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Rose Hill

Alfred Russel Wallace's house in Dorking has been re-discovered. Michèle Kohler tells her detective story.

Geoscientist 19.10 October 2009

A R WallaceOn his return from the Malay Peninsula in 1862, Alfred Russel Wallace lived a peripatetic life in the Home Counties, moving from one property to another before finally settling in Dorset in 1902 (where he died, in 1913).

From July 1876 to March 1878 he rented a house on Rose Hill, Dorking. Charles Darwin was a frequent visitor to the neighbourhood and often stayed at nearby Leith Hill Place - as well as at Abinger Hall. He wrote to Wallace in August 1877: “I hope you find Dorking a pleasant place? I was staying lately at Abinger Hall, and wished to come over to see you, but driving tires me so much that my courage failed." Until now the exact location of Wallace’s Rose Hill abode was unknown.

On Rose Hill itself there is a field that once provided lairage for the abattoir in the adjacent High Street. Though the abattoir is long since closed, even today the hill provides an occasional pasture for sheep, giving a bucolic air to this part of downtown Dorking. The field is encircled by an oval road, with a branch going off in a north westerly (finally northerly) direction. Grand Victorian mansions enjoy fine views across the oval road towards the field.

Until January 2009, when I rediscovered it, nobody could remember which of the houses on Rose Hill had been occupied by Darwin’s co-author. The problem that I faced was simple, but seemingly intractable. Wallace was renting the house. How, I asked myself, would one find rented accommodation in 1876? The answer was simple - the same way that you might find it today - from an estate agent!

Rose Hill rediscovered Fortunately White & Son are a long-established firm of Dorking agents, and between 1963 and 1969 they deposited their archive at the Surrey History Centre in Woking. This seemed a likely place to find a record of Wallace’s rental. In January 2009 I ordered up some likely material, and in the box for 1877 I found an unrecorded letter from Wallace to White and Son about subletting the property. Progress – but alas no mention of an address.

I then turned to two large volumes. In the first, a letter book under the Shearburn account was a note that a house agency or rental agreement with a Mr. Wallace had been executed, and that he was paying £55 per annum for - “No. 2 Rose Hill”. This number related not to No. 2 on the Oval, but to the second of a group of houses owned by the Shearburns. But it was then fairly easy, using the 1871 and 1881 censuses and some other references in the Shearburn account, to figure out which house it was. It is today called No. 12 Rose Hill, located on the slightly less grand spur road.

The second volume included a reference to a house agency agreement drawn up for “AR Wallace”, so we know it is our man. Alas, no such agreement could be found in the box. However it may have been misfiled and may turn up eventually, when the entire archive is properly curated.

* Michèle Kohler and her husband Chris are antiquarian booksellers and assembled, over twenty years, the collection of books by and about Charles Darwin purchased by the Natural History Museum in 2006 – Ed.