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Gilbert White – The Parson Naturalist of Selborne, Hampshire

View of the gardens and back of The Wakes, Gilbert White's House, Selborne, Hampshire.
View of the gardens and back of The Wakes, Gilbert White’s House, Selborne, Hampshire. By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden.

See Selborne spreads her boldest beauties round

The varied valley, and the mountain ground,

Wildly majestic! what is all the pride

Of flats, with loads of ornament supply’d?

Unpleasing, tasteless, impotent expense,

Compar’d with nature’s rude magnificence.

Arise, my stranger, to these wild scenes haste …

(Opening lines from Gilbert White’s poem, The Invitation to Selborne)

Prof. Bell's library, on the ground floor of The Wakes. Prof. Thomas Bell (1792-1880) was a zoologist who much admired White's work. He retired, aged seventy, to Selborne and died at The Wakes in 1880. Prof. Bell himself published an edition of The Natural History of Selborne in 1877.  The former library is now home to interative exhibits about Gilbert White's life and work.
Prof. Bell’s library, on the ground floor of The Wakes. Prof. Thomas Bell (1792-1880) was a zoologist who much admired White’s work. He retired, aged seventy, to Selborne and died at The Wakes in 1880. He published an edition of The Natural History of Selborne in 1877, as well as making a number of additions to the property including a billiard room, which is currently the Museum gift shop. The former library is now home to a number of interactive exhibits exploring Gilbert White’s life and work.

INTRODUCTION

A few miles south of Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) cottage in the pretty village of Chawton is the equally picturesque village of Selborne. It is here that the parson naturalist, ecologist and author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne in the County of Southampton (1789) the Revd Gilbert White (1720-1793) lived. Selborne is a haven of peace and tranquillity in the heart of East Hampshire where time appears to have stood still; the village doesn’t have any street lighting, even in 2013. It is extraordinary to think that in this rural idyll there once lived a quiet, unassuming gentleman who wrote what was to become the fourth most published book in English, after The Bible, The Complete Works of Shakespeare and John Bunyan’s (1628-1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Since its first publication in 1789, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne would have been found on the book shelves of every respectable gentleman’s library from the late Georgian period onwards, and it has remained continually in print.

Gilbert White's original manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne (1789). By kind permission of Gilbert White's House and Garden.
Gilbert White’s original manuscript of The Natural History  and Antiquities of Selborne (1789). By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden. To hear a reading of the above letter, please click on the Podcast below.

Letter LXI to Daines Barrington from Gilbert White 

(Read by Emma, Editor, Come Step Back in Time)

Jane Austen moved from Southampton to the cottage at Chawton in 1809. In the film Becoming Jane (2007), writers Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams weave White’s observations on the mating rituals of the swift into the screenplay’s narrative. If you watch the library scene from the film in which the object of Jane’s (Anne Hathaway) affections, Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) reads an extract from White’s publication, you will notice that Tom uses the subtext of the quote as a means of engaging in an intellectual flirtation with Jane. To view this short scene (2 minutes 45 seconds), CLICK HERE. Comparison with the original text reveals that the screenwriters have exercised a certain degree of poetic licence in their use of White’s observations. Below is White’s original text for you to compare:

As the swift or black-martin is the largest of the British hirundines, so is it undoubtedly the latest comer. For I remember but one instance of its appearing before the last week in April: and in some of our late frosty, harsh springs, it has not been seen till the beginning of May. This species usually arrives in pairs…. If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing round at a great height from the ground, he would see, every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek. This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carrying on.

(Letter XXI to Barrington, September 28th, 1774, The Natural History of Selborne (1974), published by Oxford University Press)

Jane loved to walk through the countryside and it is likely that she would have made the round-trip to Selborne on a number of occasions during her time living at Chawton. In Becoming Jane there are several scenes representing the woodlands close by to The Wakes. She certainly would have read White’s seminal work and there is evidence amongst her letters to suggest that the Austens were on visiting terms with the family of one of his nephews, Dr John White, who for a short time was Jane Austen’s physician. Known as ‘Gibraltar Jack’, he was the son of Gilbert White’s brother the Revd John White, who had been chaplain to the garrison at Gibraltar, and when he was young stayed for several years with his uncle at The Wakes.

