Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Wargrave Local History Society

Wargrave Local History Society

IT was a warm and sunny day when the society members enjoyed a visit to Gilbert White’s house and gardens, along with the Oates Collection, at Selborne in Hampshire.

The house, called Wakes, had been bought by White’s grandfather (also Gilbert) when he was vicar of Selborne.

The family moved into Wakes from the vicarage in 1728 following the death of Gilbert senior, when young Gilbert was about eight. He inherited the property in 1763, the adjoining land having been added to create a larger garden, which Gilbert landscaped so that he could watch and record the flora and fauna.

His diary recorded the building of a haha (to keep animals in the meadow away from the gardens) and a wall to help the growing of fruit trees (both in 1761).

White went to school in Basingstoke and continued his education at Oxford University, becoming a fellow of Oriel College.

Like his grandfather and uncle, he was then ordained in the Church of England. His first curacy was with his uncle at the church in nearby Faringdon before he returned to Selborne as curate.

In between his duties, White carefully recorded what he saw in his garden and surrounding area.

Over four decades, he systematically noted the weather, the wildlife and the types of seeds sown and what grew.

He was unusual for his time in studying the animals and birds in their natural surroundings as the usual practice was to examine dead specimens.

As a result, he had a wider range of observations on which to base his conclusions.

Different birdsong, for example, enabled him to identify various species that otherwise were considered to be the same variety, while the importance to the natural world of creatures such as earthworms was unknown until White carried out his investigations.

His experiments with Timothy the tortoise would not be approved of nowadays — placing the tortoise on the edge of the haha to see if it would see the danger or fall over, or dropping it into a barrel of water to see it if could swim (from which White deduced that it was “not at all an amphibian”). Despite these experiments, the tortoise survived and it was only after White had died that it was found that Timothy was in fact a female.

White published the results of his wildlife studies in 1789. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has remained in print ever since, becoming the fourth most published work in the English language (after only the Bible, Shakespeare and Pilgrim’s Progress).

His work was the foundation of studies that would now be described as ecology and much of Charles Darwin’s work was based on White’s findings.

The diaries and correspondence not only recorded the natural life White observed but also descriptions of the house. These have enabled the rooms to be restored to be much as he would have known them and some of the furniture, portraits and soft furnishings such as his own bed hangings survive to this day.

In 1954, an appeal was launched to buy the house and set up a museum recording White’s work.

Robert Washington Oates, who was keenly interested in White’s studies, agreed to provide the necessary funds if it could also provide a home for his Oates Collections, which related to his uncle Frank Oates and cousin Lawrence.

Frank Oates was born in 1840, and, like White, was a keen naturalist, especially wild birds, from boyhood, He too studied at Oxford University.

Ill health forced him to abandon his studies, whereupon he travelled to America and Africa to pursue his studies there and hopefully regain his health. Specimens of birds from the Central American trip are displayed in the museum.

As with White, Oates carefully recorded his observations and those from his visit to Africa in the 1870s resulted in a book, Matabele Land and the Victoria Falls, a Naturalist’s Wanderings in the Interior of South Africa, in which he described varieties of both wildlife and trees that he had discovered in then little known parts of Africa (he was one of the first Europeans to see the Victoria Falls in flood).

Sadly, he caught a fever on his journey back, so the book was only published after his death.

It is considered to be an important addition to scientific knowledge and several of the species Oates discovered bear the name oatesii in his memory. Lawrence Oates was also an explorer, being one of Captain Scott’s team aiming to be the first team reach the South Pole in 1911 only to be beaten by the Norwegians, led by Roald Amundsen.

The Britons suffered bad weather and insufficient food supplies and Oates decided to leave his fellow explorers, famously saying: “I am just going outside and may be some time” in the hope that his sacrifice would help the remaining men survive. The gallery in the museum tells of his life, including his early career in the Boer War, where he refused to surrender to the stronger Boer army.

There are many photographs of the Antarctic expedition and displays record the significance of the work that it achieved, much of it being the basis of today’s climate change studies.

The afternoon ended with a delicious cream tea, an essential part of any society visit.

The Society’s latest publication, A Brief History of Wargrave, outlining aspects of village history and illustrated with more 40 photographs, is now available at Victoria News in Wargrave.

The society’s next meeting will be on Tuesday, September 10 when local GP Dr Mark Puddy will look back at 70 years of the National Health Service.

On Tuesday, October 8 Linda and John Evans’ subject will be Caversham Court and the families who lived there.

Meetings are held in the Old Pavilion at Wargrave recreation ground and start at 8 pm. For more information, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit

Peter Delaney

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