Your Sorrowful Reptile

On 15 March 1780, the Wiltshire clergyman-naturalist Gilbert White noted in his diary: “Mrs Snooke buried”. His next entry, a couple of days later, recorded:  “Brought away Mrs Snooke’s old tortoise, Timothy, which she valued much & had treated kindly for near 40 years. When dug out of its hybernaculum it resented the Insult by hissing”.

Bringing Timothy home in a box, White let three days pass, then “took the tortoise out of its box & buried it [to continue its hibernation] in the garden : but the weather being warm it heaved up the mould, & walked twice down to the bottom of the long walk to survey the premises”.

For the remaining thirteen years of White’s life the tortoise was a notable member of the household, with its diet and habits, and especially the terminal dates of his winter hibernations, all being carefully tracked. It is also the main subject of one of the letters that make up the most well-loved book on nature ever published in English, White’s Natural History of Selborne.  

White never married but regularly had visitors to stay with him at Selborne. One of them was Hester Mulso, known as Hecky, the 21-year-old daughter of White’s Oxford friend John Mulso, who brought his family to Selbourne for a ten-day visit in July 1784. Smitten by her encounter with Timothy, Hecky wrote a poem to the tortoise and presented it to White.

After the Mulsos’ departure, John Mulso wrote in a thank-you letter to White on 12 August: ‘Timotheus has been prurient of Poetry, & surely now "his flying Fingers have swept the Lyre;" he has shewn a great vivacity joined with Sentiment & Solidity. I hope he will not content himself with speaking once, like Balaam's ass; but will exercise his Gifts, having once spoken so well.’

Mulso appears to have misunderstood his daughter's verse letter, which he implies was written in the voice of Timothy. Actually, as White explained writing at about the same time to his own niece Molly, “Miss Heckey Mulso has written a long letter in verse to Timothy.” Nevertheless White took Mulso’s hint, and the result was a letter addressed to Hecky in the voice of Timothy himself. It gives a delightful account of the tortoise’s life, and is unlike anything else White wrote. Here it is in its entirety.


from the border under the fruit wall

Aug 31, 1784


Your letter gave me great satisfaction, being the first that ever I was honoured with. It is my wish to answer you in my own way; but I could never make a verse in my life, so you must be contented with plain prose. Having seen but little of this great world, conversed but little and read less, I feel myself much at a loss how to entertain so intelligent a correspondent. Unless you let me write about myself my letter will be very short indeed. Know, then, that I am an American, and was born in the year 1734 in the Province of Virginia in the midst of a Savanna that lay between a large tobacco plantation and a creek of the sea. Here I spent my youthful days among my relations with much satisfaction, and saw around me many venerable kinsmen, who had attained to very great ages without any interruption from distempers. Longevity is so general amongst our species that a funeral is quite a strange occurrence. I can just remember the death of my great-great grandfather, who departed this life in the 160th year of his age. Happy should I have been in the enjoyment of my native climate and society of my friends had not a sea-boy, who was wandering around to see what he could pick up, surprised me as I was sunning myself under a bush; and whipping my into his wallet caryed me aboard his ship. The circumstances of our voyage are not worth a recital; I only remember the rippling of the water against the sides of our vessel as we sailed along was a very lulling and composing sound, which served to soothe my slumbers as I lay in the hold. We had a short voyage and came to anchor of the coast of England in the Harbour of Chichester. In that city my kidnapper sold me for half a crown to a country gentleman  [MR SNOOKE OF RINGMER, NR LEWES] who came up to attend an election. I was immediately packed in an hand-basket, and caryed, slung by the servant's side, to their place of abode. As they rode very hard for forty miles, and I had never been on horseback before, I found myself some what giddy from my airy jaunt. My purchaser, who was a great humorist, after shewing me to some of his neighbours and giving me the name Timothy, took little further notice of me; so I fell under the care of his lady, a benevolent woman, whose humane attention extended to the meanest of her retainers. With his gentlewoman I remained for almost forty years living in a little walled-in court in front of her house and enjoying much quiet and as much satisfaction as I could expect without society. At last this good old lady dyed in a very advanced age, such as a tortoise would call a good old age; and then I became the property of her nephew. This man, my present master, dug me out of my winter retreat, and, packing me in a deal box, jumbled me eighty miles in post-chaises to my present place of abode. I was sore shaken by this experience, which was the worst journey I ever experienced. In my present situation I enjoy many advantages - such as the range of an extensive garden, affording a variety of sun and shade, and abounding in lettuce, poppies and kidney beans and many other salubrious and delectable herbs and plants, and especially with a great choice of delicate gooseberries! But still at times I miss my good old mistress, whose grave and regular deportment suited best with my disposition. For you must know that my master is what they call a naturalist, and much visited by people of that turn, who often put him on whimsical experiments, such a feeling my pulse and, putting my in a tub of water to try if I can swim, &c,; and twice in the year I am carried to the grocer to be weighed, that it may be seen how much I am wasted during the months of my abstinence, and how much I gain by feasting in the summer. Upon these occasions I am placed in the scale on my back, where I sprawl about to the great diversion of the shopkeeper's children. These matters displease me, but there is another that much hurts my pride: I mean that contempt shown for my understanding which these Lords of the Creation are very apt to discover, thinking that nobody knows anything but themselves. I heard my master say that he expected that I should some day tumble down the ha-ha; whereas I would have him to know that I can discern a precipice from plain ground as well as himself. Sometimes my master with much seeming triumph these lines, which occasion a loud laugh --

