Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Exhibition, History, Maritime History, Museum, Review

Captain Lawrence Oates – Soldier, Explorer, Hero

Earlier this year I visited Gilbert White’s House and Garden  in the pretty village of Selborne, rural Hampshire, which is also home to The Oates Collection.  I am delighted to bring you this article, my third and final, in a series showcasing different aspects of the museum’s collection.

Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Edward Grace Oates (1880-1912) began his career as a solider but spent his final years as an explorer, after having joined Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s (1868-1912) ill-fated second expedition to the Antarctic and epic journey of discovery to the South Pole (1911-1912). Lawrence’s uncle was African explorer, Frank Oates (1840-1875).DSCF6871

Last year marked the centenary of Scott’s Second Expedition and thanks to a National Lottery ‘Your Heritage’ grant, match funding by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, generous donations and fundraising, the redesigned Lawrence Oates Gallery is now re-open to the public. The Gallery is a beautifully designed exhibition space which creates the perfect backdrop to tell the poignant life story of this courageous English gentleman. The Gallery also includes new interactive features that enhance the visitor experience including original expedition footage and photographs. The short film featured above, ‘The Oates Collection’, was produced following the recent refurbishment and provides a virtual tour of the first floor galleries. It gives an excellent overview of Lawrence’s extraordinary life.  The Oates Collection is the only museum in the world dedicated to the life of Captain Lawrence Oates.

Lawrence's beloved mother. He declared that she was the only woman that he had ever loved. Lawrence never married.
Lawrence’s beloved mother. He declared that she was the only woman that he had ever loved. Lawrence never married.

Lawrence was born on 17th March, 1880 at Putney, London to William Edward Oates (1841-1896) and Caroline Anne Oates (née Buckton). He was the eldest of four children and enjoyed a privileged childhood at the family country seat, Gestingthorpe Hall, Essex. He attended Eton College for two years but had to leave due to ill-health (he had weak lungs and caught pneumonia) forcing him to continue his education at home with the assistance of a private tutor.

Uniform similar that worn by Lawrence during the Boer War in South Africa. On loan to Gilbert White's House and Garden from the The Inniskilling Dragoon Museum.
Uniform similar to that worn by Lawrence during the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). On loan to The Lawrence Oates Gallery from the The Inniskilling Dragoons Museum.

He began his military career in 1898 with the 3rd West Yorkshire regiment, followed by a regular army commission in April, 1900 and finally a posting to the 6th Inniskilling dragoons. He served in the South African War (Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902) where he sustained a thigh injury in 1901 which would later came back to trouble him whilst in the Antarctic. It was whilst serving in South Africa that he earned the nickname, ‘No Surrender Oates’ for refusing to surrender to a much superior Boer force. 

Captain Oates's despatch case used during his military career. On loan to the museum from The Inniskilling Dragoons Museum.
Captain Oates’s despatch case used during his military career. On loan to the museum from The Inniskilling Dragoons Museum.

After a short period of convalescence for his thigh injury, he returned to his regiment having been promoted to rank of lieutenant on 2nd February, 1902.  He continued his military career, serving in Ireland, Egypt and India, becoming a captain in 1906.

Lawrence found his posting in India to be too quiet and inactive. An expert horseman, he spent much of his time playing polo, steeplechasing and hunting, even bringing his own pack of hounds to India with him. By the end of 1909, the restless young Lawrence was looking for adventure and applied to join Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Antarctic Expedition, offering his services in any capacity as well as £1,000 (approximately £95,000 in today’s money) towards the expedition funds. Scott received eight thousand applications for this expedition. In March, 1910, Scott accepted Lawrence due to his knowledge of horses (he looked after the expedition’s nineteen ponies) and his military experience. Lawrence was the only army officer to join the Terra Nova Expedition.

On 27th January, 1910, he wrote to his beloved mother whilst in a Delhi hospital:

I have now a great confession to make. I offered my services to the Antarctic Expedition which starts this summer from home under Scott. They wrote and told me to produce my references which I did and they appear to have been so flattering that I have been practically accepted. Now I don’t know whether you approve or not but I feel that I ought to have consulted you before I sent in my name. I did not so as I thought there was very little chance of my being taken.

