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History of Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve and the Selborne Society

The Selborne Society was founded in 1885 to commemorate the eighteenth century naturalist Gilbert White (1720-93). It was originally a national organisation, founded to continue the traditions of this pioneer of environmental study by correspondence between members about their observations of natural history. Today’s Selborne Society was originally the Brent Valley branch of the national Society, and continues the work of its founders, observing and recording wildlife in part of west London, managing and conserving Perivale
Wood Local Nature Reserve, as the Gilbert White Memorial. White spent most of his life in the Hampshire village of Selborne.

Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve was founded in 1902, as the Brent Valley Bird Sanctuary. It is the second oldest nature reserve in Britain. In 1974 it was recognised as a statutory Local Nature Reserve under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1947.

Scroll down for a brief history of the Selborne Society and Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve. Three more detailed histories of the Society have been written:

The Selborne Society: its origins and history by Michael Blackmore (1985)

Pioneers of conservation : the Selborne Society and the RSPB by Richard Clark (2004)

A history of the Selborne Society by Michael Blackmore and Rae Hall (2011)

Plus a special edition of the Selborne magazine "A Gilbert White centenary booklet to illustrate the aims and work of the Selborne Society"

Establishment of the Reserve

From the foundation of the Selborne Society in 1885, it was especially active in the west of London. Members of the Brent Valley branch of the Society were attracted by the wildlife of Perivale Wood, and in 1902 they founded a committee to establish an official sanctuary for wildlife. This was remarkably far-sighted at a time when the area was mainly rural. Less concerned people might have thought that there were no problems for wildlife in the open countryside of Middlesex at the time, and that there was no need for special attention and sympathetic management and ownership of the land. The Society is proud to be a pioneer in conservation.

When the Brent Valley Bird Sanctuary was established, an agreement was reached with the local farmers that the Society would maintain the woodland hedges and appoint a keeper of the Sanctuary. Mr Harry Quarterman was employed as keeper from 1905. He had the daunting job of maintaining the hedges, coppicing the wood and keeping out poachers, egg collectors, bird catchers, flower hawkers and other trespassers - far more problems than we face today in maintaining the Reserve against intruders. He also made a range of attractive and unique nest boxes for birds - at a time when the idea of gardening for birds was very new. These were extremely popular, and were ordered from many parts of the world. The income from their sale was an important contribution to the costs of running the Sanctuary. Then, as now, members of the Society and friends helped in the work of keeping the wood and its boundaries in good order.

In 1914 the Wood was formally rented from the Church Commissioners, and in 1920 a public appeal was launched in order to purchase the Wood and some of the adjoining land as a permanent memorial to Gilbert White. By 1922 the then considerable sum of £5,000 had been raised, and Perivale Wood, together with the areas now known as the Paddock, the Pondfield and Little Elms Meadow became the property of the Selborne Society, as the Gilbert White Memorial Reserve. In 1931, just before the houses of Sunley Gardens and Selborne Gardens were built, the Society purchased an additional piece of land - Willow Mead. This brought the Reserve to its present boundaries. The intention of buying all the land between the Paddock and Horsenden Lane was never realised, and this is now occupied by housing and recreational open land with public access to the Canal tow-path.

The early years

The Wood was apparently in active coppice management until just before the second world war, and this meant that conditions were ideal for nightingales to breed - eight pairs were recorded in 1911. After a lapse of some 40 years, a programme of coppice management (see page 27) was re-instituted in the 1980s, and it is possible that in time there will again be a suitable habitat for nightingales.

Careful records of birds were kept during this period, especially by Wilfred Mark Webb, whose booklet on the Reserve, dealing mainly with birds, was published in several editions.
Webb also arranged for the Society to purchase the manuscript of Gilbert White's Flora Selborniensis, a calendar of the flora, which was published as a private edition in facsimile; the manuscript is in the Society's archives, housed in the Library of the Linnean Society in central London, and you can see a copy by clicking here.

The Wood suffered during the war, with the loss of Wilfred Mark Webb into active service, and the loss of the keeper as well, but a few invaluable members, and Mr Webb's son Geoffrey, visited the Reserve regularly and kept the fences and hedges in good repair. After the war, Wilfred Mark Webb resumed his activities, and was an active worker for the Society until his death in 1953. His house in Hanwell, The Hermitage, is still an attractive feature of the Brent River Park, and its grounds are still, as he referred to them, an unofficial sanctuary for wildlife.

During the late 1950s there was an upsurge of interest in the Reserve, thanks to the activities of the late Major Gilbert Cattley, Tom Bartlett and others. One of their major achievements was in establishing visits by parties from local schools.
Pearl Small was chairman of the Society from 1972 - 80, and she was responsible for setting the Society’s affairs into good order, establishing the present formal framework of a Limited Company with charitable status in 1974. Many of the present activities of the Society were instituted during her time in office.

Since the 1950s the emphasis has shifted from a sanctuary for birds to an overall nature reserve, with an interest in all aspects of the natural environment. The Society is committed to maintaining, conserving and managing Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve for the pleasure of its members, for educational use, and for biological research.

An educational resource

The school visits were initiated in the 1950s, and the Reserve provides a valuable resource for parties from schools throughout the area. All school parties are booked in advance, and an experienced member is available to act as a guide. There is usually a small display in the Reserve hut of some of the work done by students on or following these visits.

As well as schools, local adult education groups visit the Reserve regularly, and a number of  University departments use the Reserve for ecological field studies.

Research and observation

Gilbert White was a meticulous observer, and kept excellent records of his observations. The Reserve is the Gilbert White Memorial, and one of its major activities is the keeping of records of the species in the Reserve. By comparing current observations with the records kept over the last century, we can record changes, and contribute to conservation work and the study of ecology both nationally and internationally.






Copyright © 2015 The Selborne Society. This page updated January 11, 2015