Timotheus placed on high
Amidst the tuneful choir,
With flying fingers touched the lyre.

For my part I see no wit in the application; nor know whence the verses are quoted; perhaps from some prophet of his own, who, if he penned them for the sake of ridiculing tortoises, bestowed his pains, I think, to poor purpose. These are some of my grievances but they sit very lightly on me in comparison with what remains behind. Know then, tender-hearted lady, that my greatest misfortune and what I have never divulged to anyone before is  – the want of society of my own kind. This reflection is always uppermost in my own mind but comes upon me with irresistible force every spring. It was in the month of May last that I resolved to elope from my place of confinement; for my fancy had represented to me that probably many agreeable tortoises of both sexes might inhabit the heights of Baker's Hill or the extensive plains of the neighbouring meadow, both of which I could discern from the terrass. One sunny morning, therefore, I watched my opportunity, found the wicket open, eluded the vigilance of Thomas Hoar, and escape into the St-foin, which began to be in bloom, and thence into the beans. I was missing eight days, wandering in this wilderness of sweets, and exploring the meadow at times. But my pains were all to no purpose; I could find no society such as I wished and sought for. I began to grow hungry, and to wish myself at home. I therefore came forth in sight, and surrendered myself up to Thomas, who had been unconsolable in my absence. Thus, madam, have I given you a faithful account of my satisfactions and sorrows, the latter of which are mostly uppermost. You are a lady, I understand, of much sensibility. Let me, therefore, make my case your own in the following manner, and then you will judge of my feelings. Suppose you were to be kidnapped away tomorrow, in the bloom of your life to a land of Tortoises, and were never again for fifty years to see a human face !!! Think on this dear lady, and pity

Your sorrowful Reptile,




Timothy was to die, at what was thought to be 64 years old, in 1794, outliving Gilbert White by just a year. The shell eventually found its way to the British Museum, where it was established that he was, in fact, a she. White was also guessing when he identified Timothy’s homeland as Virginia: the animal was of a species normally resident on the coastal regions of North Africa.

Hester “Hecky” Mulso, was named after her paternal aunt Hester Chapone (widow, author and noted “bluestocking”).

The three lines of poetry are from John Dryden's Alexander's Feast or The Power of Music. Timotheus was Alexander the Great's favourite musician.

St-Foin, or sainfoin, is a kind of hay, onobrychis sativa.


Posted on April 28th, 2014


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