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Gilbert White and the Selborne connection
White spent most of his life in the Hampshire village of Selborne, where he was born; his book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was published in 1789, near the end of his life. It is a fascinating record of the observations and discoveries of this remarkable man. It is a tribute to the man and his work that after two centuries the book continues to be popular, and has been published in more than 200 editions, with translations into several languages.
Gilbert White was born on 18th July 1720 at the Parsonage, just below the village Church of St. Mary; the building has since been replaced by a Victorian vicarage. He was the first of eleven children born to John and Anne White, and was named Gilbert after his grandfather, who was vicar of the Parish. Shortly after his birth the family moved away from the village, but they returned in
1729, on the death of Gilbert senior. They moved into a house opposite the Parsonage, called Wakes after a previous owner. Gilbert White made his home here from then until his death in 1793, apart from periods at school in Basingstoke, and at Oriel College in Oxford.
After his ordination in 1747, White undertook the curacies of several parishes near Selborne, all of which were easily administered from Wakes. It was not until 1784 that he became the permanent Curate at Selborne. He was never able to become Vicar of the Parish, since the living was in the gift of Magdalen College Oxford, whereas White was a Fellow of Oriel. His clerical duties were poorly paid, which may explain his unadventurous way of life. However, they were also light, and so left him ample free time to pursue his favourite pastime - the study of the natural history of his beloved Selborne.
From the time that Gilbert White started to look after the garden at Wakes in 1751, he recorded all his gardening activities, the weather and other natural observations in great detail. From 1751-67 he noted his observations in the Garden Kalendar, the manuscript of which is held in the Selborne Society’s archives at the Linnean Society Library in London. You can see a copy by clicking here. In 1768 he began a new journal, with printed headings - the Naturalist’s Journal. He continued to record his observations in this journal until a few days before he died. It is in these two journals that we find all the original discoveries and observations that led to White becoming known as the father of British naturalists.
A few examples will show the very wide range of White’s perception and many interests:
He discovered and named the harvest mouse (a species we are delighted to have recorded in Perivale Wood), the noctule bat, and the lesser whitethroat.
Probably his best known work in the study of birds was the identification of the three species of leaf warblers, which look very similar, on the basis of their distinctive songs - the chiff- chaff, the willow warbler and the wood warbler.
His observations also paved the way for the modern ideas of bird territory and the value of protective colouration.
He produced a masterly account of the economics of the earth-worm, thus anticipating the work of Charles Darwin on the same subject.
He investigated the mystery of whether swallows migrated or, as was widely believed at the time, hibernated through the winter.
There was little in the whole field of natural science that did not engage his attention.
In 1767 a chance meeting with the zoologist Thomas Pennant resulted in a lasting friendship and a long correspondence on natural history matters. Two years later he was introduced to a friend of Pennant, Daines Barrington, who sent him a copy of the Naturalist’s Journal in which to record his observations. The two men started an exchange of letters that lasted for many years.
Both friends urged White to publish a book on the natural history of the village, and eventually the letters he had written to both of them were edited as the basis of the book. Some new letters were added to provide an introduction to the work, and in 1789 his brother Benjamin published them as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Download a copy from Project Gutenberg.
White did not survive long after the publication of his book; he died on 26th June 1793, and was buried in the churchyard at Selborne under a modest gravestone, bearing only his initials and the date of his death.
The village of Selborne remains unspoilt, despite being between the busy towns of Petersfield and Alton in Hampshire. White’s house, Wakes, is a museum, both of his work and also of the lives of the Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates, and his uncle Frank, who died on an expedition to Africa. Work has been done to restore the gardens to White’s original designs.
The Norman Parish Church of St Mary’s was restored by White’s great nephew in the middle of the nineteenth century; the stained glass window of St Francis, illustrating all the birds mentioned in White’s writings, was installed in 1920.
A second memorial window was installed in 1993 to commemorate the bicentenary of White’s death; it has three circular panels: two show mammals, and the central panel his tortoise Timothy.
White acquired Timothy in 1780, on the death of his aunt Rebecca; it was a much indulged animal, as well as being the subject of intense scientific study, surviving White by a year, to die in the spring of 1794.
You must know that my master is what they call a naturalist, and much visited by people of that turn, who often put on whimsical experiments, such as feeling my pulse, putting me in a tub of water to try if I can swim, etc, and twice in the year I am carried to the grocer's to be weighed, that it may be seen how much I am wasted during the months of my abstinence, and how much I gain by feasting in the summer.
(White’s Letter from a Tortoise to Hecky Mulso)
Copyright © 2015 The Selborne Society. This page updated January 11, 2015