Gilbert White

White saw nature with both the trained eye of scientist and countryman, having the restless intelligence of the one, and the contented homeliness and simplicity of the other, and the essential honesty of both. In addition he had the true artist's imagination and feeling for the harmonious word, and a deep love of 'fine music'; sensibilities which constantly found expression in his descriptions. -- R M Lockley

Being of unambitious temper, and strongly attached to the charms of rural scenery, he early fixed his residence in his native village, where he spent the greater part of life in literary occupations, and especially in the study of nature. This he followed with a patient assiduity, and a mind ever open to lessons of piety and benevolence, which such a study is so well calculated to afford. -- John White

Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer. -- Gilbert White

Gilbert White (1720-93), British naturalist and clergyman, spent most of his life in his birthplace, Selborne, where he was curate.

White was borne in the Selborne vicarage in 1720, educated at Basingstoke, then Oriel College, Oxford. He settled back in Selborne in 1755, although did no live there permanently until 1784, when he took up the post of curate, which he held until his death in 1795.

His nephew John said 'though several times offered of settling upon a college living, he could never persuade himself to quit the beloved spot.'

Gilbert White's observations of the natural world around him formed the basis of the classic The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1788). His detailed descriptions of wildlife and nature, including the feeding habits of bats, the evening manoeuvres of rooks, and the improvement of horticultural soil by earthworms, observed with much affection and expressing his love of picturesque landscapes, his elegant literary style, is still highly regarded today.

Earthworms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm ... worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them...

The Natural History of Selborne is a collection of letters that White wrote fellow naturalists Daines Barrington and Thomas Pennant, both Fellows of the Royal Society. What stands out is the detail of White's observations.

In a letter to Daines Barrington dated 30 June 1769 White notes all the birds that are of summer passage, noting when they appear and how long they stay, and that

Most soft-billed birds live on insects, and not on grain and seed; and therefore at the end of summer they retire: but the following soft-billed birds stay with us all year round:

White then goes on to list the birds, with both their common name and Latin name, and gives observations for each individual bird.

In his introduction to The Natural History of Selborne White calls it a 'parochial history, which, he thinks, ought to consist of natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities'.

Published in 1789 by his brother Benjamin (Benjamin White & Son, Fleet Street), The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in the County of Southampton; with engravings, and an appendix, was an immediate success.

Gilbert White's house, Wake House, has been restored to its original style, based as far as possible on his writings. The house is open to the public and on display in the library is his original hand-written manuscript for The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.

The Antiquities tell us that with the disappearance of the priory, whose 'black canons of the order of St Augustine' had grown dissolute, and in 1373, had received severe censure from Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, Selborne declined from a populous market centre to a remote unspoilt country parish.

Selborne, a pretty little village in north east Hampshire, located not far from the little market town of Alton, is still 'a remote unspoilt country parish'.

The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire, bordering on the county of Surrey; it is about fifty miles south-west of London, in lattitude 51, and near midway between the towns of Alton and Petersfield. Being very large and extensive, it abuts on twelve parishes, two of which are in Sussex. ... The soils of this area are almost as various and diversified as the views and aspects. ....

The only writers who come close to Gilbert White are William Cobbett (Rural Rides (1830)) and Richard Mabey (Food for Free and Common Ground).

Literature ~ William Cobbett
(c) Keith Parkins 2005 -- June 2005 rev 0