Gilbert White

Gilbert White
Gilbert White.jpg
This 'portrait' is now generally regarded as unauthentic.
Born(1720-07-18)18 July 1720
Died26 June 1793(1793-06-26) (aged 72)
Selborne, Hampshire
Alma materOriel College, Oxford
Known forNatural History of Selborne
Scientific career
Influences'Physico-theology' of John Ray, William Derham
Author abbrev. (botany)G.White

Gilbert White FRS (18 July 1720 – 26 June 1793) was a "parson-naturalist", a pioneering English naturalist, ecologist and ornithologist. He is best known for his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.


Gilbert White's house, The Wakes, now a museum, viewed from the back gardens in 2010

White was born on 18 July 1720 in his grandfather's vicarage at Selborne in Hampshire. His grandfather, also Gilbert White was at that time vicar of Selborne. Gilbert White's parents were John White (1688- 1758) a trained barrister and Anne Holt (d. 1740). Gilbert was the eldest of eight surviving siblings, Thomas (b. 1724), Benjamin (b. 1725), Rebecca (b. 1726), John (b. 1727), Francis (b. 1728/9), Anne (b. 1731), and Henry (b. 1733). Gilbert's family lived briefly at Compton, Surrey, before moving into 'The Wakes' now Gilbert White & The Oates Collections, in 1728, which was to his home for the rest of his life.

Gilbert White was educated in Basingstoke by Thomas Warton, father of Joseph Warton & Thomas Warton, who would have been Gilbert's school fellows. There are also suggestions that he may have attended the Holy Ghost School [1] before going to Oriel College, Oxford. He obtained his deacon's orders in 1746, being fully ordained in 1749, and subsequently held several curacies in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Selborne's neighbouring parishes of Newton Valence and Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. In 1752/53 White held the office of Junior Proctor at Oxford and was Dean of Oriel. In 1757 he became non-resident perpetual curate of Moreton Pinkney in Northamptonshire. After the death of his father in 1758, White moved back into the family home at The Wakes in Selborne, which he eventually inherited in 1763. In 1784 he became curate of Selborne for the fourth time, remaining so until his death. Having studied at the more prestigious Oriel, at the behest of his uncle, he was ineligible to be considered for the permanent living of Selborne, which was in the gift of Magdalen College.[citation needed]

White is regarded by many as England's first ecologist, and one of those who shaped the modern attitude of respect for nature.[2] He said of the earthworm:[3]

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...

White and William Markwick collected records of the dates of emergence of more than 400 plant and animal species, White recording in Hampshire and Markwick in Sussex between 1768 and 1793. These data, summarised in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne as the earliest and latest dates for each event over the 25-year period, are among the earliest examples of modern phenology.

American nature writer, Donald C. Peattie, writes in The Road of a Naturalist about White's contribution to the public interest in birds: "The bird census, now so widely promulgated by the Audubon Society, was the invention of Gilbert White; he was the original exponent, as far as I know, of the close seasonal observation of Nature, a branch of science known to the pedantic as phenology. He was the first to perceive the value in the study of migration (then a disputed fact) and of banding or ringing birds, though it was Audubon who first performed the experiment. No professional ornithologist ever did so much to widen interest in birds; from White's pages they cock a friendly eye at us, and hop out of his leaves right over our thresholds."[4]

His 1783–84 diary corroborates the dramatic climatic impacts of the volcanic 'Laki haze' that spread from Iceland with lethal consequences across Europe.

Gilbert White's sister Anne was married to Thomas Barker (1722–1809),[5] called 'The father of meteorology', and Gilbert maintained a correspondence with his nephew Samuel Barker, who also kept a naturalist's journal.[6]

The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne

Title page of White's Natural History, which he published late in life

White is best known for his The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789). This is presented as a compilation of his letters to Thomas Pennant, the leading British zoologist of the day, and the Hon. Daines Barrington, an English barrister and another Fellow of the Royal Society, though a number of the 'letters' such as the first nine were never posted, and were written especially for the book.[7] The book has been continuously in print since its first publication.[8] It was long held, "probably apocryphally", to be the fourth-most published book in the English language after the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.[9]