Built in 1610, The Wakes was originally a much smaller property than can be seen today. The name of the house is a nod to the family called Wake who had previously lived there. Gilbert White had lived at The Wakes for the majority of his life but only inherited the property in 1763 upon the death of his uncle, the Revd Charles White of Bradley. The house is now a museum dedicated to the life and work of Gilbert White, and it also houses The Oates Collection. This Collection consists of two permanent exhibitions celebrating the life of soldier and Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates (1880-1912) and his uncle, African explorer Francis [Frank] Oates (1840-1875). In 1954 the property was bought by public subscription, augmented by a large donation from Robert Washington Oates (a cousin of Lawrence), and opened as The Oates Memorial Library and Museum and The Gilbert White Museum in 1955. Separate articles on The Oates Collection will follow shortly.

The life and work of Gilbert White is a thoroughly absorbing area to research. It is possible to gain a good insight into what life must have been like for a rural parson and scholar in eighteenth-century England due to the wealth of written material, both published and unpublished, that has survived to the present day. His body of writing is extensive and includes correspondences with family members as well as the leading scholars from the Age of Enlightenment.

Some of the scholars that White corresponded with include: George Montagu (1753-1815), author of The Ornithological Dictionary (1802); Robert Marsham (1708-1797); Thomas Pennant(1726-1798) and Daines Barrington (1727-1800), both leading naturalists and Fellows of the Royal Society, to whom Gilbert White wrote the letters that form the basis of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne; John Mulso (1721-1791), a contemporary at Oriel College, Oxford, who corresponded with White between 1744 and 1790 and remained a lifelong friend and literary companion; and Thomas Barker (1722-1809) of Lyndon Hall, Rutland, a meteorologist, vegetarian and also White’s brother-in-law. White also met botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and naturalist Dr Daniel Solander (1733-1782) in 1767, one year before they both joined Captain James Cook (1728-1779) for his first voyage to the Pacific Ocean aboard Endeavour.

Thomas Barker is a particularly important to White’s development as a meteorologist. The day after his sister Anne’s wedding to Thomas, which took place on 6th January 1751 at St Mary’s parish church in Selborne, White began his new record book, The Garden Kalendar. In this book he kept a daily record of all his activities in the garden at The Wakes, including climate variations, rainfall and seasonal fluctuations. He continued to record these data, each year, for more than forty years.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is also known to have read White’s observations on the usefulness of earthworms as well as birds, about which he remarked: ‘From reading White’s Selborne, I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.’ Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms was the last book he published on 10th October 1881. White, himself, said of the earthworm:

Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass.

(Letter XXXV to Barrington, May 20th, 1777, The Natural History of Selborne (1974), published by Oxford University Press)

View from Gilbert's bedroom window of the garden.
View from Gilbert’s bedroom window of the garden.

White’s journals contain detailed notes and records of life at The Wakes coupled with observations of
the nature and wildlife that were to be found in the countryside surrounding Selborne. An openness to the pursuit of scientific enquiry coupled with a vigorous intellect saw White become one of the leading naturalists of his time as well as being one of the first known ecologists. He was also one of the first naturalists to recognise a connection between the weather and its impact upon the behaviour of plants and wildlife. He was even an early exponent of the relatively modern model of self-sufficiency and sustainability. In the garden at The Wakes, he grew a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and flowers. He even brewed his own wine and beer in the purpose-built brewhouse, which still exists today.

In his biography of Gilbert White, Richard Mabey writes:

He grew more than forty different varieties [of vegetable], including artichokes, endives, mustard and cress, white broccoli, skirret and scorzonera, marrowfat peas, ‘a remarkable long leek’, squashes, cucumbers, all manner of lettuces, and ‘a small crop of onions … for picklers’ … more experimental vegetables, too, including maize, wild rice and potatoes…. In the borders close to the house were planted crown imperials, crocuses and pinks. Vines and roses … tulips, wallflowers and columbines.

(Gilbert White: A Biography of the Naturalist and Author of The Natural History of Selborne, by Richard Mabey, published by J. M. Dent, 1993, p. 56)

Because White kept detailed planting records for The Wakes in his journals, correspondence, household account books and predominantly his Garden Kalendar, it has been possible today to restore the gardens back to their eighteenth-century origins. The gardens still contain a wine-pipe seat, two hahas, a herb garden, a kitchen garden, brewhouse, cut-out statue of Hercules and a hermitage complete with a thatched roof.

