Thurrock History Society: Annual Report

The Dell

Report by The Thurrock History Society

At our AGM chairman Susan Yates reported that our membership had been maintained, we had received a lottery grant to enable us to have a marquee at the Orsett Show this September and members had enjoyed various speakers and outings throughout the year. All officers and committee members were re-elected.

Afterwards John Matthews gave us a detailed and extensive illustrated report on Alfred Russel Wallace and the house he built in Grays. A scientist, Wallace lived in Hertford and became a surveyor and teacher. He had always been interested in natural history and he and a friend went to South America, exploring the Amazon. Wallace went to the Rio Negro and collected specimens which he sent home and was out there for several years, compiling accurate maps. He returned home but unfortunately the ship caught fire and the specimens it was carrying were lost. Wallace was rescued but had a horrific journey home. However insurance enabled him to finance two more years and he wrote of his experience, becoming well known.

He spent many years in the Malayan Archipelago and discovered animals and birds on one island were completely different to those on another island. He was able to draw an Australian/Asian line, now known as the Wallace Line. It was later found out that the two groups had come together due to movement of continental shelves. Wallace discovered that evolution was due to the survival of the fittest, or natural selection and wrote to Charles Darwin with his findings. Darwin had been working on this idea for 20 years, so this prompted him to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859. He acknowledged Wallace at the Linnean Society where their scientific paper was read out and later published; Wallace was still in the Far East, but he was a celebrity when he returned. He lived in Barking and bought land in Grays where he built the Dell, one of the earliest buildings constructed in concrete. He lived there from 1872 to 1876 and had hoped to become a director of the Natural History Museum at Bethnal Green, but when the museum moved to Kensington he did not get the job and moved away from Grays. When Darwin died Wallace was also widely acknowledged. Alfred Russel Wallace died in 1913 and was buried at Broadstone in Dorset; he is commemorated with a plaque in Westminster Abbey.

The Society received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order to increase awareness of Wallace in Thurrock, including a lecture at the Thameside Theatre by Richard Milner. Some members visited various places where Wallace’s work was acknowledged, including the Natural History Museum and Down House where Darwin lived. A visit was also made to Plantation Gardens in Norfolk, a garden built in a quarry, reminiscent of The Dell garden, described as ‘a Welsh Valley’. We took the Wallace exhibition ‘on the road’ to various locations, purchased some books, produced booklets and a DVD. The Dell, which was owned by The Grays Convent, has now been sold with planning permission for apartments and further development, but the gardens are not to be built on, hopefully providing public access in the future.

Our last meeting of the season is at 8.00pm at the Adult Community College, Richmond Road, Grays on Friday 19 May when our speaker will be Kevin Diver, entitled “The History of Tilbury Fort”. Visitors are very welcome.

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