Scott, however, appears to be a man who can make up his mind and having decided, he told me so at once which was the first intimation I had I was likely to go. Points in favour of going: It will help me professionally as in the Army if they want a man to wash labels off bottles, they would sooner employ a man who had been to the North Pole than one who had only got as far as the Mile End Road.

Now points against. I shall be out of touch for some considerable time. It will require a goodish outlay of about £1,500 as I have offered to subscribe to the funds. I shall have to give up the hounds. I shall annoy the Colonel very much.

This was Scott’s second expedition to the Antarctic, his first had been in 1901 until 1904 when he sailed there on the RRS Discoverytogether with a team of fifty men.

Exhibit in The Oates Gallery showing Ponting's photograph of the Winter
Exhibit showing Ponting’s photograph of Scott’s winter quarters in the Antarctic. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

In the spring of 1910, Lawrence arrived in London to board the Terra Nova. The Terra Nova Expedition was made-up of sixty-five men who operated on ship and shore.  Some of the key members of the team were:

  • Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) – Expedition leader who died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Dr Edward Adrian Wilson (1872-1912) – Chief Scientist who died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers (1883-1912) – died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates (1880-1912) – died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Edgar Evans (1876-1912) – died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans (Teddy Evans) (1881-1957);
  • William Lashly (1867-1940);
  • Tom Crean (1877-1938);
  • Thomas C. Clissold (1886-1963). The cook who took part in two depot-laying journeys and trained sledge dogs. He was also a clever inventor of mechanical devices. To view photographs of Clissold, taken by Ponting, CLICK HERE.
  • Herbert Ponting (1870-1935). The expedition’s official photographer. His high-quality images produced on glass-plate negatives have left us with an incredible visual legacy of Scott’s expedition. Ponting also shot extensive film footage;
  • full list of crew members who took part in the Terra Nova Expedition is available on the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s (NZ) website. CLICK HERE.

    Exhibit in The Oates Gallery showing replicas of Herbert Pontings glass-late negatives.
    Exhibit in The Lawrence Oates Gallery showing replicas of Herbert Ponting’s glass-plate negatives.
Replica of the Terra Nova (scale 1/8 inch to 1 foot) made by Commander Rupert Head RN, 2011-2012. The Oates Gallery.
Replica of the Terra Nova (scale 1/8 inch to 1 foot) made by Commander Rupert Head RN, 2011-2012. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

Terra Nova (a converted Dundee whaler) eventually sailed from Cardiff, Wales bound for New Zealand on 15th June, 1910. Additional supplies were loaded onto the ship in New Zealand, including thirty-four dogs, nineteen Siberian ponies (brought by Scott much to Lawrence’s frustration, Scott was not a horseman and had brought the wrong breed of pony, ‘a wretched load of crocks’ wrote Oates) and three motorised sledges. The Terra Nova departed Port Chalmers, New Zealand on 29th November, 1910 eventually arriving at Ross Island, near the continent of Antarctica, on 4th January, 1911.

Display panel in The Oates Gallery.
‘Scott’s science’ display panel in The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

Both of Scott’s expeditions were based upon extensive programmes of scientific discovery. The Chief Scientist on the Terra Nova Expedition was Dr Edward Wilson who declared: ‘We want the bagging of the Pole to be merely an item in the results’. Substantial scientific data and specimens were collected by Scott and his team. The scientific party included geologists, biologists, physicists and one meteorologist (George C. Simpson, 1878-1965) who created a weather station in the Antarctic.

Apsley GB Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959), a zoologist on the team, wrote and published The Worst Journey in the World (1922). The publication tells how Cherry-Garrard, Bowers and Wilson journeyed to Cape Crozier in darkness and dreadful winter weather to collect eggs from the emperor penguin colony.  The work done by Scott and his team of scientists created the foundations for Antarctic science today.

Scott led the march south from Cape Evans Base Camp on 1st November, 1911. On 3rd January, 1912 Scott selected a five-man team who would accompany him on the final part of the journey to the South Pole. He chose Dr Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates. The team reached the South Pole on 18th January, 1912, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) and his team, had arrived there five weeks prior.