View from Gilbert's bedroom window of the gardens at The Wakes. The haha at the boundary ensures a seamless view of lawn and surrounding land.
View from Gilbert’s bedroom window of the gardens at The Wakes. The haha at the boundary ensures a seamless view of lawn and surrounding land.

Hahas are large ditches at the boundary of a lawn and were popular devices used by eighteenth-century garden designers which served two purposes. Firstly, they are practical, stopping livestock from grazing or entering onto your manicured lawns, thus also avoiding the unpleasant business of animal waste being stepped in by the lady and gentleman of the house. Secondly, they provide an uninterrupted and seamless view of the lawn and surrounding countryside, allowing landowners to survey the extent of their grounds.

Garden at The Wakes.
Garden at The Wakes.

David Standing has been the Head Gardener at The Wakes since 1979 and has worked tirelessly, together with a band of volunteers (there are approximately one hundred volunteers who work at the Museum every year) to restore the original layout of the garden using White’s writings. The project is now largely complete. There are twenty acres of ancient parkland surrounding the property, some of which is now owned and managed by The National Trust (Selborne Common, the Zig-Zag path leading to The Hanger, The Hanger, Church Meadow, Long and Short Lythes).

Book cabinet that houses Ronald's collection of editions of Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne.
Book cabinet that houses Ronald’s historic editions of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne.

RONALD DAVIDSON-HOUSTON

A LIFELONG PASSION FOR GILBERT WHITE’S WRITINGS AND WORK

I had the privilege of being shown around Gilbert White’s House and Garden by Ronald Davidson-Houston. Mr Davidson-Houston has spent many years studying White’s writings and his biographical knowledge of the family is extensive. I asked him when he first became interested in White’s work: ‘I first read The Natural History of Selborne as a child but it was my career as a publisher that brought me back to the study of his writings. In 1981, I published [Exeter: Webb & Bower] the first edition of The Natural History of Selborne illustrated with contemporary eighteenth-century colour plates. It was a collaboration between The Gilbert White Museum and myself, with an introduction by the then curator, Dr June E. Chatfield. [The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne is still in print, now published as a paperback by Thames & Hudson.] During the course of my research, I asked the question, why has this book been published in so many different ways, languages and editions? It was then that I began to collect various editions of the book.’

The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne (2004), published by Thames & Hudson with an introduction by Dr June E. Chatfield.
The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne (2004), published by Thames & Hudson with an introduction by Dr June E. Chatfield.

15. Editions of NHS in other languages

The Natural History of Selborne, compiled and translated Izawa-Koichi and illustrated by Kuroda-Machiko (2008).
The Natural History of Selborne, compiled and translated by Izawa-Koichi and illustrated by Kuroda-Machiko (2008).

Ronald has collected more than a thousand copies of the book, many of which are extremely rare editions and a number are in foreign languages, including Chinese and Japanese. Two years ago he donated his treasured collection to the Museum and it is now housed in a purpose-built display cabinet located in Gilbert White’s Great Parlour. Ronald explained further about the publishing history of the book: ‘The first edition, dated 1789, was actually printed in late 1788 and some early copies were sent to a number of friends and relations in November and December of that year. However, 1789 is the official publication date. The price was one guinea ‘in boards’ (i.e., not leather-bound). It was printed on laid paper, which is hand-made and has watermarks. There are six engravings chosen from twelve watercolours by the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733-1794), who, according to White, “stayed with me 27 days; 24 of which he worked very hard”. White’s brother, Benjamin White (1725-1794), was a bookseller and his firm, B. White and Son, published the first edition. The brothers’ niece, Mary (Molly) White (born 1759), undertook the copy editing. The first cheap edition did not appear until 1829. The original manuscript of the book was bought by the Museum in 1980 from a private collection in America.’

