Search records

Joseph Ritson Wallace

Epithet: Museum curator and co-founder of the 'Manx Liberal' newspaper (1805-1893)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

As a youth, Joseph Ritson Wallace displayed artistic talent, curiosity and a passion for natural sciences. His apprenticeship with a sugar refining company in Whitehaven was cut short when the firm was wound up in 1826. He then attempted to establish himself as a painter of miniature portraits and landscapes, operating from the family home in nearby Distington.

After marrying at the age of 27, Wallace embarked with his brother-in-law on a two-year voyage to the Pacific Islands and the West Coast of America. He returned with an extensive collection of biological and ethnographic specimens, and a burning desire to set up a museum.

The Isle of Man was then beginning its meteoric rise as a holidaymaking centre, an important factor in Wallace's decision to establish his museum at Douglas. He and his wife bought a large house in Great George Street, near the harbour, and four rooms were fitted out to exhibit the specimens Wallace had collected. On 1st May, 1835 the Manx Sun carried the following announcement:

"J. R. WALLACE'S MUSEUM Gt. George Street, Douglas Will open for public inspection on Monday 4th May - containing a Collection of NATURAL HISTORY, viz.- Beasts, Birds, Reptiles, Fishes, Insects, Crustaceous Animals and Fossil Remains; 800 species of Recent Shells: Also Weapons, Fishing Implements, Tools, Bows and Arrows, Dresses &c., Mummies from the Southern Province of Peru, and a New Zealand Chieftain's Head, beautifully tattooed, in a fine state of preservation, with a variety of other Articles. The principal parts were collected by J. R. WALLACE whilst abroad."

A 36-page catalogue, printed by J. Quiggin of the Manx Sun office, listed the contents of each of the cases, but without descriptions.

The Sun welcomed this new attraction: "The public will doubtless be gratified to learn, that Mr. Wallace's splendid Museum in Gt. George's Street, Douglas, is now open for inspection; and a more interesting and informative exhibition has never been seen in this Island. The immense number of natural and artificial curiosities which compose this celebrated collection, is well deserving the attention of all visitors, who will find it a rich entertainment in the display of rare and unique objects which the taste and industry of the proprietor have collected into one brilliant and highly attractive assemblage."

Despite this endorsement, the museum was on view for only seven years, for it failed to pay its way. To make ends meet, Wallace embarked upon the creation of a new newspaper, the Manx Liberal, in partnership with John Penrice, previously a printer with the Manx Sun.

At that period the editors of rival newspapers revelled in exchanging jibes and insults. In the first issue of the Liberal, Wallace, as editor, claimed that the paper's policy: "... shall be to avoid facetious contention, and to render their journal a temperate vehicle of information and amusement, unmixed with those malevolent bickerings so productive of mischief in society, and subversive of public concord ... One single matter of fact faithfully and honestly reported, is worth a thousand comments and flourishes for the purpose of ministering to any function."

However, Wallace was soon amongst the finest exponents of the art of 'malevolent bickerings'. His arch enemy was Bedford, editor of the Manx Advertiser, to whom he addressed a 'Greeting' in the Liberal on 1st January 1842: "A Happy New Year to you, you deaf, hoary-headed old sinner. You are still, Glory be to God, in the land of the living, increasing in veracity, yet not declining in Romance, every day. 'We have lived and loved together' with a vengeance, 'through many changing years'; and yet, after all our skirmishing and engagements, we are still each other's best friends. What though we have acted as your perpetual tormentors, we still regard you with all the affection an Italian displays towards the bear he has taught, by fiery applications, to caper for public amusement. May you exist, if only for our merriment, a few months longer, and when you finally sink into the grave which your own hands have dug, may the claws of your three sisters - the witches, Ignorance, Bigotry and Superstition - scrape together a gravely monument o'er the tomb of their putrid brother!"

Some of this bitterness may have stemmed from another item which Wallace inserted in several issues around this time: DOUGLAS MUSEUM The Proprietor of this establishment, having learned by experience that to keep it longer open as a place of amusemerit and instruction is incompatible with his interests, begs to inform his Friends and the Public that it will FINALLY CLOSE on the 5th February, 1842. Whether want of success is to be attributed to the poverty of the collection, containing, as it does, only 7000 specimens, or to the state of information and intellectual culture on the island, he presumes not to judge; should it be the former, perhaps some individual having at his disposal a greater store of Natural Beauties may, at no distant period, open it for the scientific appreciation of the people of Man.

Below this notice, Wallace advertised the sale of his house, and shortly afterwards announced his intention to dispose of his interest in the Manx Liberal. His wife and children were dispatched back to Distington. Not wishing to deprive the Island of any of its heritage, he offered to return every item presented to the museum since 1835, and to publish a complete list of these specimens in the Liberal. No copy of this list is known, but it seems that Wallace was as good as his word, since virtually no Manx items are recorded in later catalogues of his collection.

It was a further seven years before Wallace could sever his ties with the newspaper and leave the Island for good. No buyer was found for his share of the paper, which became embroiled in a serious libel case following the failure of the Isle of Man Joint Stock Bank in 1845. Wallace had denounced James Grellier, editor of the Manx Sun, as the main culprit, writing: James Grellier is rascality itself. He is the embodiment - the incarnation - the presence of perfect scoundrelism. He is too hideous an idol of sin to be gazed upon with an unflinching eye by ordinary sinners. Bank Directors may contemplate him coolly but the mass of mankind must shrink paralysed from the spectacle. We have long suspected the truth of every statement that fell from Grellier's pen. We suspected him when he was standing uncovered in the presence of his Maker, with the Holy Volume in his hand. If the concentrated curse of a suffering people is to be visited with more emphatic energy upon one man on earth than another, upon Grellier let it be levied...

Faced with such blatant libel, the Special Jury found for the plaintiff, who had been seeking damages of £1000. Grellier was outraged when awarded just 40s plus costs, and pressed for a re-trial. The damages were then revised to £100, with a further £400 in costs, a substantial amount to be raised by Wallace and Penrice.

Two years later Penrice took over Wallace's interest in the paper, and continued to publish it for a year or so, but on 25th March 1851 all his printing facilities were sold by auction.

Meanwhile Wallace joined his family at Distington, where their home was opened to the public in July 1850 as 'The Cumberland Museum of Natural History and Works of Art'. He was to spend much of the remainder of his life as an auctioneer, but he retained his enthusiasm for collecting. On 31st January 1885 the Workington News commented: Mr. J. R. Wallace has amassed one of the largest and most valuable collections of antiquities, specimens of natural history and examples of the arts and manufactures of the civilised and savage countries of the world, which is to be found in the possession of any single collector in Great Britain ...

After Wallace's death at the age of 90, this collection of 25,000 specimens was sold by public auction over a period of 21 days in August 1899.

Biography written by Harry Fancy.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.451-3.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 18 August 1805

Place of birth: Vale of Lorton

Date of death: 14 December 1893

Place of death: The Museum, Distington

Name Variant: Wallace, J.R.


Optional, not displayed

Manx National Heritage (MNH) will always put you in control of the information we send you. Read our privacy policy