather not over a pint. The story of Darwin and Wallace’s “joint” theory of Evolution by Natural selection is well documented and here is not the place to discuss it further.

What is well known and documented is that Wallace was a collector extraordinaire when it came to insects and whilst his numbers of collected mammals was much less it was non-the less equally as impressive.  Over the eight years that he spent exploring the Malay Archipelago he collected over 110,000 specimens of insects, 7,500 shells, 8,050 bird skins, 410 mammal and reptile specimens and numerous specimens of plants and ferns. Of these he kept 3,000 bird-skins plus at least 20,000 beetles and butterflies, as well as some vertebrates and land-shells, for his own private collection.

It is easy in today’s modern politically correct world to view such numbers as excessive and perhaps even unwarranted but we must be careful not to apply our 21st Century morals on a 19th century mind set. Collectors in those early days needed to fund their research and this was a lucrative way of financing one’s work. There were no TV companies with open chequebooks or helicopters waiting to whisk them of to some long forgotten plateau. The working class back in Europe and England were beginning to demand education for themselves and their children and the thirst to see for themselves these weird and wonderful creatures was all consuming.

My mind was made up. I would search the available documentation and literature to see if I could find if Wallace had collected spiders as indeed Darwin had. My first port of call was Wallace’s own masterpiece “The Malay Archipelago”. He makes brief mention of “bird eating spiders” but also makes it clear that he has no time for these “monsters”. Wallace was a meticulous collector and kept detailed notes, many of which survive now in foxing notebooks written in his own, ironically, spider like handwriting.

I began with Wallace’s letters and correspondences all well documented on the excellent Wallace On Line Project ( and, after some searching I found the following reference in a letter from Octavius Pickard Cambridge addressed to Wallace’s daughter Violet after her fathers death.

In it he states that her father was looking at his collection when he chanced upon a spider and exclaimed, “Why it is my old Sarawak spider” and that he remembered collecting it “as if it were yesterday”.

So it would seem that a spider was collected in Sarawak but when and more importantly from where?

Fig 1: The original drawings of Friula wallacii made by Pickard Cambridge

I scoured the notebooks (on line) that now reside in the Natural History Museum. The records clearly show that Wallace was in Sarawak from November 1854 to January 1856 and during that time he spent his time as a guest of the Rajah James Brooke at his residence at Santabong, collecting at the mines at Simunjan some 50 km outside the city of Kuching and scouring the slopes of Gunung Serambu near the gold mining town of Bau. He recorded each and it seemed every collected specimen on the pages of the now browning books. Yet there was still no record of the spider. One can only assume that Wallace like Darwin did not record the collection of the spider for one or two reasons. Either he felt it unworthy of recoding due to its lack of resale value or he did not know enough about spiders to hazard a guess to its genus and without such information it would be pointless. He would certainly have known it was a spider but the question is would he have had any interest in it? The notebooks whilst of great interest to me were a dead end. After more research I managed to find a copy of the very short paper

“On some new and little-known spiders (Araneidae) . Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 1896, pp. 1006-1012.” by Octavius Pickard Cambridge.

The spider is described as Friula wallacii and is accompanied by a number of excellent line drawings. (Fig 1) I had now found my quarry but where might I find the type specimen today. The plot seemed to thicken but I had the scent and I would not be shaken.

After five years of searching I now knew that he had collected a spider, when it had been collected and where from within a few miles. I needed now to find the type specimen. The drawings were well done but did the spider actually look like this? If it did it was indeed a strange beast. This would be more difficult. Wallace had been in Sarawak for 15 months before moving on to Aru, from here his shipments were all carefully logged and sent to England to Samuel Stevens, Wallace’s agent responsible for the resale of the items. The meticulous logs show that of many shipments sent from Sarawak Stevens had sold one such shipment to one William Wilson Saunders a keen entomologist and president of the Entomological Society. Saunders later fell on hard times and sold his entire collection to Pickard Cambridge. Cambridge was a keen arachnologist and seeing a spider within the collection described it as Friulla wallacii. Ironically he had no idea that the spider was one of Wallace’s when he described it. On Cambridge’s death his entire collection was donated to the Oxford Museum of Natural History. It was here that the type specimen had lay deep within the museum’s vaults for so many years. I contacted my colleague at the museum in Oxford. Again ironically the same person who had discovered Darwin’s spider and after searching the records he supplied me with images of the original type.