Mary (Molly) White. By kind permission of Gilbert White's House and Garden.
Mary (Molly) White. By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON EARLY REVIEWS OF

THE NATURAL HISTORY AND ANTIQUITIES OF SELBORNE

‘Sagacity of observation runs through the work’

The Gentleman’s Magazine, January 1789

‘A more delightful, or more original work than Mr. White’s History of Selborne has seldom been published’

The Topographer, April 1789

‘This elegant and pleasing … work abounds with information’

The Monthly Review, July 1789

(Reprinted in The Selborne Association Newsletter, No. 47, December 2005, pp. 22-31, by R. Davidson-Houston)

Ronald has studied the first reviews of White’s publication and writes:

Along with a number of other close friends and relations of the author, Thomas White (who had given his brother Gilbert unfailing encouragement throughout the book’s long gestation and had also helped with correcting the proofs) received an advance copy in late November or early December 1788, enabling the first instalment of his review to appear in the January 1789 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine.

(Ibid. pp. 22-23)

Interestingly, in these early years of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, Thomas White’s review begins by putting forward the argument that the landed gentry, who were abandoning country living for a better life in the towns and cities, left behind them an economic void, and advocates that his brother’s work should not be devalued because it is a study of rural life in a time when it was not fashionable to write about such things. In Thomas White’s opinion:

It is with pleasure, therefore, we observe that so rational an employment of leisure time as the study of nature and antiquities promises to become popular…. But we agree with Mr. White in his idea of parochial history, which, he thinks, ought to consist of natural productions and occurrences, as well as antiquities…. A person with this writer’s patient observation would have made many remarks highly valuable. Men of intelligence like him are wanted, to promote an intimacy between the library and the plough.

(Ibid. p. 23 and p. 25)

Gilbert's father, John White. By kind permission of Gilbert White's House and Garden.
Gilbert’s father, John White. By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden.

GILBERT WHITE’S EARLY LIFE

White was born on 18th July, 1720, the eldest son of John White (1688-1758), a barrister, and Anne White (née Holt, 1693-1739), a rector’s daughter. Gilbert was one of eleven children and, although he never married, did enjoy the company of his many nephews and nieces who often came to stay at The Wakes. By January 1793, including spouses, his family circle had increased to sixty-two young relations. Ronald tells me Gilbert enjoyed socialising and it was not unusual for family parties to go on until 3 am, he also told me Gilbert ‘was five foot three inches tall and a thin, prim, upright man.’

Gilbert's grandfather, also called Gilbert White. By kind permission of Gilbert White's House and Garden.
Gilbert’s grandfather, also called Gilbert White. By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden.

Gilbert’s grandfather, also called Gilbert White (1650-1728) had been the vicar at Selborne from 1681. In 1728, John White, his family and widowed mother moved to Selborne. In 1741, Gilbert’s father began landscaping the gardens at The Wakes including laying out seven acres of the estate and creating walks and hedges. White inherited his father’s love of nature at a very early age and to celebrate his tenth birthday planted an oak and ash tree in the garden there. It wasn’t until 1750-1 that he planted further trees, including an elm, fir and beech.

Gilbert’s education consisted of a thorough grounding in the classics, as well as literature, at Basingstoke Grammar School. He made his first observations of nature in 1736, which he wrote in a notebook following a visit to stay with his aunt at Whitwell, Rutland. It is no surprise to learn that this clever young man was admitted to Oriel College, Oxford, in April 1740. Gilbert worked hard and played hard, enjoying all manner of extra-curricular activities on offer to a young Oxbridge undergraduate. He visited coffee houses, drank wine, played cards, attended concerts and visited many of England’s great houses. He also had an interest in shooting, but this quickly turned from the thrill of the kill to hunting for the purposes of obtaining specimens for identification and dissection. He graduated BA in June 1743 and MA in October 1746.

CAREER AS A CURATE

White was ordained as a Deacon in the Anglican Church on 27th April 1747 at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His first post was at Swarraton, Hampshire, as curate to his uncle, the Revd Charles White of Bradley. Unfortunately, he contracted smallpox in 1748. It is thought that one of the reasons why no portrait of White exists, other than two small pen-and-ink sketches, may be due to the fact his face had been badly scarred as a result of this disfiguring disease. His old nursemaid, ‘Goody Marshall’ helped care for him during his convalescence. White’s lifelong fascination with melons is also thought to have begun whilst he was recovering from smallpox, realising the health properties of this exotic fruit. He grew melons in the garden of The Wakes and he used to have ‘cantaloupe feasts’ with his youngest brother Henry (1733-1788) who was rector and schoolmaster at Fyfield, near Andover. In the poem ‘Metamorphosis’ by his friend Dr John Scrope, White’s melon obsession (‘The swelling melon was his favourite fruit’) and his scarring due to smallpox (‘his roughen’d face’) are both alluded to.

