Timothy--a famous and not to be forgotten tortoise

Timothy died in 1794, outliving his owner by one year. Eventually his carapace found its way into the hands of Mrs. Christopher, and she presented it to the British Museum of Natural History on 17 April 1853. From its shell it was first believed that Timothy was Testudo gracea ibera, a race of the Greek Tortoise indigenous to a small area between the Black and Mediterranean seas. In 1836 the Algerian population of Greek Tortoises was named as a distinct species Testudo whitei. Subsequently based, in part, on Timothy’s shell, the specific name was resurrected and placed in the genus Furculachelys in 1989. This proposed taxonomy, however, has not been accepted by the systematic community, and more importantly locality data for Timothy is not available. We know much about Timothy himself through the detailed journals of Gilbert White, Mrs. Christopher’s great uncle.

Gilbert White's home

The setting is English 18th Century Hampshire. It is the first accounting of a captive tortoise, a story that figures strongly in the birth of natural science and the English tradition of amateur natural history study.

The importance of Timothy and the other subjects of Gilbert White’s journals are easily overlooked in our present day media-enriched culture. Although the natural sciences have now become much more advanced White’s journals still have biological merit. White was the first English language writer of natural history and his writing deserves the same level of recognition of that of Thoreau, Audubon, and Darwin. It could even be argued that his writings provided the foundation for the appreciation these three had of the natural world. The civilized world had barely emerged from mythology, alchemistry, witchcraft and sorcery when White first began his journals. The few scholars of the time who were elevated above pastoral logic became occupied with anatomical descriptions, or the system of taxonomic classification which, in White’s time, were both in their infancy. Serious sundry sciences of genetics, behavior, and evolution had not yet begun. Objects were kept in cabinets as curiosities and natural science advanced from indoor studies and indoor academic presentations to learned colleagues. White was the first to write and publish first hand natural history accounts; he wrote of simple everyday things-- changing seasons, hedgehogs and hedgerows, a horse surviving a lightning strike, and of Timothy coming out of hibernation in his Selborne garden.

White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne , first published in 1798, still stands as a landmark in scientific writing. And his journals (Gilbert White’s Journals; edited by W. Johnston, and not published until 1931 by George Routledge & Sons, London) have been labeled by many as the solitary English literature classic in natural history. From these two books we know quite a lot about Timothy. While some of the information is quite specific ( "on August 20, 1776", a month and a half after the signing of the American Decoration of Independence, "Timothy weighed 6 lbs. 141/2 oz.") most of it is enjoyable for its simple charm ("it was a reptile that appears to relish longevity so little as to squander more than two-thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor").

In the tradition of the time White learned to hunt and shoot, and it was probably during this period in his youth that he began to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. His roots ran deep in soil of the English country side and his appreciation of home sparks warm feelings and loyalties which endear him to his readers. White was apparently unconcerned about the events of his day. The British conquest of India and Canada, the Jacobite Rebellion, and the French and American Revolutions are never even mentioned in his journals. Gilbert White, a country gentleman, was by profession a clergyman who rarely left his home. His nephew John later described him as a "man of quiet intelligence and enviable contentment". Although White was religious his natural history writing was straight forward and objective and not influenced by the contemporaneous religious concepts which dominated the popular nature writing of the time. Several of his publications were quite technical, for example, he discovered and named the Harvest Mouse of England.

Gilbert White saw nature through self-trained eyes and recorded his observations about the world with objectivity and artistry difficult to duplicate. He had a sensitive poetic emphasis that today would seem trite to most. His works appear to be unrelated to his Oxford education. His nature writing officially started at the age of 47 when he wrote his first letter to Thomas Pennant, Esquire, a fellow in the Royal Society of London and author of THE textbook on British zoology. White’s book on the natural history of Selborn is simply an assemblage of such letters, each addressing a number of interesting subjects. The recipients of these letters were all famous scholars of the day, but in every case they would have been forgotten were it not for their acquaintance with White. For the most part the letters were not actually mailed correspondence; they were a literary vehicle through which White expressed his thoughts.

Despite not being published until 138 years after his death, White’s private journals were the foundation of the letters in the Natural History of Selborne . The journals were sort of a garden calendar he started in 1751. His original journal consists of more than ten thousand chronological undigested entries.The Natural History of Selborne became immortal on the English speaking eastern side of the Atlantic and their seems to be almost as many editions of this book as there are years since Gilbert White’s death. This is not an exaggeration, the book was an instant success and between 1789 and 1901 it went through 90 editions in the British Isles alone. Perhaps the the secret of the book’s value is found in the authors own words " Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer." Like his grandfather, also named Gilbert White, White was born and died at Selborne-- a place immortalized by a single book.

We learn from White a fair amount about Greek Tortoises, at least captive ones which are allowed the run of English gardens. The information is what every tortoise hobbyist learns for themselves, but White took the time to write it down nearly 200 years before anyone else was taking note of such things. We know Timothy’s daily routine, how he reacts to rain, his favorite foods, and of different hibernation sites he used over the 17 years he was in White’s possession. It was Timothy’s hibernation that most fascinated Gilbert White. In the late 1700s natural history knowledge was still overshadowed by medieval beliefs. Swallows, for example, simply disappeared during the winter and whether they migrated to some unknown place or hibernated locally was still a matter of heated academic debate.

It would be a hundred years after White’s death before it was definitely established that House Swallows wintered in South Africa. Shakespeare, along with most English academics, believed swifts, swallows and martins hibernated in underground burrows for the winter. Others wrote that their hibernation was "like that of geese"-- under water. The few supporting the concept of long distance migration were regarded as very out-of-date. This discussion of swallow hibernation seems absurd to us now, but White was perplexed by individual birds that appeared early in the spring and others that delayed their departure well into the fall. He personally believed that migration was the logical answer, but all evidence suggested otherwise.

