Papers of the White Family

  • Reference
      GB 133 EGR5
  • Dates of Creation
      1719-1901
  • Physical Description
      Physical composition: all items and pieces are single sheets of paper unless otherwise stated.

Scope and Content

The papers of the White family constitute an important source for literary and biographical studies of Gilbert White and The natural history of Selborne. They also contain the log books of Francis Henry White who served as naval chaplain aboard HMS Defence in the 1800s (EGR5/2/2), and the journals he kept after his subsequent appointment as master of Blakesley School in Northamptonshire (EGR5/2/3). There is a considerable quantity of family correspondence, including letters from travellers in Europe and Egypt, and letters written from Newfoundland by Rev William Grey (1819-1872) and his wife Harriet (EGR5/2/4).

Related Materials in Other Subfonds

Among the miscellaneous papers from Dunham Massey Hall is a newspaper cuttings book compiled by the 9th Earl of Stamford, containing cuttings relating to events held in 1893 to commemorate the centenary of Gilbert White's death (EGR13/46). It also contains cuttings and letters to Penelope Countess of Stamford dating from 1920, when the bicentenary of the naturalist's birth was celebrated.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Grey family, Earls of Stamford, were related to the White family of Hampshire through the marriage of Rev William Grey (1819-1872) to Harriet, daughter of Rev Francis Henry White. Their only child was William Grey (1850-1910), who became the 9th Earl of Stamford.

The White family originated at Cogges, near Witney in Oxfordshire. Sir Sampson White (1607-1684) became mayor of Oxford. In 1680/1 his youngest son Gilbert (1651-1728) took the living of Selborne in Hampshire, a county in which other branches of the White family had resided since the fifteenth century. Gilbert White and his wife Rebecca had six children, John (1688-1758), Mary (1689-1768), Sampson (1691-1702), Rebecca (1694-1780), Dorothea (1696-1731) and Elizabeth (1698-1753).

The most famous member of the White family was the Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793), son of John White and author of The natural history and antiquities of Selborne. Gilbert White's biography is unremarkable. Educated at Oxford, he entered the Church and settled down to a conventional clerical career. Apparently unambitious, he declined the chance of wealthy livings, preferring to remain in his native village where he held curacies at Selborne itself and in neighbouring Farringdon. Contrary to popular belief, Gilbert White was never vicar of Selborne (White was an Oriel man, and the living belonged to Magdalen College Oxford). White was the archetypal eighteenth-century amateur scientist, whose undemanding clerical duties allowed him to indulge his passionate interest in all aspects of the natural world.

The natural history of Selborne is essentially no more than a collection of letters written by a country parson describing the natural history of his native parish. Yet it is the most popular book ever written on natural history, and is reputedly the fourth most frequently published book in the English language, with over 200 editions to date. The book's enduring popularity may be attributed to White's unaffected style of writing, his quiet humour, the accuracy of his observations, but above all, the respect and affection with which he viewed the natural world.

Gilbert White never married, but he had seven brothers and sisters who survived to adulthood - Thomas (1724-1797), Benjamin (1725-1794), Rebecca (1726-1771) who married Henry Woods, John (1727-1780), Francis (1728/9-1750), Anne (1731-1807) who married Thomas Barker, and Henry (1733-1788) - and over thirty nephews and nieces. Gilbert White corresponded with his family frequently.

Harriet, wife of Rev William Grey, was the daughter of Rev Francis Henry White, the youngest son of Henry White and nephew of Gilbert White. He served as a naval chaplain in the 1800s (EGR5/2/2-3), before becoming master of Blakesley school, Northamptonshire. Other members of the White family who deserve mention are: Rev Edmund White (1758-1838) and his son-in-law James Field, both of whom had an interest in Gilbert White and the history of the family and made copies of White MSS; Samuel Barker (1757-1835) and Mary Barker (b 1760), children of Gilbert White's sister Anne and her husband Thomas Barker; Mary ('Molly') White (1759-1833), daughter of Gilbert White's brother Thomas; and John ('Gibraltar Jack') White (1759-1821), son of Gilbert White's brother John.

Arrangement

The papers of the White family constitute an artificial collection, assembled during the nineteenth century, to which the principle of provenance cannot be strictly applied. Instead, subfonds EGR5 has been divided into two sub-subfonds: papers of Gilbert White (EGR5/1), and papers of other members of the White family (EGR5/2), which include letters sent from Gilbert White to family members, copies of his MSS, correspondence, notes and pedigrees, and photographs.

Acquisition Information

The majority of items in EGR5 were transferred on deposit from Dunham Massey Hall to the John Rylands University Library by the National Trust on 12 September 1978. Further small deposits were made on 29 June and 25 July 1990. Unless otherwise stated items formed part of the 1978 deposit.

Custodial History

The custodial history of the papers of the White family is not fully known. Some of the Gilbert White manuscripts and other eighteenth-century White papers may have been collected by Rev Edmund White (1758-1838) and by his son-in-law James Field. Field's papers passed to his son Edmund, who bequeathed thirty-six Gilbert White autograph letters to William Grey, 9th Earl of Stamford, in 1901, together with other White memorabilia including portraits, a carved oak stool, a court sword, eight volumes of books and a silver wine taster. The 9th and 10th Earls of Stamford may have acquired other White papers separately, some possibly from Rashleigh Holt-White, Gilbert White's biographer.

Related Material

For a full list of records relating to Gilbert White and the White family held in other repositories, see Paul G.M. Foster, Gilbert White and his records: a scientific biography (London: Croom Helm, 1988), pp. 222-4.

Geographical Names