Stories in the Landscape: AR Wallace

1838 Wallace map – Plan of the Parish of Turvey in the County of Bedford
By kind permission of Bedfordshire Archives

Alfred Russel Wallace enjoyed his work as a 15 year old assisting his brother in and around Turvey in 1838, laying the main lines for a “survey of the tithe commutation of a parish”.   New tax laws (Tithe Commutation Act, 1836) and the division of public land among landowners (General Enclosures Act, 1845) required accurate surveys and maps of farmlands, public lands, and parishes.   The Government had commissioned his older brother to measure the land in and around Turvey.  For about six months Wallace stayed in the Tinker of Turvey inn (now Central Stores), talking with local farmers in the evenings.  His book “My Life, A Record of Events and Opinions.” was written in his 80s but published in 1905.

Wallace wrote many anecdotes about local people in his chapter on Turvey.  This story re-connected two chance meetings over a 51 year period: “Another curious little personal incident connected with this winter’s frost”.  He explained

One day I was out on the frozen meadows across the river Ouse, assisting in marking out one of our main lines which had to cross the windings of the river, when I saw a pleasant-looking young man coming towards me carrying a double-barrelled gun.  When he was a few yards off, two very large birds, looking like wild geese, came flying towards us, and as they passed overhead at a moderate height, he threw up his gun, fired both barrels, and brought them both to the ground.  Of course I went up to look at them, and found they were a fine pair of wild swans, the male being about five feet long from beak to end of tail. “That was a good shot”, I remarked; to which he replied, ” Oh! you can’t miss them, they are as big as a barn door.”

Talking to people in Turvey, he found out the young man was “Mr. Higgins, of Turvey Abbey, his father being one of the principal land-owners in the parish.”  Using the information given to his brother to carry out the tithe commutation work, he somewhat inappropriately looked up the young man, noting in the “reference books which gave the owners of all the separate farms, etc., we found that he himself owned some property, and that his name was H. H. Higgins.  This interested me and this made me remember the name of Mr. Higgins, which I might otherwise have totally forgotten.”

Ten years later, Wallace carried out research in the Malay Archipelago, Amazon Basin and Indonesia, sending an essay on “natural selection” for comment to Darwin which formed an additional document to the paper Darwin presented to the Linnean Society of London.  Fifty-one years later, having become well known as a naturalist, Wallace was invited to Liverpool to deliver some lectures.  He received “a very kind letter from the Rev. H. H. Higgins, inviting me to dine with him on my arrival, and offering to assist me in every way he could.  I declined the invitation, but told him what hotel I was going to, and said that I should be glad to see him.  His letter re-called to me my acquaintance at Turvey, but I did not see how a Liverpool clergyman could have any close relationship to a wealthy Bedfordshire landowner.”

Wallace assumed there would be no further interaction but instead was greeted by the Reverend Higgins at the railway station “with a carriage ready”.  The Reverend was so determined to talk over dinner, he explained that

he and some friends had taken the liberty of ordering a dinner at my hotel, and hoped I would dine with them.  He was as pleasant as an old friend, and of course I accepted.  He was a short, rubicund, exceedingly good-humoured and benevolent-looking man, apparently some years older than myself.  So when his friends left about an hour after dinner, I asked him, if he had no engagement, to stay a little longer, as I wished to find out the mystery.  He was an enthusiastic naturalist, and we talked of many things and the conversation turning on the land question, he remarked that he was perhaps one of the poorest landowners in England, for that he was heir to a considerable landed estate from which he never received anything, and probably never should, owing to family circumstances.  I then asked him if he knew a place called Turvey, in Bedfordshire, to which he replied, ‘I ought to know it, for I was born there, and my father owned the estate there to which I am heir.’

I then felt pretty sure of my man, and asked him if he remembered, during a very hard frost about fifty years ago, shooting a pair of wild swans at Turvey.  ‘Why, of course I do,” said he. ‘But how do you know it?’  Because I was there at the time and saw you shoot them.  Do not you remember a thin, tall lad who came up to you and said, ‘ That was a good shot,’ and you replied, “Oh! you can’t miss them, they are as big as a barn door ‘? ” ‘No I don’t remember you at all, but that is just what I should have said.’   His delight was great, for his story of how he shot the two wild swans was not credited even by his own family, and he made me promise to go to his house after the lecture on the next night, and prove to them that he had not been romancing.”  On the following evening, Wallace was introduced to his family, as witness to the event.  “That was a proud moment for the Rev. H. H. Higgins, and a very pleasant one to myself. “


Wallace, A.R.  1905.  My Life.  A Record of Events and Opinions.  Chapman and Hall.  London.


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