Researching the biographies of Rev. Gilbert White’s two main correspondents provides an interesting insight into the methodical studies of late 18th century intellectuals – the two main correspondents being Thomas Pennant (1726 – 1798) and The Honourable Daines Barrington (1727 – 1800).
Pennant was a Welsh naturalist, writer and antiquarian who corresponded with many contemporary intellectuals/scientific persons as well as Gilbert White. Most of his collection of antiquarian books is now housed at the National Library of Wales. Pennant undertook many horseback tours over parts of Britain accompanied by his male servant who sketched landscapes seen on route and later reworked then as colour illustrations for books recording the journeys.
The Honourable Daines Barrington (1727 – 1800) was a lawyer, antiquary and naturalist and wrote many ‘papers’ published by the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. He promoted the idea of methodical daily record keeping of things seen and heard e.g. weather, plants, birds, insects, mammals etc. which is the main component of Rev. White’s letters. Both White and Barrington clung to a folklore notion that swallows hibernated under water over winter before re-emerging in April, one rationale behind this idea being that it must have been impossible for such a small creature to fly for hundreds of miles south to ‘Darkest Africa’. Barrington also made a study of birdsong, this before any means of sound recording was invented.
These two potted biographies and the correspondence of Gilbert White example the efficiency of the postal system well before Robert Peel’s Penny Post system was devised. Prior to the Penny Post (and the Penny Black postage stamp) it was the recipient who paid the cost of postage for each letter. No junk-mail then.
Many people such as those here mentioned had ample leisure time (including Church of England incumbents) but they used that time to improve the nation’s body of knowledge, not in simple self indulgence – or many did anyway.