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First Edition, Feb. 1906
RICHARD CLAY & SONS, LIMITED, BREAD STREET HILL, E.C., AND BUNGAY, SUFFOLK.
BY BERTRAM C. A. WINDLE, Sc.D., F.R.S., F.S.A. PRESIDENT OF QUEEN'S COLLEGE, CORK
SOME achieve greatness, one might almost say have it thrust upon them, so lightly does it descend, without apparent effort, without that strife and labour through which others win towards their goal. Of such was Gilbert White, of Selborne, who would certainly have been amazed had he known that a hundred years after his time he would be the patron saint of a society named after the little out-of-theway village in which he was born and where he died Quiet it is to this day, out of the way, and difficult of access. How much more so in White's time, with the "infamous" roads of which he speaks and of which he gives such a graphic description in his fifth letter. But for White's grandfather, who left a considerable sum of money for their amelioration, one must suppose that they would have been even more impassable than the grandson found them in his time. White had an hereditary connection with the village now famous from his association with it. His grandfather, just mentioned, also a Gilbert White, was a Fellow of Magdalene College, Oxford, and was presented by his college to the Vicarage of Selborne in 1681. There he died in 1727, and his tombstone is still to be seen in the church. One son survived him, John, a barrister-at-law, who was the father of the famous Gilbert. The future naturalist was born at the vicarage on the 18th of July, 1720, and was consequently seven years of age at the time of his grandfather's death. He matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1739, took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1743, and was elected to a Fellowship in the following year. As was then obligatory, he took orders, and was
certainly curate of Swarraton, at Old Alresford, for a time, though he must have been again residing in Oxford in 1752, since he was Junior Proctor in that year. In 1755 he settled in Selborne, inherited the family property in 1763, and remained for the rest of his days in the village in which he was born, untempted to leave it by the various College livings which were offered to him. He has sometimes been spoken of erroneously as vicar of Selborne, or as its curate, though, he never occupied either position. No doubt at times he officiated in his native place; indeed, the entry in the parish register which records his own funeral, and is signed by "Chas. Taylor, Vicar,” is immediately preceded by the notice of the funeral of Mary Barley, aged 16, which was conducted by "Gil. White, Curate," for so he signs himself, though he appears never to have officially occupied that position.
This record is dated 1793, so that White was seventythree years of age, and had passed the majority of those years in Selborne. He never married, and lived in a house still standing in the main street of the village, known as "The Wakes." The village lies under the shelter of what White calls "a vast hill of chalk, rising three hundred feet above the village." This hill is covered with a wood called "The Hanger," formed, as White again tells us, in his first letter, of "beech, the most lovely of all forest trees, whether we consider its smooth rind or bark, its glossy foliage, or graceful pendulous boughs." The church, near which lie the bodies of White himself and of his grandfather, nestles amongst trees, the finest of which is a splendid old yew, which measures twenty-five feet in circumference. In the centre of the village is a spot called "The Plestor," or playing-place, in the midst of which, again quoting from White, "stood in old times, a vast oak, with short squat body and huge horizontal arms, extending almost to the extremity of the area. This venerable tree, surrounded with stone steps, and seats above them, was the delight of old and young, and a place of much resort on summer evenings; where the former sat in grave debate, while the latter frolicked and danced before them. Long might it have
stood," he proceeds, "had not the amazing tempest in 1703 overturned it at once, to the infinite regret of the inhabitants and vicar, who bestowed several pounds in settling it in its place again; but all his care could not avail; the tree sprouted for a time, then withered and died." At the time of its fall it was supposed to have been four hundred years old. Its place is now occupied by a sycamore. Gilbert White was born in the year of the South Sea Bubble, which probably but little affected the Selborne villagers, if they even heard of it. His life covered a very eventful epoch, for during those years England secured two great Empires, India, whose conquest was commenced by Clive in 1757, and Canada, which was annexed in 1764. And she lost a greater, for, ten years before White died, America became an independent country. He might well have seen the fall of the new and the restoration of the ancient dynasty, if Charles Edward had been successful after the battle of Prestonpans, which took place when he was twenty-five years of age. He saw the introduction of the new style into our Calendar, for he was then thirty-two years of age. Marlborough died when White was one year old, and six years later a greater conqueror in the peaceful contests of science, Sir Isaac Newton, was carried to the grave. John Hunter, the founder of the magnificent Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, was born ten years later than White, and died in the same year as the village naturalist. Of all these stirring events and great men, White, so far as we can gather from his letters, took but little notice. Probably he heard but little of them, for the isolated state of remote villages in a day when there were few newspapers, no telegraphs and infrequent posts, must have been one which it is now difficult for us to realise. In any case he seems to have been the kind of man who would have been much more interested in the fate of his tortoise Timothy and in the coming of his swallows, than in the struggles of European nations. No picture remains to show us what manner of man he was, though it is known that he was short of stature. When Mr. Buckland visited the village he made great efforts to ascertain some facts about White, but
met with little success. One villager spoke of him in words which might be applied to many others besides White, "He was thought very little of till he was dead and gone, and then he was thought a great deal of." There was another old woman, who was eleven years of age when White died. She must have seen him on many occasions, but did not seem to preserve any very distinct recollection of the old gentle“He was a quiet old gentleman," she reported, "with very old-fashioned sayings; he was very kind in giving presents to the poor, and used to keep a locust which crawled about his garden." She was asked whether this animal might not possibly have been a tortoise, and replied, "Ah, that's what I mean." Occasionally he alludes to himself and his people in his letters, but such references are but scanty. Of the parish, writing to Mr. Pennant, he says, "We abound with poor, many of whom are sober and industrious. The inhabitants enjoy a good share of health and longevity, and the parish swarms with children." Again, writing to his niece Anne, he says, "After I had experienced the advantage of two agreeable young housekeepers, I was much at a loss when they left me; and have nobody to make whipped syllabubs and grace the upper end of my table. We have here this winter a weekly concert, consisting of first and second fiddle, two repianos, a bassoon, a hautboy, a violincello, and a German flute; to the great annoyance of the neighbouring pigs, which complain that their slumbers are interrupted and their teeth set on edge." In this little picture we see the fairer side of the isolation of the villages of those days. Self-contained as they were, it is obvious that their inhabitants had a more cheerful time amongst themselves than is the lot of most villagers of to-day. The old village church band of instrumentalists was doubtless a very amateur body, and its replacement by the organ of to-day has no doubt contributed to placing church music on a higher plane, but the revolution has not-one seems to be led to think-been a wholly unmixed advantage. In 1778, when he was beginning to feel that age was creeping over him, White writes to his sister, “My great parlour turns out a fine warm winter room, and affords a pleasant equal warmth. In