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For the Modern Reader

Dr. J. Grant Repshire takes the modern reader of the Natural History of Selborne back in time…

Gilbert White’s A Natural History of Selborne offers a glimpse into the often-idealised world of a English countryside village in the early-modern era, before industrialisation changed the face of the world forever. Reading White’s words, it is hard not to imagine oneself as a time-traveller, dropped into 18th-century Selborne and wondering at the world that he describes. Here are just a few differences that you might notice, were you transported through time to Gilbert White’s day:

You could hear a pin drop… or at least a cannon fire.

for the modern reader

Among the first things that you would notice would be the silence. 21st-century Selborne sits roughly 2-3 miles in any direction from major highways. Despite this, it is still a relatively quiet and peaceful place compared with much of southern England, and a far cry from the bustle of London. But in the 18th century, with no cars driving past, or planes overhead, the silence in this tiny village cradled below Selborne Hanger (hill) would be astonishing. White wrote that he could time the call of the nightjar, (‘goat-sucker’ as he called it), by the ‘report of the Portsmouth evening gun [22.4 miles southwest], which we can hear when the weather is still’. (White, p. 65) The evening gun was a cannon, probably of relatively small calibre, fired in the morning and evening in British harbours to synchronise timings across the ships moored therein. In the 21st century we would be hard pressed to hear even a small artillery barrage from 22.4 miles away, over the sound of not only traffic, but also household electronics, our neighbour’s TV, etc.

Hop to it and grow your own.

for the modern reader

You would also notice that the fields around 18th-century Selborne would have been filled with hops growing from spring to late-summer, and even when they weren’t growing the hop-poles up which they are trained would often be visible. White tells us that most of the working-class men of Selborne worked in hop gardens, when not employed in general farm labour and woodcutting. (White, p. 25) (White’s journal abounds with mentions of hop-growing, see here.) Hop growing is no longer a major agricultural activity in the area, but with the renovation of Gilbert White’s brewery under way, and hops growing in the museum’s gardens We are hoping to bring to life! The hop-poles have already been erected, and are awaiting their new crop this spring.

Hop-gardens weren’t the only produce you’d notice more of in 18th century Hampshire. White observed ‘how vastly the consumption of vegetables [had] increased’ in his own day, noting that ‘every decent labourer has his garden, which is half his support, as well as his delight, and common farmers provide plenty of beans, peas, and greens, for their hinds [farm workers] to eat with their bacon, and those few that do not are despised for their sordid parsimony.’ (White, p. 185-186) As hard as it would be to imagine a 21st century where working families grow over half of their own sustenance, and employers are expected to provide the same for employees, it may be even more shocking to imagine one with no roast potatoes to go with your Sunday lunch, nor chips with your fish, nor mash with your pie or sausages. Yet, early in White’s life, potatoes were rarely eaten in Selborne, despite being introduced in England over a century earlier. Fortunately, that changed: ‘Potatoes have prevailed in this little district […] within these twenty years only; and are much esteemed now by the poor, who would scarce have ventured to taste them [before].’ (White, p. 186)

Even without time travel, we can experience 18th-century style food production, as the museum’s garden team keeps a kitchen garden on the grounds, studying Gilbert White’s journals and ‘Garden Kalander’ to recreate the same methods that he used. The produce grown therein is even used in the museum’s café, which is currently being refurbished so it can provide even more delicious food for visitors. (Read more about the museum’s kitchen garden on the museum blog here, from The Telegraph here, and the Alton Post Gazette here, and you can even sign up for a course at the museum to learn to grow your own vegetables in 18th-century stlye here.)

Deer fit for a queen.

for the modern reader

While today one catches the occasional glimpse of some of the smaller species of deer in and around Selborne, in the early 18th century, you might see an abundance of red deer. The largest of all land-mammals in the United Kingdom, they are now rare in southern England, more associated with the Scottish Highlands. White stated that at the beginning of the 18th century, Wolmer Forest, a royal forest west of Selborne, contained a heard of at least 500 red deer, which were once paraded for Queen Anne as she passed through. These were reduced by the ‘Waltham Blacks’ gang of poachers (so called because they painted their faces black as camouflage at night). Finally, in White’s day, the crown sent huntsmen and yeomen to the forest, who rounded up the remaining deer and drove them to Windsor. (White, pp. 27-28) No doubt some of their descendants now delight royalty and tourists alike with their presence in the deer park there today.

Mismanagement of natural resources is certainly no new thing: White notes that black-grouse were common the Hampshire of his boyhood, but writing in the late 1700s he states: ‘The last pack remembered was killed about thirty-five years ago’. (White, p. 27) An increase in the popularity of game shooting, with no oversight and management as we have today, led to this. In our day, the black grouse now is confined to the mountainous regions of Scotland, Wales, and northern England, having been completely driven out of the southern England.

Peas, beans, and worker’s rights!

garden tour

Many things may have changed since Gilbert White’s day, but much of that past is being preserved at the Gilbert White’s House museum, so that visitors may, briefly, get that sense of time travel that heritage sites can provide. Who knows, after a day at the museum, experiencing hop growing, heritage brewing techniques, and kitchen gardening, you might feel justified in returning to work the next day and demanding that your employer provide you with your fair share of beans, peas, and greens, lest they be ‘despised’ all around for ‘their cursed parsimony’!

The following edition of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne is cited in this article, for those wishing to read further:

Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, ed. By. Ronald Davidson-Houston, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1993) [Originally published as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1789]