Corycius long admired (a curious swain!)

The wealth and beauties of Pomona’s reign;

The vegetable world engrossed his heart,

His garden lingering nature help’d by art;

Where in the smoking beds high heap’d appear

Salads and mushrooms thro’ the various year.

But of each species sprung from seed or root,

The swelling melon was his favourite fruit;

Other productions kindled some delight

In his fond soul, but here he doted quite.

When others wisely to the grot retreat,

And seek a friendly shelter from the heat,

Anxious and stooping o’er his treasure, low

Poring he kneels, and thinks he sees it grow.

One day when Phoebus scorch’d the gaping plain,

Striving to rise at length he strove in vain,

Fix’d to the spot, exchang’d his shape and name,

A melon turned and what he view’d became.

Ovid would tell you how his roughen’d face

Retains the network and the fretty grace;

His skin and bones compose the tougher rind;

His flesh compressed retains its name and kind;

Shrunk are his veins, and empty’d of their blood,

Which in the centre forms a plenteous flood.

(Reprinted in Gilbert White: A Biography of the Naturalist and Author of The Natural History of Selborne,

by Richard Mabey, published by J. M. Dent, 1993, p. 58)

White was fully ordained priest in 1749. In 1751, he was made curate-in-charge at Selborne, a post that he returned to again in 1756, 1758 and finally in 1784 when he continued in the role until his death in 1793. Whilst curate at Selborne, he was also able to continue with his academic duties as a fellow at Oriel College. He also took on an additional parish, Moreton Pinkney, Northamptonshire, which he could do the administration for from his home in Selborne. In 1761, he accepted the curacy of another parish, Faringdon (now spelt Farringdon), nearby to Selborne and continued as their curate for twenty years.

Ronald as Gilbert White with Timothy the tortoise.
Ronald as Gilbert White with Timothy the tortoise. By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden.

HIS LOVE OF ANIMALS

White loved animals, there is no doubt about that. He had a pony (Mouse), dogs (Rover, Fyfield and a spaniel Fairey Queen) and, best-known of all, his beloved tortoise, Timothy. White often rode Mouse to church when he had to take the services and also enjoyed riding in the Hampshire countryside. He suffered from coach sickness so preferred travelling by horse whenever possible.

White inherited Timothy from his aunt, Rebecca Snooke, in March 1780. It is believed that his uncle, Henry Snooke, bought the tortoise from a sailor in Chichester for 2/6d in the 1740s. Observations and a number of scientific experiments were carried out on Timothy. White’s fascination and fondness for these hardy Testudine is evident in his writings. The following letter, from White to Daines Barrington, was written whilst he was staying at Delves House, Ringmer, near Lewes where Timothy lived prior to joining him at The Wakes:

A land tortoise, which has been kept for thirty years in a little walled court belonging to the house where I now am visiting, retires under ground about the middle of November, and comes forth again about the middle of April. When it first appears in the spring it discovers very little inclination towards food; but in the height of summer grows voracious: and then as the summer declines its appetite declines; so that for the last six weeks in autumn it hardly eats at all. Milky plants, such as lettuces, dandelions, sowthistles, are its favourite dish. In a neighbouring village one was kept till by tradition it was supposed to be an hundred years old. An instance of vast longevity in such a poor reptile!

(Letter VII to Barrington, October 8th, 1770, The Natural History of Selborne (1974), published by Oxford University Press)

No part of it’s behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running it’s head up in a corner. If attended to, it becomes an excellent weather-glass; for as sure as it walks elate, and as it were on tiptoe, feeding with great earnestness in a morning, so sure will it rain before night. It is totally a diurnal animal, and never pretends to stir after it becomes dark. The tortoise, like other reptiles, has an arbitrary stomach as well as lungs; and can refrain from eating as well as breathing for a great part of the year…. P.S. In about three days after I left Sussex the tortoise retired into the ground under the hepatica.

