House, Gardens & Cafe Open Tuesday - Sunday 10.30 - 17.00

Gilbert White by Prof Paul Rodhouse

Professor Paul Rodhouse is a trustee of Gilbert White’s House & Gardens. He is a BAS emeritus fellow and a member of the South Georgia Association executive committee, president of the Cambridge Drawing Society and he paints the Antarctic and other marine subjects in his Cambridge studio. 

The man

Gilbert White, who spent most of his life in the country parish of Selborne, is best known for his book The Natural History of Selborne which encapsulated most of his life’s work.  His carefully recorded observations on local natural history and the horticultural experiments that he made in his garden influenced 18th century scientific thinking and continued to have relevance for later generations of natural historians.  His work and life-style have renewed currency today as the world faces global environmental problems with origins in Gilbert’s lifetime.

Gilbert lived from 1720 to 1793; he was born in his grandfather’s vicarage at Selborne and was educated locally and at Oriel College Oxford.  He was ordained in 1749 and held several curacies in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including at Selborne.  On the death of his father in 1758, he moved into the family home, The Wakes, where he remained for the rest of his life.  In the 18th and into the 19th century it was not unusual for clerics, especially those living in the country, to study and publish on natural history.  John Ray, Charles Kingsley and the Rev. J.G Wood are other well-known examples.

Gilbert’s lifetime achievements

Today we would call Gilbert a scientist, but this term was not coined until 1833; in the 17th century he would have been called a natural philosopher.  Yet his scientific approach was exceptional.  At a time when natural history was focused on naming and classifying animals and plants, his work was based on careful observation of nature in action, assembling facts and, most importantly, using his observations to explore processes that drive the natural world.  By doing so he effectively founded the science of ecology in 18th century England.

Gilbert made many detailed observations locally at Selborne.  As an example, he discovered that three nearly identical birds, the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler were separate species because of differences in their song.  More significantly, from his detailed and acute local observations, several important, large scale and general insights emerged.  His observations coupled with those of his brother Jack – posted to Gibraltar and with whom he corresponded – revealed for the first time that swifts, swallows and martins make annual migrations from Northern Europe to Africa and back.  He recorded some of the earliest observations of the seasonal cycles of animals and plants – a branch of science known as phenology today.  At a time when earthworms were thought to damage crops, he identified their vital role in the ecology of the soil – how they contribute to the cycling of nutrients and carbon flux in the soil ecosystem.

His horticultural developments included the use of hot beds which utilised heat released by metabolism during decomposition of manure laid under the soil.  This enabled the growth rate of seedlings and tender plants such as his favourite melons to be increased, especially early in the growing season.

Gilbert White and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a 17th and 18th Century movement in Europe and North America, which embraced reason, logic and free thinking over dogma and faith.  Its origin in England was arguably the Glorious Revolution in 1688 which ended the divine right of monarchs to rule.  In the context of his rational explanations for natural phenomena, Gilbert was an 18th century figure in the Enlightenment.  The cleric naturalists were mostly natural theologians who argued that the elaborate complexity of nature was evidence for the existence of a creator.  While Gilbert’s work was derived from a religious view, he nevertheless sought rational explanations behind what were “mysteries” of the natural world in his time.

Gilbert was rather an insular character, but in common with other natural philosophers of his age, he corresponded with those who shared his interests.  Foremost of these was Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) author of British Zoology, an edition of which was published by Gilbert’s brother Benjamin.  Pennant had travelled in Europe and corresponded with contemporary naturalists and philosophers: the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), Voltaire (1694-1778), A. von Haller (1708-1777) and P. S. Pallas (1741 -1811), which widely extended Gilbert’s effective network.  Although Gilbert does not seem to have corresponded with Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in Sweden, he referred to his work and adopted his binomial system of nomenclature in his writing.  As an example, Linnaeus named the native European oyster Ostrea edulis, and this system marked the start of a revolution in thinking about taxonomy and classification.