White's biographer, Richard Mabey, praises White's expressiveness:

What is striking is the way Gilbert [White] often arranges his sentence structure to echo the physical style of a bird's flight. So 'The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes'; and 'Woodpeckers fly volatu undosu [in an undulating flight], opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising and falling in curves.'[10]


The stained glass window commemorating White in Selborne church

The White family house in Selborne, The Wakes, now contains the Gilbert White Museum.[11] The Selborne Society was founded in 1895 to perpetuate the memory of Gilbert White.[citation needed] It purchased land by the Grand Union Canal at Perivale in West London to create the first Bird Sanctuary in Britain, known as Perivale Wood. In the 1970s, Perivale Wood became a Local Nature Reserve. This initiative was led by a group of young naturalists, notably Edward Dawson and Peter Edwards, Kevin Roberts and Andrew Duff. It was designated by Ealing Borough Council under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.[12] Flora Thompson, the countryside novelist, said of White: "It is easy to imagine him, this very first of English nature writers, the most sober and modest, yet happiest of men."[13]

White is quoted by Merlyn in The Once and Future King by T.H. White and in The Boy in Grey by Henry Kingsley, in which White's thrush appears as a character. A documentary about White, presented by historian Michael Wood, was broadcast by BBC Four in 2006.[14][15] White is commemorated in the inscription on one of eight bells installed in 2009 at Holybourne, Hampshire[16] and in the Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve, which is dedicated to his memory. The Reserve is owned and managed by the Selborne Society, named to commemorate White's Natural History. White's frequent accounts of a tortoise inherited from his aunt in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne form the basis for Verlyn Klinkenborg's book, Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006), and for Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Portrait of a Tortoise (1946).[citation needed]

A stained glass window portraying St Francis in Selborne church commemorates Gilbert White. It was designed by Horace Hinckes and was installed in 1920.[17]


  • White, Gilbert (1795). A Naturalist's Calendar, with observations in various branches of natural history, extracted from the papers of the late Rev. Gilbert White of Selborne, Hampshire, Senior Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. Never before published. London: printed for B. and J. White, Horace's Head, Fleet Street. Edited by J. Aikin.


  1. ^ Baigent & Millard 1889, p. 161.
  2. ^ Hazell, D. L., Heinsohn, R. G. and Lindenmayer, D. B. 2005. Ecology. pp. 97-112 in R. Q. Grafton, L. Robin and R. J. Wasson (eds.), Understanding the Environment: Bridging the Disciplinary Divides. Sydney, NSW: University of New South Wales Press, (p. 99).
  3. ^ Letter LXVII (1777)
  4. ^ Donald Culross Peattie. The Road of a Naturalist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941. P278-79.
  5. ^ H. A. Evans, Highways and Byways in Northampton & Rutland, Pocket edition (Macmillan & Co, London 1924), 161-62.
  6. ^ See 'Literary and Scientific Intelligence', Gentleman's Magazine Vol 5, 1835, 289-90 read here
  7. ^ Armstrong, Patrick (2000). The English Parson-Naturalist. Gracewing. p. 83. An obvious example is the first, nominally to Thomas Pennant, but which is clearly contrived, as it introduces the parish...
  8. ^ Project Gutenberg edition of The Natural History of Selborne
  9. ^ Mabey 1986, p. 6.
  10. ^ Mabey 1986, p. 173.
  11. ^ "Gilbert White's House and Garden and the Oates Collection". Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  12. ^ "Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve owned and managed by the Selborne Society Ltd as the Gilbert White Memorial". The Selborne Society. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  13. ^ Thompson, Flora; Shuckburgh, Julian (editor) (1986). The Peverel Papers - A yearbook of the countryside. Century Hutchinson. ISBN 978-0-712-61296-8.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  14. ^ Gilbert White, the Nature Man on IMDb
  15. ^ "Gilbert White, The Nature Man". Maya Vision International. 2006. Archived from the original on 25 January 2012. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  16. ^ "Knowledge Base: Holybourne". Scovetta, Michael V. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  17. ^ Goodall, John (2015). Parish Church Treasures. London: Bloomsbury; p. 285
  18. ^ IPNI.  G.White.


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