(Letter XIII to Barrington,  April 12th, 1772, The Natural History of Selborne (1974), published by Oxford University Press)

Timothy the tortoise has been missing for more than a week. He got out of the garden at the wicket, we suppose; & may be in the fields among the grass. Timothy found in the little bean-field short of the pound-field. The nightingale, fern-owl, cuckow, & grass-hopper lark may be heard at the same time in my outlet. Gryllo-talpa churs in moist meadows.

(Gilbert White’s Naturalist’s Journal, May 28th, 1784)

Display in the Great Parlour at Gilbert White's House, showing a copy of The Natural History of Selborne and a model of Timothy the tortoise.
Display in the Great Parlour at Gilbert White’s House, showing a copy of The Natural History of Selborne and a model of Timothy the tortoise.

For more examples of White’s musings on Timothy and tortoises in general, visit the website, The Natural History of Selborne – Journals of Gilbert White. CLICK HERE. Dr Verlyn Klinkenborg’s delightful Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile (2007) published by Random House, is another recommended read if you would like to learn more about White’s beloved Timothy. This was first published in hardback in 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf. The British edition, with the title Timothy’s Book: Notes of an English Country Tortoise, was published by Portobello Books in hardback (2006) and paperback (2007).

Following Timothy’s death, it was discovered that the tortoise was in a fact female and her shell is now preserved in the Natural History Museum, London.

LIFE AT THE WAKES

Gilbert White's study at The Wakes. The desk shown may have been the original desk owned by Gilbert.
Gilbert White’s study at The Wakes. The desk shown may have been the original one owned by Gilbert.

The Wakes officially passed to Gilbert White in 1763 upon the death of his uncle Charles. It would be a mistake for anyone to think that White’s parochial life stifled his scientific and scholastic output. Far from it. His location and lifestyle offered him the opportunity to completely immerse himself in his observational writing and experiments. He did not have the distractions that living in a city, such as London, would have presented him with. He also never married and bachelorhood seemed to suit him, devoting his life to his studies and the church.13. Bird exhibit

14. Bird exhibit

 Extract from Letter XXIV Gilbert White to Thomas Pennant – Ring-ousels

(Read by Emma, Editor, Come Step Back in Time)

In her essay, ‘The Baffling Swallow: Gilbert White, Charlotte Smith and the Limits of Natural History’, Anne Mellor writes of White’s possible conflicting motivations that he would have had to face as a result of his resolve to serve God, as well as commit himself to lifelong study of the taxonomy of nature:

Throughout, White wrestled with conflicting motivations. On the one hand, he was a product of Enlightenment thought, convinced that God had created one great system which man might eventually come to understand. Everywhere he sought to organize and classify his observations of plants and animals into coherent taxonomies, closely following the lead of Buffon and Linnaeus. On the other hand, he was convinced that one could approach truth only through the precise empirical description of natural events and creatures, minute particulars that he scrupulously recorded day by day in his “Naturalist’s Journal.”

(Mellor, A. K., Vol. 31, No. 4, Dec. 2009, pp. 299-309, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, p. 301, published by Routledge)

11. Gilbert White's Study

Letter XXVII from Gilbert White to Thomas Pennant – Hedgehogs

(Read by Emma, Editor, Come Step Back in Time)

 Extract from Letter XI Gilbert White to Thomas Pennant – Bats

(Read by Emma, Editor, Come Step Back in Time)

It really is extraordinary when you consider some of the historic world events that were happening during White’s lifetime:

  • 1741 – Handel’s ‘Messiah’
  • 1746 – Battle of Culloden
  • 1760 – Kew Gardens founded
  • 1768 – Cook’s first voyage
  • 1773 – Boston Tea Party
  • 1776 – American Independence
  • 1780 – Gordon Riots
  • 1789 – French Revolution
  • 1793 – Louis XVI Executed

2. Blanchard balloon flight at SelborneEven tucked away in rural Hampshire, White witnessed a number of historic events of his own, for example a balloon flight by Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809) in 1784. Earlier in the same year (2nd March) Blanchard had made the first successful balloon flight in Paris. According to White, in October of 1784, the whole village turned out to watch the spectacle of a further balloon flight by Blanchard. The event is documented in detail in a letter he wrote from Selborne, on 19th October, to his sister, Mrs [Anne] Barker:

Dear Sister, from the fineness of the weather, and the steadiness of the wind to the N.E. I began to be possessed with a notion last Friday that we should see Mr. Blanchard in his balloon the day following: and therefore I called on many of my neighbours in the street, and told them my suspicions. The next day proving also bright, and the wind continuing as before, I became more sanguine than ever; and issuing forth in the morning exhorted all those that had any curiosity to look sharp from about one o’ the clock to three towards London, as they would stand a good chance of being entertained with a very extraordinary sight.