On 25th January, 1912, Scott’s five-man team began the eight hundred mile return journey. Fearing the worst and with his men in a bad way physically and emotionally, Scott asked Dr Wilson to issue each of his team with thirty opium tablets. Should the need arise the men could elect to end their own lives. The tablets were never used. Evans died on the 17th February, 1912. Lawrence died on 17th March, 1912. The remaining team members, Scott, Wilson and Bowers, succumbed to starvation and exhaustion and died c. 29th March, 1912 after having spent ten days trapped by a blizzard only eighteen miles from life-saving supplies that had been deposited at One Ton Depot. The team’s tent and bodies (except for Lawrence’s which was never recovered) were found eight months later, on 12th November, 1912, by a relief expedition led by Edward Atkinson. A cairn was built over the location of the tent.

The men needed five thousand five hundred calories each day and were only consuming four thousand four hundred and thirty with no vitamin C.
The men needed 5,500 calories each day and were only consuming 4,430 and no vitamin C which made them prone to bouts of scurvy. The above display is on loan to The Lawrence Oates Gallery from The Sutton Collection. Chief Petty Officer Tom Williamson was a member of the search party that found Captain Scott’s last camp and the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. From there and from the hut he brought back a number of items which now comprises the ‘Sutton Collection.’ Oates wrote: ‘ Pemmican must have disagreed with me at breakfast, for coming along I felt very depressed and homesick.’ (15th January, 1912)
The Oates Gallery.
The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Sledge on display in The Oates Gallery. Fully-loaded a sledge needed 4 men to pull it. Some sledges were 10ft long (3m) others were 12ft long (3.65m) and could weigh 1,121lbs (51kg) when loaded with equipment and rations. Birdie Bowers wrote:'...I have never pulled so hard or so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone by the everlasting jerking on the canvas band round my unfortunate tummy.'
Sledge on display in The Lawrence Oates Gallery. Fully loaded a sledge needed 4 men to pull it. Some sledges were 10ft long (3m) others were 12ft long (3.65m) and could weigh as much as 1,121lbs (51kg) when fully loaded with equipment and rations. Birdie Bowers wrote:’…I have never pulled so hard or so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone by the everlasting jerking on the canvas band round my unfortunate tummy.’

The Last Few Months of The Terra Nova Expedition – In Their Own Words

  • Scott told me today he was very pleased with the way the ponies were going.. (Oates, 8th November, 1911);
  • I am anxious about these beasts (ponies) and if they pull through well, all the thanks will be due to Oates. (Scott, 12th November, 1911);
  • Scott realises now what awful cripples our ponies are and carries a face like a tired sea boot in consequence. (Oates, 18th November, 1911);
  • Whenever one peeped out of the tent there was Oates, wet to the skin, trying to keep life in his charges. Poor Oates had suffered as much as the ponies. (Evans, 4-8th December, 1911);
  • Thank God the horses are now all done with and we begin the heavier work ourselves. (Oates, Shambles Camp, 9th December, 1911. Oates has to shoot the remaining ponies);
  • The back tendon of my right leg feels as if it has been stretched about four inches. I hope to goodness it is not going to give me trouble. (Oates, 26th December, 1911);
  • I have been selected to go on to the Pole with Scott…What a lot we shall have to talk about when we get back – God bless you and keep you well until I come home…The excitement was intense. It was obvious that with five fit men – the achievement was merely a matter of ten or eleven days’ good sledging (Oates, writing to his mother, 3rd January, 1912);
  • Pemmican must have disagreed with me at breakfast, for coming along I felt very depressed and homesick. (Oates, 15th January, 1912);
  • We are not a very happy party tonight. We have picked up the Norskies tracks… Scott is taking his defeat much better than I expected. (Oates, 16th January, 1912)
  • Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured here without the reward of priority. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder we can do it. (Scott, 18th January, 1912);
  • One of my big toes has turned black. I hope it is not going to lame me for marching. (Oates, 25th January, 1912);
  • Titus‘ [Oates] toes are blackening and his nose and cheeks are dead yellow. At the same time Evans’s fingers were suppurating and his nails came off. His nose was rotten. (Wilson, 31st January, 1912);
  • Dug up Christopher’s [pony] head for food but it was rotten. (Oates, his last diary entry, 24th February, 1912);
  • Titus Oates is very near the end, one feels. What we will do, God only knows. (Scott, 11th March, 1912);
  • He [Oates] was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last hoping not to wake, but he woke in the morning – yesterday. He said “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He went into the blizzard and we have not seen him since. (Scott, 16-17 March, 1912)
    The Oates Gallery.
    The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

