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18 November 2013
Will Alfred Russel Wallace turn in his grave?


Alfred R Wallace Building in Neath - Threatened

A month to appeal!

Anyone who has studied Alfred Russel Wallace will realise the important part that the town of Neath in South Wales has played in his development and consequent life.

It was whilst in the town with his brother undertaking surveying contracts that he developed his interests in the natural world.  He attended the Neath Philosophical Society and consequently became involved with the Neath Mechanics’ Institute.  Along with his brother a new building was designed and opened in 1847 located in Church Place. Here Wallace attended and gave lectures on various scientific subjects.

The Institution would eventually cease its original function and become a free library in 1897.  A fire in 1899 destroyed a number of books with the remainder being transferred to a new library built at Victoria Gardens.  Various uses were made of the old building - rehearsal rooms, storage etc. and for a good many years it was left to decay and dereliction. 

A long campaign had been made to establish a museum in the town and after an extensive and expensive complete renovation the Neath Mechanics’ Institute re-opened to serve this purpose in 1985.

Prior to this, in the 1960s a plaque had been erected on the front of the building to commemorate and record its connection with Alfred Russel Wallace which remains in place today.

Some years later the Museum function was transferred to the Gwyn Hall and the Neath Antiquarian Archive rehoused in the Mechanics’ Institute under a binding legal agreement with the local authority to preserve the same within that building until 2046.

The Neath Antiquarian Society (NAS) was founded in 1923 as a natural successor to the Neath Philosophical Society which had its origins in 1834, slightly earlier than the Swansea Philosophical and Literary Society, which became The Royal Institution of South Wales.

The badge of the Neath Philosophical Society, depicting the great seal of Neath Abbey, was adopted by the new NAS as its emblem.  http://www.swansea.gov.uk/index.cfm?articleid=48672

There also exists within the Mechanics’ Institute an access point run by the West Glamorgan Archive Service where members of the public may perform family history research.

As part of Wallace 100 the town of Neath hosted various events including lectures, plays, exhibitions and a celebration dinner.  These events were provided by the local authority, the Swansea branch of the Historical Association, and the Neath Antiquarian Society.  A ‘Wallace Trail’ has been set up that those who visit Neath may follow to see all the places that influenced Wallace during his time in Wales.

On 9th November 2013 there was an unveiling ceremony of a plaque to Alfred Russel Wallace which had been presented by the Wallace Foundation to recognise Neath’s important Wallace connection.   Shortly, there will also be a ‘sound post’ installed and a QR point to further communicate to the public the whole Wallace/Neath story.

In his address during the unveiling of the ARW plaque, Richard Bodenham , Fellow of the Linnaean Society and Director of the ARW project said, ……

 ‘ so both the world, and science, owe an incalculable debt to this area.  If Wallace had not come here, perhaps, he would have remained a surveyor, and we would not be sitting here, this evening.  In fact, on Thursday, when I mentioned Neath at the Natural History Museum, several people said, “Oh! Where it all began for Wallace”…… If Wallace were to return to the Vale of Neath, today, what would he think of this area?  Amongst so much, I am certain he would be delighted that the Mechanics’ Institute, which he designed, and which has been so well cared for, is devoted to the study of family history, and the preservation of Neath’s historical records.

Ironically, on-going cost reduction policies has meant that the NMI along with the archives of the NAS are under threat as the local authority has decided to no longer finance these two items with a view to disposing of the building.  We have one month to appeal this decision and to try and impress upon the local authority (Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council) that such a move will damage the Wallace connection and affect tourism as interest in Wallace continues to expand on a global basis.

Neath Museum was closed in 2009, there is currently NO museum facility in the town and all of the museum collection is in storage at facilities scattered across the borough. The Neath Antiquarian Society are presently the only custodians of the town of Neath’s historical heritage.  Our collection of documents goes back to the 1700s, our photographic archive to the earliest days of pioneer photography.  Additionally, we have an impressive library and a good number of works of art. 

We receive additions to our collections on a weekly basis as ours is a ‘living’ archive which we progressively catalogue.  These operations are performed by our members entirely voluntarily and we receive no funding directly other than subscriptions from our 221 members.  We are grateful for additional help and advice that we receive from the West Glamorgan Archive Service who also occupy the building where they have their access point and family history facility.  This is well visited by the public daily and often we are able to furnish them with additional information from our collections to enhance their researches.

We would appreciate your support in impressing upon Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council that they should reconsider their decision. Having been bestowed with a prestigious accolade by way of a memorial plaque by the Wallace Fund why would they consider disposing of ‘Wallace’s building’ - the ‘jewel’ in Neath’s crown.

How would Wallace react today?

 - maybe in this modern age it would be www. (WALLACE WOULD WEEP)

Should you require to contact the Neath Antiquarian Society then please do so at the above correspondence address or

Neath Antiquarian Society
Neath Mechanics' Institute
4 Church Place
Neath SA11 3LL

Tel. 01639 620139 (Monday to Thursday only)
Email NASatNeath@gmail.com

Our web pages are ; http://www.swansea.gov.uk/index.cfm?articleid=48672

And the ‘under construction’  page - www.neathantiquariansociety.tk

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