I had found (with help) the type (Fig 2) and had managed to prove that Wallace did indeed collect spiders. Now all I had to do was find a live specimen in Sarawak………That might prove difficult but the flight was already booked.

to be continued.

Unraveling the Mystery of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Siblings

By Ray and Angela Hale

June 2019

When my wife Angela and I decided to visit the Monmouthshire village of Llanbadoc I admit it was for purely selfish reasons. Llanbadoc is none other than the birthplace of my long-standing hero Alfred Russel Wallace. You will of course know that he was that great British naturalist and co-author, alongside Charles Darwin, of that universally equally well-known work, the theory of evolution by natural selection.  For those unfamiliar with the topography of the United Kingdom, Monmouthshire is a county in Wales. It has not always been thus. Let me explain. In 1535 the Laws In Wales Act created the county of Monmouthshire and all was well until 1542 when the amended Laws in Wales Act listed the counties in Wales. For some inexplicable reason it omitted Monmouthshire and thus, if on administrative paper only this beautiful area reverted back to England. Despite many attempts to “give it back” it was only with the introduction of The Local Government Act in 1972 that Monmouthshire returned to its natural roots. Of course one would have the right to ask why does it matter and equally have the right to receive an answer.

Let me explain.  In the world of evolution there are the Darwinians who, of course, follow Darwin and the Wallacites who follow Wallace and whilst there is no wrong or right apostle to follow one of the biggest debates that remains a bone of contention is exactly, out of the two, who passed the post first with the actual theory. A smaller and seemingly much less significant side argument that has long raged is was Wallace, Welsh or English? The Welsh claim him as their own pointing out that in their eyes Usk has always been Welsh but the English armed with dates and ancient manuscripts claim his as theirs. Given the rivalry between both the Wallacites and Darwinians and indeed the Welsh and the English you will see that it really does matter.

Darwin is rightly an icon of evolutionary science as indeed is Wallace. In addition as the founder of the science of Zoogeography, Wallace is deserving of all his many accolades including the Order of Merit but when it comes to who actually arrived at the idea of Natural Selection first, then the battle rages on. Darwinians will tell you that it was “their man” having worked on his Magnus opus for many years previously whilst the Wallacites amongst us are adamant that it was “our man” who whilst recovering from a fever arrived at the idea and scribbled his thoughts down before sending it to Darwin for his opinion. In a hastily penned letter to his confidant Charles Lyell Darwin declared in despair……..

If Wallace had my sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters

After seeking advice from his closest allies Darwin agreed that a joint paper should be read to the Linnaean Society.  Neither Darwin nor Wallace were to be present at the meeting. Darwin was mourning the recent loss of a child and Wallace was in a remote part of Indonesia.  The paper was placed before these learned men on July 1st 1858 and the rest is history. Such friendly rivalry between both men’s supporters continues to this day and whilst the debate goes on it is now accepted that without the input of both men our understanding of the modern natural world would be far less.

Today the idyllic landscape of Llanbadoc sits, as indeed, in reality it always has, nestled on the borders of Wales and England. Its people are proud and welcoming but make no mistake, for if you do, they will have no hesitation in “politely” informing you that they are Welsh and not English. This tiny village is a delightfully typical Welsh rural hamlet. It sits peacefully on the river Usk where an ancient arched stone bridge marks the entrance to its larger neighbour, the town of Usk. This rural town has the obligatory now ruined castle overlooking the surrounding hills from whence ruling barons once surveyed their lands. Llanbadoc is small and if you are not paying attention you will have left it almost as soon as you have entered.