    The Oates Gallery.
    The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

Dear Mrs Oates,

This is a sad ending to our undertaking. Your son died a very noble death, God knows. I have never seen or heard of such courage as he showed from first to last with his feet both badly frostbitten – never a word or a sign of complaint or of the pain, he was a great example. Dear Mrs Oates, he asked me at the end to see you and to give you this diary of his. You, he told me, are the only woman he has ever loved. Now I am in the same can and I can no longer hope to see either you or my beloved wife or my mother or father – the end is close upon us, but these diaries will be found and this note will reach you some day.

Please be so good as to send pages 54 and 55 of this book to my beloved wife addressed Mrs Ted Wilson, Westal, Cheltenham. Please do this for me dear Mrs Oates – my wife has a real faith in God and so your son tells me have you – and so have I – and if ever a man died like a noble soul and in a Christ like spirit your son did. Our whole journey’s record is clean and though disastrous – has no shadow over it. He died like a man and a soldier without a word of regret or complaint except that he hadn’t written to you at the last, but the cold has been intense and I fear we have all of us left writing alone until it is almost too late to attempt anything but the most scrappy notes.

God comfort you in your loss.

Yours sincerely

E.A. Wilson.

Replica of the home-made tree made by Scott's team to celebrate Midwinter Day (22nd June, 1911). The Oates Gallery.
Replica of the home-made tree made by Scott’s team to celebrate Midwinter Day (22nd June, 1911). The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Ponting's photograph of Scott's team making the Midwinter Day tree. Oates sits at the table on the left. The Oates Gallery.
Ponting’s photograph of Scott’s team making the Midwinter Day tree. Oates sits at the table on the left. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Exhibit showing contemporary polar-exploration clothing. The Oates Gallery.
Exhibit showing contemporary polar-exploration clothing. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Rations used in modern-day polar-exploration. The Oates Gallery.
Rations used in modern-day polar-exploration. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

2013 Events at Gilbert White’s House and Garden

  • Wild at White’s Easter Bunny Hunt. Good Friday, 29th March until Sunday 14th April. Come and explore the stunning gardens and find those spritely bunnies hiding in the grounds. Included in the normal admission fee;
  • Gilbert White Study Day for the WEA. Monday 15th April (10-3pm). £45. Pre-booking essential;
  • Wild at White’s African Safari. Saturday 25th May until Sunday 2nd June. Follow in the footsteps of Victorian Explorer Frank Oates and hunt for the wild animals of the African Continent hidden in the gardens. Included in the normal admission fee;
  • 21st Unusual Plants Fair. Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th June. Over Father’s Day weekend there will be over thirty specialist growers of rare and unusual plants, trees, shrubs and seeds trading in the lovely grounds at the Museum. Admission for Plant Fair and Gardens only: £6 Adults, £2.50 Children, Under 5s Free. Please note Season Passes and ‘2 for 1’ vouchers are not valid on Bank Holidays and Special Event Days;
  • Regency-style costume making workshop. Sunday 30th June (11am-4.30pm). Part of Alton’s Jane Austen Regency Week (Saturday 22nd – Sunday 30th June).  Part of the Museum’s Volunteering Project you will be helping to add to their collection of period-style clothes and accessories. Some basic sewing experience is preferred. Both hand and machine techniques will be used to create and accessorize one or two Regency outfits using a commercial pattern. Tickets include a morning coffee, light buffet lunch and afternoon tea. Limited places – pre-booking essential. £10 per ticket. Book now in the museum, or by calling: 01420 511 275. CLICK HERE, for more information on this super workshop;
  • Teddy Bear Trail and Picnic. Throughout July. This event is part of the Hampshire Food Festival organised by Hampshire Fare (1st-31st July). There will be a teddy bear trail in the grounds of Gilbert White’s House where you will identify local produce that makes up the best picnic! Free entry for all children accompanied by a teddy bear and adult;
  • Gilbert’s Games and Country Fair. Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th August. This is a very popular annual event. Fun and games for all the family suitable for all ages and abilities. Take part or compete in some traditional eighteenth century games and pastimes including stool ball, Aunt Sally, croquet, cricket and melon rolling! There will also be local crafts people demonstrating their skills which all take place in Gilbert’s beautiful House and Garden. Some activities may not be suitable for younger children; all children should be accompanied by an adult. Admission to the House, Garden and Games: £7 Adults, £2 Children, Under 5s Free. Please note Season Passes and ‘2 for 1’ vouchers are not valid on Bank Holidays and Special Event Days;
  • Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, outdoor production by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company. Sunday 25th August, from 6pm. Bring a picnic. Adults £13.50, Students & Children £9; Families £40 (2 Adults + 2 Child), 10% discount for parties of ten or more. Telephone: 01420 511 275 to put your name down for tickets before they are released on sale;
  • Wild at White’s Apples and Tortoises. Saturday 26th October until Sunday 3rd November. Normal admission charges apply;
  • Mulled Wine Day. Sunday 1st December.
  • Regency Dance. Saturday 7th December (7.30pm-11pm);

