Timothy’s early life is something of a mystery. In fact, it was only after the tortoise’s death that anyone realised ‘he’ was actually ‘she’. It’s thought Timothy was a Greek spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) bought from a sailor in Chichester in 1740 by Henry Snooke. Mr Snooke – “one of the most rabid Tories in Sussex”, historian Jeffrey Scott Chamberlain tells us – paid half a crown (12½p) and took Timothy back to his home in Delves House, next to the church in Ringmer. There he quickly lost interest, with wife Rebecca caring for the creature.
The life of this tortoise would have gone unreported were it not for naturalist Gilbert White, Rebecca’s nephew. He was fascinated by his aunt’s pet and wrote reports about Timothy whenever he visited, creating what’s probably the first natural history study of a tortoise. Timothy feasted on kidney beans and cucumbers, survived flood and frost, and buried herself in the garden to hibernate each winter. When Mrs Snooke died in 1780 (apparently she’s interred below Ringmer’s parish church in the same grave as her husband), Gilbert White became Timothy’s new owner. He dug Timothy out of the hollow she was hibernating in – “it resented the insult by hissing”, he notes – and took her in a horse-drawn carriage to his home in Selborne. There he continued to observe Timothy, whose later years are documented in detail as part of White’s renowned book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Indeed, Timothy is such a major character that novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner later compiled all the tortoise-related mentions and published them in a short book entitled The Portrait of a Tortoise. More recently, Verlyn Klinkenborg turned these into a fictionalised tortoise-eye view that’s published as Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.
Gilbert White died in 1793. Timothy died a year later in the spring of 1794; her age was probably around 60, based on White’s notes. But this isn’t the end of the story. Not only does Timothy live on in print, her shell was presented to the Natural History Museum by Gilbert White's great-niece in April 1853. Meanwhile, Timothy’s importance is immortalised locally in Ringmer’s village sign and also on the badge for the local primary school. That’s an impressive legacy for a 12½p pet.
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 110 November 2015