I had promised my self for many years that I would one day visit Llanbadoc and in turn Kensington Cottage the actual birthplace of Wallace and wallow in the atmosphere of this small but beautiful place. I have studied, written and lectured about this great man but to finally visit the place where it all began was a dream come true. It was therefore on a cold and rainy September night I discussed the possibility of a visit with  dear friends, Carl and Sue Portman. I find myself with more time on my hands since retiring from the binds of daily work and having promised to spend more time together we formulated a road trip for our wives and ourselves. We are indeed fortunate as we are all nature lovers and whist my colleague is an ardent Darwin supporter I follow the teachings of Wallace. So it was with great excitement and much verbal jousting that we set out to make the 200 km drive to Wales.

On arrival our first port of call was the house where Wallace had been born, the now renamed Kensington House. It is located on A472 south of Usk.  As you leave Usk across the old stone bridge a sharp left takes you along the river. The house can be found on the right hand side sitting back from the road. These days the house is privately owned and much extended from when Wallace as a five year old ran carefree around the spacious grounds. Although the original house remains it is much developed and one wonders what the young Wallace would make of it all today. A high conifer hedge surrounds the property. In Wallace’s day the house would have been more visible and before the arrival of a busy road and the flood bank the river would have been easily accessible to the “Little Saxon” as the locals called the young fair-haired boy. I stood a while and mused that it should be turned into a museum to this great man but I knew that others had tried and failed in their efforts.

The Church of St Madcoc, Llanbadoc

Continuing along the A472 following the contour of the river we soon found our second destination on the left. The Church of St Madoc is a beautiful place of worship that originated in the 14th Century. Much renovated, little of that period remains but it has undergone recent sympathetic restoration to an excellent standard. It was here that Wallace was baptized in 1823 and his sisters Mary Anne and Emma are buried. Sadly both Emma and her sister passed away at very young ages and their final resting place can now be found just after the fork in the path as you walk from the metal gate towards the river Usk. A large inscribed slab of local stone lies peacefully, slowly decaying in the shade of the large trees. Now half covered with creeping ivy and the fallen blossom from the cherry trees the once carefully honed words will inevitably and silently disappear. Soon all that remains will be the small staked sign that sits at the head of the grave explaining that here lies the two sisters of Alfred Russel Wallace.

The Gravestone of Emma and Mary Anne, Llanbadoc

I pondered for a moment on just how many people had passed this grave and had not even noticed the sign much less realised whom or what it commemorated. But today I was not here to remember Alfred. I was here to pay my respects to two young children tragically struck down in infancy and now buried side by side for eternity. How sad it is that in days gone by the death of ones children was so commonplace and so often expected. It did of course not make the pain of their passing easier and I felt a deep sadness as I stared at the stone slab.

I stood back and slowly read the wooden sign that marked the graves. As a student of Wallace I was immediately struck by the errors on the sign. At first I questioned my own knowledge but having spent a great deal of time studying the Wallace family tree I couldn’t believe I was wrong.

The wooden sign that marks the graves.

It reads:









I looked closely at the gravestone and attempted to decipher the now almost invisible inscription. This proved almost impossible. The ravages of time were clearly visible.  We managed to transcribe some words and dates but the two-line verse at the foot of the slab would prove more difficult. We took a number of photographs with various camera settings and angles and decided that on our return home we would we project the photo on to a large screen and with the help of a photo enhancing computer program and with Angela’s keen eye for calligraphic script we arrived at the following.

















In the first instance the fixed wooden sign states that Wallace’s mother was called “Maryan” whereas it was actually Mary Ann (with no “e”). It further states that their daughter was called “Marianne” but her name was Mary Anne (with an “e”). I realise of course that in the early part of the 19th Century the spelling of words was ambiguous and it depended on the writers abilities rather than the actual written word.