Opening times for 2013

  • Until 31st March, Tuesday-Sunday (10.30am-4.30pm);
  • 1st April-31st October, Tuesday-Sunday (10.30am-5.15pm)
  • 1st November-22nd December, Tuesday-Sunday (10.30am-4.30pm).
  • Also open on Bank Holiday Mondays, and Mondays in July & August;

Standard Admission Charges For 2013

Adult £8.50
Concession £7.50
Under 16 £3.00
Under 5 Free
Family Ticket (2A + 3C) £20.00
Pre-booked group of 10 or more £6.50
Garden Only £6.50
Posted in Exhibition, History, Literature, Museum

Frank Oates – Victorian Explorer of The Natural World

Top Row (L-R) - W. E. Oates, Mr Gray, Mr Buckley. Bottom Row (L-R), Thomas Bell (W.E. Oates's servant), Frank Oates with his favourite pointer, Rail.
Taken on the African expedition, 1873-5. Top Row (L-R) W. E. Oates (William, Frank’s brother), Mr Gray, Mr Buckley. Bottom Row (L-R), Thomas Bell (William’s servant), Frank Oates with his favourite pointer, Rail. On display as part of The Oates Collection, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.

Francis [Frank] Oates (1840-1875) was born on the 6th April, 1840 at Meanwoodside, near Leeds, Yorkshire. His nephew was Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates (1880-1912).  Gilbert White’s House and Garden Museum in Selborne, Hampshire, contains a unique range of exhibits known as The Oates Collection. The Collection reflects both Lawrence and Frank’s interest in the natural world as well as background information on their respective overseas expeditions.

In 1954, the former home of naturalist Revd. Gilbert White (1720-1793), was bought by public subscription, augmented by a large donation from Robert Washington Oates (1874-1958) a cousin of Lawrence. The property opened as The Oates Memorial Library and Museum and The Gilbert White Museum in 1955. At the time, the Library was reported to amount to forty thousand books.  Recently, I had the pleasure of being shown around The Oates Collection by the Museum’s General Manager, Miriam Tong.

Frank Oates
Frank Oates (1840-1875). The image is by Mr Francis Holl from a photograph by Gowland of York.

Frank Oates Gallery details the explorer’s fateful expedition to Africa, begun in 1873, together with displays of various artefacts and specimens he collected during his trek from Durban, through Natal, Transvaal and finally to Matabeleland and the Victoria Falls. He was the first European to see the Victoria Falls in full flood since Dr David Livingstone (1813-1873) had reach the same location on the 17th November, 1855. Prior to this expedition, in 1871, Frank visited the Americas. On display in the Gallery is a stunning array of birds that he collected throughout Central America.

