“GW300” recognises world’s first ecologist

Over 250 years ago, the Hampshire village of Selborne and its surrounding landscape inspired Gilbert White’s life-long investigation of the natural world, culminating in his book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne– which, according to some, conferred upon White the title of “the world’s first ecologist”.

In 2020, there is every chance that many people will become familiar with the name of the man whose 300th birthday will be recognised “virtually” by various individuals, organisations, groups and museums across the UK.

White’s story, which began on 18 July 1720, is mostly told within the walls of his family home and its 18th century garden.  Holding centre stage there is the original manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne, along with many other treasures.

Despite currently being closed to the public, this nevertheless remains one of the focal points in the life and work of the man who has become a hero amongst naturalists.

“GW300” gives us all the opportunity to learn more about the incredible story of the man whom Richard Maybe – naturalist & biographer of White – says: “Gilbert White’s book, more than any other, has shaped our everyday view of the relations between humans and nature.”

White was aged around seven years old when the family moved from the Vicarage on Selborne’s Plestor, to another house in the village, called ‘The Wakes’.  At that time, the property would have been no more than a ‘two up, two down’ but numerous extensions and additions have been made over subsequent years, creating the long sizeable house which today comprises Gilbert White’s House & Gardens.

The rooms have been restored following descriptions in White’s own correspondence and include a chair he used at Oriel College, Oxford (loaned from the College), items of contemporary furniture, family portraits and bed hangings embroidered for him by his aunts.

Gilbert White started his education in Basingstoke before going to Oriel College, Oxford, and then following his grandfather and uncle into the Church.  In 1746, he was ordained a deacon and became curate for his Uncle Charles – who was vicar in the neighbouring Hampshire village of Farringdon – before his full ordination on 1749.  Later, he became curate of the Selborne parish.

A keen gardener from his youth, White took an increasingly close interest in the natural world around him, and grew a wide range of traditional and experimental fruit and vegetables.  He was the first person in the area, for example, to grow potatoes; and it was this keen interest in gardening that led him to begin his first written work, of recording methodically what he sowed and reaped, the weather, temperature and other details.  This was what he called his ‘Garden Kalendar’.

The Reverend Gilbert White is famous in three ways: as author of one of the most published and popular books in the English language; as a pioneering naturalist who hugely influenced the development of the science of natural history; and as a gardener.

It is The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbornefor which he is best known, however.  This began as correspondence between himself and other like-minded gentlemen of the time, The Hon. Daines Barrington and Thomas Pennant, in which they discussed their observations and theories about local flora, fauna and wildlife. White believed in studying living birds and animals in their natural habitat which was an unusual approach at that time, as most naturalists preferred to carry out detailed examinations of dead specimens in the comfort of their studies.

White was the first to distinguish the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler as three separate species, largely on the basis of their different songs, and the first to describe accurately the harvest mouse and the noctule bat.

One fascinating aside, in amongst the story of White is that in addition to being described as the “world’s first ecologist”, he is also – according to the Oxford English Dictionary – the first person to use ‘x’ for a kiss in a letter.  His great-nephew and biographer Rashleigh Holt-White remarked, “White had but one mistress: Selborne”. So it’s a surprise that the OED should have named White as the first known example of a kiss as ‘x’.  More details about this can be found at https://bit.ly/2ViQSsU.

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbornewas published in 1789, just four years before White’s death, by his brother Benjamin, who was a publisher.  Since that time, it has never been out of print, is reported to be one of the most published books in the English language as well as being translated into several other languages.

During the years when Gilbert White lived at The Wakes (1730-1793), the garden grew in size from a small plot next to the High Street to a much larger estate.  He was inspired by the English Landscape Movement and the writing of Philip Miller to create a landscape garden in Selborne. Historic features of the garden include the original Haha, Sundial and Fruit Wall as well as the Great Oak planted in 1730.

[This background feature is prepared for, and on behalf of, Visit Hampshire: https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk.]