Perhaps more importantly the plaque stated that Emma had died 23rd January 1823 when in fact she died in 1822. This would have meant that Alfred would have been 15 days old at the time of her death when in fact he had not yet been born. (Alfred Russel Wallace: Born 8th January 1823). I realise that some might ask does it really matter and am I just being pedantic. After all the children were very young and it was long time ago?  Well to be honest I believe it does matter. Time is precious to us all and as we all turn to dust eventually the records of a persons passing be they rich and famous or in this case two young girls of little consequence is important. They say that we pass this way but once and whilst it one thing to be remembered in life it is important that we be remembered in death also.

My thoughts returned to the wooden sign. Had the task of translating the stone been assigned to someone with little or no knowledge of Wallace and his family or was it simply a case of someone misinterpreting the words.  Indeed it begged the question from where had the information on the wooden sign actually been drawn from originally. I felt it had not been transcribed from the stone as the actual dates could still be seen relatively clearly.  Had the manufacturer of the plaque then made an error during manufacture. Whichever it was there were errors and I felt that as time waits for no man and the ravishes of that time could clearly be seen in the fading script then whilst it was important that this grave be marked I also felt that it was important for future generations of researchers that the information displayed should be correct.

I had hoped that there may be someone on hand to assist but sadly the church was locked. An indication of the times in which we live and with no one around we wandered around the churchyard in search of the monument erected in 2006 as a tribute to Wallace. We found it outside the church wall and rested a while to take in this wonderfully peaceful place. We discussed our next step. Since birth and death certificates did not come into use until 1837 we needed to view the parish records of St Madocs. This would give us hopefully more information as to the dates of the children’s deaths.  I knew that both children had been born and baptized outside of this parish but it should show how their names were recorded at the time of their death and by whom. Time was not on our side and we reluctantly had to bid farewell to this idyllic place and continue on our journey but I pledged that I would on my return home contact the Usk Civic Society to see if I could arrange a further visit in the future.

I contacted the Reverend of St Madocs and received a delightful email from a lady called Rosemary Evans who very kindly offered to meet us at the church and make the Baptism and Burial records available for me to study. Two months later we were once again standing at the gate and were met by Rosemary, Professor David Collard and his wife Stella. David is a Wallace authority, member of the Usk Civic Society and co-author of the excellent book An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion (Edited by Charles Smith: James Costa and David Collard).  As promised Rosemary had kindly accessed the records and there laid out in the church were two very official looking books. The first was the record for the Burials of both Emma and her sister Mary Anne. (Figure 5) It showed that Emma having passed on 23rd January 1822 had been buried some six days later and that Mary Anne her older sister had passed on 20th November 1822 and had been buried on 26th November. The importance of this was that it meant that the younger Emma had died some 11 months before Mary Anne and not after her as the sign stated. To lose one child so young must have been heart breaking but then to lose an older one so soon must have devastated their parents. Closer inspection of the records show that Mary Anne is actually recorded in the book as “Marianne” which meant that the inscription on the sign must have come from the register originally and the error had been made at the time of entry in 1822. The date error was simply an oversight. Rosemary confirmed this, as she had originally transcribed from this document. The mystery had been solved and it was agreed that the plaque should be amended to show the correct spelling of the names and the correct dates.

The Burial records for both Emma and Mary Anne
Note the misspelling of Mary Anne to “Marianne”

The second book displayed the Baptism of Alfred in January 1823 at Llanbadoc Church. Interestingly the record shows his fathers profession as “Gentleman” and the entry reads “Alfred Russell Wallace (with two ll’s).  The spelling of Alfred’s name Russel has caused much debate over the years but that discussion is for another time.

The Baptism record (1823) for Alfred Russel Wallace
Note the spelling of “Russell”


For the moment I am content that future historians will pass through this leafy churchyard for decades to come and pay their respects to these two little girls safe in the knowledge that they have been remembered correctly.

[All photos copyright of Ray and Angela Hale]