(The Life and Letters of Gilbert White of Selborne, Vol. II, Written and Edited by Rashleigh Holt-White, published by John Murray, 1901, pp. 134-5)

Life at The Wakes was never dull; the house was often full with members of his own family visiting and at other times he had a small retinue of staff who also provided him with rich material for his journals. There were two members of staff who feature both in White’s everyday life and consequently within the text of his writings, Goody Hampton and Thomas Hoar. Goody Hampton was not exactly a permanent fixture at The Wakes; she lived in the village and worked for White on a casual basis. Richard Mabey, in his biography of White, writes of White’s impression of Goody:

Goody Hampton was employed as a ‘weeding woman’ in the summer months. She appears to have been a doughty worker, ‘and indeed, excepting that she wears petticoats and now and then has a child, you would think her a man.’

(Gilbert White: A Biography of the Naturalist and Author of The Natural History of Selborne, by Richard Mabey, published by J. M. Dent, 1993, p. 57)

On the subject of Thomas Hoar, Mabey writes:

… presiding over them all was Gilbert’s loyal retainer Thomas Hoar, who acted as his groom, gardener, scientific assistant and general handyman for forty years. He was a bachelor and slept at The Wakes, and would keep the journals up and write letters about events in Selborne when Gilbert was away. In the garden and in his treatment of plants and animals Thomas showed a delicacy and concern that is more than just a reflection of his employer’s own sensitivity.

(Ibid, p. 57)

Ronald also told me that girls from the village would regularly come and help at The Wakes. There is a kitchen on display at the house, but this is not the original that would have been in use during White’s residence. White was also interested in matters related to the management of a household and kept a close eye on things at The Wakes. One of his famous treatises is on the economics of the use of rush lighting as opposed to candles for those in straightened circumstances: ‘The careful wife of an industrious Hampshire labourer obtains all her fat for nothing; for she saves the scummings of her bacon-pot for this use; and, if the grease abounds with salt, she causes the salt to precipitate to the bottom, by setting the scummings in a warm oven.’ (Letter XXVI to Barrington, November 1st, 1775).

Letter XXVI from Gilbert White to Daines Barrington – Economy of Rush Lights and Besom Brooms

(Read by Emma, Editor, Come Step Back in Time)

According to Ronald, the ever-prudent White, not wishing to waste a single resource whether animal, vegetable or mineral even saved the hair that moulted or was combed from his dogs so that it could be used to reinforce the plaster on the walls of his Great Parlour.

Gilbert White's bedroom at The Wakes.
Gilbert White’s bedroom at The Wakes.
Embroidered detail of the curtains around Gilbert's bed.
Embroidered detail of the curtains around Gilbert’s bed. His aunt embroidered the bed hangings.

Mrs [Barbara] White, the widow of Gilbert’s brother John, came to live at The Wakes in 1781 and pretty much took over the running of her brother-in-law’s household. This arrival stimulated White’s interest in cooking and pushed forward apace his plans to expand the vegetable and herb gardens.5. Detail of curtains in bedroom

6. Detail of curtains in bedroom7. Detail of curtains in bedroomWhite died on Wednesday 26th June 1793 and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Selborne. His headstone is not, as one might expect for such an important gentleman of the Enlightenment, pretentious. It simply reads: ‘G.W. 26th June 1793’ and is located among other family graves near the north wall of the chancel.

  • Gilbert White’s House & Garden and The Oates Collection is located at The Wakes, High Street, Selborne, Hampshire. For details of opening times and admission charges for 2013, CLICK HERE.
  • Literary Walks in East Hampshire. Self-guided walking tours of the attractive countryside in East Hampshire. This well-written tour of Selborne, gives you the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the Revd Gilbert White. Don’t forget your wellies or walking boots though. CLICK HERE.12. Exhibit in Gilbert White's study
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