New letters to Wallace discovered!

Some exciting news here at the WCP to share with you all; I've recently found 105 letters written to Alfred Russel Wallace, that we weren't originally aware of! It came about, as most discoveries do really, with a little bit of luck.

I was cataloguing some letters we recently received from the American Philosophical Society and one of them was from Wallace to Swan Sonnenschein & Co., the book publishers. Having not come across this publishing house before and not having any letters to Wallace from them in our catalogue, I googled them just to find out a bit more and one of the first hits was from the Special Collections Department at University of Reading, which houses their archive. I sent an email off to them asking if they could check the SS & Co. archive for any more letters from Wallace. They informed me a few days later that there are no letters from Wallace in the archive; however, there was a record in the archives index of letters written to him!

I made a trip to the Special Collections at the beginning of October to list the letters and take photographs of them. We normally request remote scans of letters, however with this collection, it was unknown exactly how many letters there were going to be as the index only stated the volume and page number where the letters could be found.

The letters to Wallace are copies recorded in the company's Out Letter Books (collection ref no. 3280). We can only presume Wallace threw away the actual letters sent to him, as we have no record of these anywhere. There were letters in 18 volumes of Out Letter Books spanning the years 1891 to 1911, which amount to 105 letters and 9 payment notifications. It took me most of the day to list and photograph each letter and by the end of the day I was covered in red rot and dust! The pages of the Out Letter Books are only a little thicker than tracing paper and the ink over the years has bled into the paper, meaning some of the letters are very difficult to read, although it's not impossible so we should be able to make transcriptions of the letters without too much difficulty.

Interestingly many of the letters begin by thanking Wallace for his last letter, so we can construct catalogue records for these letters too, even if they don't exist anymore (or we haven't found them yet!) and we can create, hopefully, a comprehensive narrative between Wallace and one his publishers.

The letters mainly relate to the publication of Wallace's book The Wonderful Century published in 1898 and also a reprint of Land Nationalisation. You can view and download The Wonderful Century from Wallace Online, here

This discovery is really interesting, as it shows potentially how many more letters could be housed in archives across the world that we aren't yet aware of. Although we do have a pretty comprehensive list of 100 repositories that hold Wallace letters, being an Archivist myself, I understand the vast number of collections in archives yet to be catalogued or even listed and sitting in those collections, could potentially be many more Wallace letters. Hopefully over the course of the project, we can uncover many more letters we previously weren't aware of.

If you are interested, you can find out more about the Swan, Sonnenschein & Co. archive here


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