Frank Oates was the quintessential Victorian explorer. He had ambition, an enquiring mind, a desire for overseas adventure, a keen interest in ethnography and most importantly a fascination for the natural world. The latter he inherited from his father who was himself a keen, amateur, naturalist. Frank was the second of three sons born to Edward and Susan Oates. Frank’s brother, William, joined the early stages of the African expedition (1873-5). His other brother, Charles George, facilitated the publication of  Matabele Land and The Victoria Falls: A Naturalist’s Wanderings in the Interior of Africa (1881). Book cover for 1881 publication

Charles acted as the book’s editor and the contents were compiled from Frank’s letters and journals written in Africa between March, 1873 and January, 1875. A second, enlarged, edition of the book was published in 1889 with appendices on the natural history collections by a range of experts. It is important to point-out here, that Frank did not intend his writings to be published. They were, as Charles highlights in the first edition’s Preface, ‘suggestive guides to memory.’

In 1860, Frank entered Christ Church College, Oxford, to read Natural Sciences. He enjoyed many of the usual athletic pursuits on offer to a young Oxbridge undergraduate including: swimming; cricket; rowing; shooting; fencing and his favourite, riding. Although due to poor health, he was only able to participate in these activities intermittently. He was also an accomplished artist, a talent that served him well on expeditions, when he as able to make detailed and accurate observations of the wildlife in his sketchbooks.

Klipspringer (
Klipspringer (Oreotragus Saltatrix), a type of antelope that Frank saw on his African expedition. The image is based upon one from Frank’s own sketchbook.

However, Frank’s academic career was cut short, when in the spring of his first year at Oxford he suffered a serious chest infection. His ill-health prevented him from returning to Oxford for the summer term. By the autumn, he was still not fully recovered and decided to spend time in Italy where the climate was dry and warm. Unfortunately, his chest ailments returned during the Easter vacation. While convalescing at the family home in Yorkshire, he wrote of his frustrations at being confined to his childhood bedroom once again, in a letter dated the 23rd April, 1862:

I see the tree-tops tipped with green, and hear the thrush’s voice, telling me of old times, and asking me why I keep house, and I’ve no doubt spring is here. So, I want to be out again, and to greet her as an old friend.

(Matabele Land and The Victoria Falls: A Naturalist’s Wanderings in the Interior of South Africa, (1881), Oates, C.G., (Ed.), published by C. Kegan Paul & Co, p. xxii)

Eventually, he recovered sufficiently to return to Oxford on May 9th, 1862. In time, good health was to elude him once more and he had no choice but to leave university. Frank did matriculate from Christ Church College on 9th February, 1861 but when he eventually left in 1864 he did so without a degree.  Frank had a tendency to overwork himself which had also not helped with his recovery.

Following his time at Oxford, Frank spent a number of years as an invalid, the chest infection having left him with a reduced lung capacity. He occupied his time studying and reading about natural sciences as well as partaking in a number of nature rambles throughout the British Isles including Wales, the Lake District and Ireland. He continued to document his observations of nature on each occasion. He also reflected on his predicament and the restrictions it placed upon him not being able to travel overseas. In one letter he wrote during this period, he warns his brother of the consequences of overworking:

Let me advise you earnestly not to try to do too many things. I killed the goose with a vengeance, and got no golden egg. I was expecting in a few weeks [when taken ill] a degree with honours, and a good start in life, and had to leave Oxford without even an ordinary degree, which I knew more than enough to have taken the Easter before, if it would have satisfied me.

(Ibid. pp. xxvi and xxvii)

Eventually, his health did improve sufficiently for him to embark upon his first, major, overseas expedition to Central and North America, which he did for one year, between 1871 and 1872.  The trip was initiated partly on health grounds, friends advised him that a dry, warm climate would help him recover. During this expedition, he collected many bird and insect specimens, particularly in Guatemala. On display at the museum there is a stunning range of birds collection by Frank from throughout Central America. A number of these specimens represent birds that are now extinct.

