Kensington Cottage, Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales

A photograph of Wallace's birthplace. From My Life (1905)

A photograph of Wallace's birthplace, taken from My Life (1905). Image available in Public Domain.

This is the place where Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of natural selection, was born on 8th January 1823. Originally, Monmouthshire was known as Gwent, Wales, but today is part of the twenty-two principal areas of Wales.

The house is situated close to the river Usk, not so far from the town of the same name on a road leading to Llanbadoc. Wallace lived here for his first six years, and on his autobiography, My Life (1905), there are some mentions about these times:

“The river in front of our house was the Usk, a fine stream on which we often saw men fishing in coracles, the ancient form of boat made of strong wicker-work, somewhat the shape of the deeper half of a cockle-shell, and covered with bullock’s hide.”

Or his recollections about the fishes he used to catch:

“The lamprey was a favourite dish with our ancestors, and is still considered a luxury in some districts, while in others it is rejected as disagreeable, and the living fish is thought to be even poisonous… Since this period of my early childhood I do not think I have ever eaten or even seen a lamprey.”

The house still survives and is best known like Kensington House, although there have been some structural alterations and the houses which used to be to either side of it have been demolished. Nowadays there is no plaque in the house itself in order to remember how important is this place for the history of science. What we can found is a monument erected in 2006 by the Alfred Russel Wallace Memorial Fund, in the yard of Llanbadoc church, made from Carboniferous limestone with fossils on its surface and it has a black granite plaque, remembering Wallace.

Unfortunately, the house is currently up for sale, and the last news about the possibility to officially protect Kensington House through the support of the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Trust are not very good, since on their consideration there is not a strong relation between the property and Wallace. As it’s mentioned here, Wallace devoted many passages on his autobiography to stressed the importance of this house and its surroundings.

Hopefully, in the next years, especially through more research about Wallace and his contributions there can be a new possibility to protect Kensington House.

Further information

South Wales Argus: Time to recognise scientific pioneer by Chris Wood

A. R. Wallace’s birthplace up for sale! by George Beccaloni.

Prof Edward D Hughes and Bangor University, Wales

Prof Ted Hughes was a trailblazer in kinetics and mechanisms in organic chemistry. As a researcher in the period, 1928-63, Hughes’ work changed the aspect of organic chemistry by progressively replacing empiricism by rationality and understanding. Hughes was a long time colleague and friend of Sir Christopher Ingold, equally recognised for this area.

Hughes and Ingold introduced the mechanism terminology of Sn1, Sn2, E1 and E2 to organic chemistry in the mid 30’s and behind this was a multitude of carefully planned reactions, a talent that Hughes possessed. The understanding that Hughes and often, but not always, Ingold developed on substitution and elimination will be core to every first/second year university chemistry course across the world

Hughes, son of a farmer, was born near Criccieth, in Gwynedd, close to where David Lloyd George was brought up. His first language was Welsh and was educated at Llanstumdwy Elementary and Porthmadog County Schools. He graduated with a 1st Class Honours in Chemistry at UCNW, Bangor and obtained his Ph.D. also from Bangor in 1930 with Ingold as the external examiner. During this period, under the Leadership of Prof K Orton, Bangor was one of the finest centres of physical chemistry in the world.

He joined Ingold’s new group at University College, London (UCL) where he stayed until 1943 when he was appointed to the Chair of Chemistry at Bangor.

Hughes developed an active research programme at Bangor and the best known work during this period was the development of a method for isolating isotopically enriched water from natural water by continuous fractional distillation. This technique yielded 18-O enriched water that could be used to trace the fate of particular O atoms in a substrate molecule undergoing reaction and thereby elucidating the mechanism of the reaction. We understand that this was the first time 18-O had been separated by distillation in the UK and would have opened the door to enormous advances in Chemistry, Biology and Nuclear Physics. During his tenure at Bangor, Hughes maintained his collaboration with Ingold by his appointment as Honorary Research Associate at UCL. It is also worth noting that Ingold spent the time during the World War Two at the University of Aberystwyth.

In 1948, Hughes moved back to UCL to a Chair in Chemistry where he remained until his death in 1963, aged 57. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949.

While Hughes was dedicated to Chemistry, he had a love of breeding and racing greyhounds. When he died, he left a wife, a daughter and 57 greyhounds.

Ted Hughes must surely be one of Wales’ most eminent and productive chemists. The names of Hughes and Ingold are giants in organic chemistry and Bangor University was a key location along this journey. A true Welshman, born and educated in Gwynedd, Hughes’ contribution to organic chemistry would be well recognized by an RSC Chemical Landmark being designated at the Chemistry Department at Bangor University.

The Landmark recognition recognises both Prof Ted Hughes’s contributions and the 125 year history of Chemistry at Bangor. This is the first such recognition in Wales. Being bilingual, it is also the only Landmark to contain the Welsh language.

Original article written by Dr E Malcolm Jones, Secretary, North Wales Local Section and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, February 2010.