In 1768 Capt. James Cook (1728-1779) set sail on his first great voyage in HMS Endeavour which marked the beginning of a golden age of exploration by British explorers.  This effectively ended in 1912 when the last untrodden part of the world, the South Pole, was reached independently by Roald Amundsen’s and Robert Falcon Scott’s sledging parties.  Tragically Scott and his men, including Capt. Lawrence (Titus) Oates, all perished during the return journey.  Cook’s naturalist on this voyage to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus was Joseph Banks accompanied by the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander (1733-1782).  Some 1,300 new species of plant were collected, increasing the known flora of the world by some 25%.  No catalogue of the collection has survived, but a description was sent to Gilbert in a letter from Rev W. Sheffield (keeper of the Ashmolean) and was printed in Bell’s edition of the Natural History of Selbourne.  Gilbert’s acquaintance with Banks was slender but it is clear he was deeply affected by his work and touched emotionally by the enormity of the voyage of the Endeavour.  Banks was elected President of the Royal Society in 1778 and by the 1780s his fame and popular botanical publications, including those of Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather), brought Gilbert and other naturalists of the age into tune with wider society.

Gilbert White and the Industrial Revolution

The 18th century marked the start of the industrial revolution in the English Midlands accompanied by the establishment of the Lunar Society, a loosely organised sociable group of natural philosophers, inventors, industrialists and physicians.  Erasmus Darwin was one of the founders and it embraced the likes of James Watt who invented the steam engine, Josiah Wedgewood who founded the highly innovative pottery empire and Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the USA and a leader in the American Enlightenment who made important experiments with electricity.  This was the age when Britain led the world in becoming an industrialised society.  Members of the Lunar Society inspired the Montgolfiers in 1783 to build the first hot air balloon which allowed people to become airborne for the first time.  The following year Jean Blanchard launched his balloon in southern England, passing over Selborne where Gilbert alerted villagers to its appearance and later described it as dark blue, sometimes yellow in the rays of the sun and despite being vast appearing no bigger than a large tea urn.  What he had witnessed was a manifestation of the Industrial Revolution, something much larger that would start to change forever the natural world that was his inspiration.

His influence on later scientific thought

Robert Darwin, son of Erasmus and father of Charles Darwin was a physician like Erasmus and shared his father’s enthusiasm for botany and gardens.  His scientific interest in the rhythm of the seasons led him to emulate Gilbert in keeping a garden diary recording flowering and leafing of his plants in relation to air temperature and the weather.  Charles Darwin read divinity at Cambridge and might too have become a parson naturalist, but his life took a different turn when he joined the voyage of HMS Beagle.  From a young age Charles had a keen interest in shooting as well as natural history.  As a student he read The Natural History of Selborne which taught him to treat birds less as moving targets and more as subjects for study, and thereafter he started to make careful observations of birds which were recorded in his diary.  Once established at Down House in 1843 and by this time engrossed in his theory of evolution by natural selection, he once again read The Natural History of Selborne in the edition published by his friend the Rev Jenyns of Bottisham.  Darwin’s critical observations and those of many 19th century naturalists owed much to their reading of Gilbert’s work and led in Darwin’s case to his unifying theory of all biology.

Gilbert White’s relevance today

The Natural History of Selborne is still widely read today for its natural history and literary context, as well as for its sheer delightfulness.  Three hundred years later his observations are more relevant than ever.  Research on bird migration continues in the 21st century and is critically relevant to the conservation of many species.  For instance, satellite tracking of albatross migrations in the Southern Ocean has revealed where fishing activity has caused catastrophic mortality, bringing several species towards extinction, and has provided the evidence needed for the introduction of conservation measures.

In addition, changes in the seasonal cycles of growth, reproduction and dormancy measured in animals and plants are being drastically affected by global climate change, undermining the structure of ecosystems and providing powerful evidence for the need to urgently decarbonise and adopt renewable sources of energy.

We are now aware that earthworms underpin nearly all large-scale terrestrial ecosystems as well as horticulture and agriculture from smallholdings to large-scale agribusiness.  Invasive, non-native species, and other organisms such as flatworms, threaten ecosystems in many parts of the world where accidental introductions have taken place.

No lesser scientist than Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.  In his modest way Gilbert was one of those giants for many natural scientists. He was a man in tune with nature and with the way he was manipulating the natural world in his garden.  His concern at the overexploitation of trees on the Hangar within sight of the Wakes resonates with many of our concerns today.  Global climate change caused by humans started in Gilbert’s life-time with the industrial revolution and the mining of coal to feed Watt’s steam engines.  All the fossil fuel burning machines since then have accelerated the pace of change, right up to the present.  It is high time that the human race became reacquainted with nature and halted the catastrophic damage that is being done.  Reading Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne would be a good start for those who have not already!