From a very young age, Frank had been an admirer of the art and writing of John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter whose illustrations of American birds in their natural habitat, were published as The Birds of America (1827-1839). Charles wrote of his brother’s fascination with Audubon’s work: ‘The plates of Audubon’s Birds, when access could be had to them, were turned by him with feelings little short of reverence.’ (Ibid. p. xiii) To view The Birds of America online, CLICK HERE. For more information about the National Audubon Society. CLICK HERE.

Central American bird specimens collected by Frank Oates in 1871-2. By kind permission of The Oates Collection, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
Central American bird specimens collected by Frank Oates in 1871-2, now on display in The Frank Oates Gallery. By kind permission of Gilbert White’s House and Garden, The Oates Collection, Selborne, Hampshire.

Whilst travelling through the mountains of California Frank spent a number of weeks sleeping rough under canvas, an experience that would have served well as preparation for his future adventures in Africa (1873-5). Following his return to England in 1872, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Frank now concentrated his efforts on organising his most challenging expedition yet, to Africa.

Victoria Falls from a water-colour drawing by Frank Oates.
Victoria Falls (Western Extremity) from a water-colour drawing by Frank Oates. After seeing the Falls, he wrote in his journal: ‘After breakfast I visited the Falls – a day never to be forgotten.’ (New Year’s Day, 1875).

On 5th March, 1873, Frank and his brother William sailed from Southampton, Hampshire to Natal, South Africa. William returned to England at the end of 1873. The plan for the African expedition was to reach the Zambesi River from Natal and continue on to the unexplored country to the north of that river.  Frank wanted to collected as many animal and plant specimens as was possible, to bring back to England for further study. However, quite a number of these specimens were destroyed, in Frank’s lifetime, at Shoshong, by an unroofing, during a gale, of the hut where they were stored. Other specimens were also lost following  Frank’s death on 5th February, 1875. According to Charles, some spirit jars of reptiles and beetles were afterwards left behind when the collections were conveyed to England.

From the a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
From a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.

Frank also collected various ethnographical objects during the course of his travels.  One particular curio that is mentioned quite a bit in his journals, is the ostrich egg. He commented that the eggs themselves were delicious fried with a little meal or made into a pudding with maizena and particularly popular in the region of Seruli. The empty shells were used to carry water. Whole, the eggs were used as currency in local trade and could be exchanged for a cheap knife, mirror, or handkerchief.

From a display at The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
From a display at The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.

Frank was also successful in finding a number of species of flora and fauna that were new to science. His journals contained details of the precise location where the specimens had been collected. This enabled future generations of naturalists to compare historical with modern records, allowing for a greater understanding of ecological changes that took place in South Eastern Africa. The specimens Frank collected that were found to be new to science were given the specific classification oatesii. Examples of which include: a snake, Dryiophis oatesii and a heather, Erica oatesii. This heather can be seen growing in the gardens at the museum during the summer months.

Dryiophis oatesii. From a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, GIlbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.
Dryiophis oatesii. From a display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire. Illustration by R. Mintern.

On 16th May, 1873, Frank left Pietermaritzburg and spent a period of time in Matabele, a country to the north of the Limpopo River. On 25th September, 1873, at the home of missionary Mr Thomson, Nr Gubuleweyo, Frank wrote:

I cannot give you a detailed account of my stay of nine days at the King’s Town. It is really to a stranger a most curious place. The king, Lobengula, lives in royal state. He is absolute monarch, and feared and obeyed far and wide. The people inhabiting the country we have passed through in coming here are altogether of an inferior race. At Bamangwato there is a king, but he is thought nothing of. I called on ‘Bengula, accompanied by Fairbairn, the day I arrived here, and found him the picture of a savage king, just as one might have imagined, and coming quite up to the standard. The day I first saw him he was nearly naked, and lying on a skin inside his hut, to enter which you have to crawl in on your hands and knees through a little aperture in the front; in fact it is like a beehive entrance. He took me by the hand, and placed meat before me, and asked a few questions about my journey. I told him I should come again next day. Of course I had to make him a present, and I knew he would expect it next day, after which I should ask his leave and assistance to go through his country to the Victoria Falls if possible. I gave him a gun and ammunition, which pleased him very much, and he has done everything he could for me.