White suspected that careful observations of the patterns of hibernation, and the periodic emergence of Timothy, would in some way shed light on the habits of swallows. For example, compelling, but erroneous, evidence of swallow hibernation was perpetuated in late March of 1777 when White’s aunt reported that on the same day Timothy emerged from hibernation many House Swallows had appeared. White never did get to the answer, but the key point is that while noted scholars debated academic issues from desks in their libraries, White attempted to learn natural history directly from personal observation. From the perspective of the period this concept was as revolutionary as the radical political ideas simultaneously developing in France and America. It is hard for those of us living in the late 20th century to regard observation and objectivity in science as the pioneering rebellious concept that it was.

Greek Tortoise

Prior to White acquiring the tortoise, Timothy had lived for 30 years in Sussex in a little walled-in court belonging to Mrs. Rebecca Snooke, White’s widowed aunt. White’s first mention of Timothy was in the close of a ‘letter’ to Daines Barrintton, another member of the Royal Society. The letter was written on 8 October 1770, when White was fifty, Mrs. Snooke was 76, and Timothy was believed by his owner to be in his 40th year. (Well it was really her 40th year, we also can see from Timothy's shell that he was a she.) If the reported age of Timothy was correct he lived to be sixty four, not an unreasonable age for a tortoise. However, the actual age of Timothy appears to be only speculation and in that he was full-grown (at least his weight did not increase any between 1775 and 1794) by the time White first encountered him it is likely that he was even older. Gilbert White referred to him as " so old a domestic, who behaved himself in so blameless a manner in the family for nearly fifty years." The tortoise had originally been acquired by Mrs. Snooke about 1740 when she visited Chichester and purchased a "Mediterranean Tortoise" from a sailor for half a crown. As far as I can tell this is the first documented instance of what would one day grow into a massive international commercial trafficking of Greek tortoises. By the late 1960s as many as 300,000 Greek tortoises were being exported each year from Morocco to Great Britain.

The ages of other Greek Tortoises kept in European gardens during this same general period are poorly documented and available information is contradictory. Archbishop Laud had a tortoise who’s shell still resides in Lambeth Palace. The tortoise was released in the garden at an unknown age in 1633 by Laud and two different labels on the existing shell place its death at 1730 (97 years) and 1753 (120 years). Another individual kept by the Bishop of Peterborough was reported to have lived 220 years, but records with the specimen show that it either lived from 1757 to 1819 (62 years) or from 1747 to 1839 (92 years). The problem, of course, is that the tortoises all seem to outlive the people keeping the records. The oldest known Greek tortoise (at least one for which the authenticity is not in question), at 149 years is still alive. It hatched as a captive in Britain in 1850, and served on various HMS vessels and in two World Wars before retiring to a castle in Devon. For the last 40 years this tortoise's awakening from hibernation has been a ritual with emergence dates published in British newspapers.

Mrs. Snooke died at the age of 86 and after her funeral White dug Timothy out of his March hibernation and they both returned to Selborn. And while their is no doubt that Timothy was acquired as an accessory to White’s interest in swallows, soon after the tortoise took up residence in Selborne (1780) White’s journals began to reveal that the tortoise had a personality of its own. Timothy was clearly a key character in the Selborne journals (he is indexed more often than any other entry), and a century and a half later Sylvia Warner extracted all mention of him from what White had written about the tortoise, and compiled a book just about Timothy (1946. The Portrait of A Tortoise. Avon Books, New York.)

It is interesting to note that Rebecca Snooke’s purchase of Timothy was 8 years prior to Linnaeus’ description of the species and the genus Testudo (1758 Syst. Nat., ed. 10, 1: 197-198). Timothy the tortoise may have even been wandering about some place like Romania or Algeria at the time of Linnaeus’ birth. White himself, a contemporary of Linnaeus, asked his colleagues in the Royal Academy to pass on the fact that he had personally studied empty tortoise shells in Mrs. Snooke’s collection, and that several had hinged plastrons suggesting that this might be a way in which Linnaeus could distinguish additional species.

Timothy was observed, weighed, and called to loudly through a speaking-trumpet to see if he could hear. His droppings were examined, his swimming ability tested, his daily routine studied, and his food preferences were noted. "1781. Feb. 11. The tortoise came-forth & continued to be alert ‘till the 25th, & then eat some lettuce; when the weather turning very harsh he retired under the straw in his coop." The tortoise had complete run of the garden and was allowed to consume flowers and vegetables at will; showing preference for some varieties while ignoring others. Like all captive tortoises Timothy occasionally escaped and once he was missing for eight days before he was recovered from a nearby field.

Was White’s documentation the first detailed natural history study of a tortoise and the initial record of captive husbandry techniques? The answer is almost certainly, but more importantly Timothy, whose immortalized shell resides in the British Museum, is probably by default the first creature to be mentioned in a published science-based biological study focused on any live organism. In both White’s Journal and Natural History one can see the author breaking free of the anthropomorphic thinking of the period. Timothy is presented, not as an object through which man can allegorically reexamine his own traits, but as the tortoise that he was. White’s Timothy bridges, .... no jumps, the gap between sappy nature writing and observation-based natural history. For the first time tortoises and other living things were enjoyed for their own merit and their actual value did not need to be linked to the likeness of man.

David S. Lee. 1999. Bull, Chicago Herp. Soc. 34(10):255-277.

"Though he loves warm weather he avoids the hot sun; because his thick shell, when once heated, would as the poets say of solid armour-- 'scald with safty'."
Gilbert White 1773