It appeared that I was still in time to reach the Falls by going on foot, after leaving my waggon at the place marked on the map as Inyati. The king said it was possible to get to the Falls in ten days, and I suppose at my rate of travelling it ought to be done in a fortnight or three weeks at most, and the king says I have still two months of favourable weather, but so anxious is he that no white man should come to grief in his country, that he has been urging on me all possible haste from the moment the subject was first mentioned.  He has given me two excellent men as guides; these two, having the king’s authority, will carry all before them.

I left Gubuleweyo last Night, and came on as far as here, the house of Mr Thomson the missionary, for my first trek. Mr Thomson has kindly interested himself in me, and done all he could to assist me. He has a nice wife and children, and this morning I have had the luxury of a civilized breakfast, including tablecloth, bread and butter and eggs, and milk to one’s coffee – things that I don’t often see now. I am now availing myself of one of his rooms to write to you in.

(Ibid. pp.63-64)

On February 24th, 1874, Frank wrote to his brother, William, from Tati:

It is quite a pleasure to get a letter from you, I mean the one you left for me here. I shall get no more now for five or six weeks, when I expect to be in Mungwato. I am sorry that wretched old croaker, Palmer, put you in a funk about me. He says it would be a good thing for people travelling to have ‘portable coffins’. I am thankful to say my health is excellent. I did not, as doubtless you know by this time, get to the Zambesi. I believe the king was the at the bottom of it (not of the Zambesi; but excuse grammar). I took my waggon fifty miles on the way, as far as Inyati, and then put all out for fifteen carriers to take. It was a fortnight’s walk through ‘the fly’ to the Falls. After waiting nearly a week, it transpired that no boys were forthcoming as promised. Partly, I think, they were afraid of fever, and partly of the natives, with whom they are at war; partly also they wanted to get in time to cultivate their gardens. However, I believe I could have got them myself easily, had I not trusted to the man given me by the king.

(Ibid. p.141)

Before Frank finally reached the Victoria Falls on 31st December, 1874, he suffered three aborted attempts due to both difficult weather conditions and hostilities amongst the local people towards the expedition. After seeing the Falls, he wrote in his journal: ‘After breakfast I visited the Falls – a day never to be forgotten.’ (New Year’s Day, 1875). This proved to be one of the last journal entries Frank ever wrote. During his journey back from the Victoria Falls he contracted a fever, possibly malaria. After being ill for twelve days, he died near Makalaka Kraal, eighty miles north of the Tati River, on February 5th, 1875. He was buried the next morning. Dr A. Bradshaw, who happened to be in a neighbourhood, attended Frank in his final hours and made all the arrangements for his interment as well the safe return of his belongings and important specimen collections to England.

Frank had two dogs that travelled with him in Africa, ‘Rock‘ and ‘Rail’,  the latter being his favourite. It is here that I end with a touching tale of an animal’s devotion to its master. After taking care of the burial arrangements for Frank and beginning the return journey back from Makalaka Kraal, Dr Bradshaw and the rest of the team noticed that Rail had gone missing. Several of the team members retraced their steps and searched in vain for the pointer. In due course, they found themselves back at Frank’s grave where there, laying by his master’s head-stone, was Rail, a sole mourner. Both Rail and Rock eventually returned to England with Dr Bradshaw. However, five year’s after his master’s death, Rail died on 5th February, 1880 and three week’s later his companion, Rock, also passed away.

He had deeply endeared himself to a wide circle of private friends by his genial, manly character, and, had he lived, would have added largely to those fields of distant inquiry and research for which his ardent love of travel and adventure peculiarly fitted him.

(Extract from a obituary for Frank Oates, Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday 29th May, 1875)

  • 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.
Rail, Frank's favourite dog, guarding his master's grave. Display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White's House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
Rail, Frank’s favourite dog, guarding his master’s grave. Display in The Frank Oates Gallery, Gilbert White’s House and Garden, Selborne, Hampshire.
Posted in Activity, Aviation History, Bringing Alive The Past, Event, Exhibition, Film, History, Horticultural History, Literature, Museum, Rural Heritage

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.


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.



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.



‘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.


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.


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.


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.


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