Movers and Shakers

Last week’s post ended with the image printed in 1828 of  Sir Henry Stuart’s balance-men being catapulted through the air while trying to move a tree, but over the following twenty years or so  gardeners, foresters and landscapers invented a whole range of variations, adaptations of Sir Henry’s machine and new techniques to avoid such arial acrobatics and move large trees safely.

Six of them were captured by Charles McIntosh in his mini-encyclopaedia The Book of the Garden published in 1852 in a section about “The transplantation of trees of great age and size “, but there were plenty more that he missed.

Since then horsepower has been replaced by petrol power, and  the technology of  mechanics and hydraulics have improved immensely meaning that  modern machines can perform wonders that the Victorian inventors would not easily credit.  Around 50/60 years ago things took another step further forward with the invention of the power spade so that nowadays moving large trees, if done properly, can successfully transform landscapes in a matter of hours.

First a brief word about Charles McIntosh who was a bit of a horticultural mover and shaker in his own right and who will have a post of his own soon.  He was head gardener on several major estates, including Claremont for Leopold, King of the Belgians and Dalkeith for the Duke of Buccleugh. More importantly for today’s post he was a friend of Loudon and John Lindley and like them at the forefront of horticultural innovation and keen on spreading accurate horticultural knowledge. The Book of the Garden was his 6th book.

McIntosh begins by noting that Sir Henry Steuart had improved on Brown’s ” common janker… but still his machine was defective.” However he noted that better machines “constructed upon correct principles… have of late multiplied exceedingly.”   Unfortunately that doesn’t mean they were particularly different to each other or that they were long-lasting.  Most of the inventors were very practical head gardeners and most had designed the machines themselves to use on their estates.   As was the way at the time all the descriptions of the machines and the way they worked are  lengthy complicated and verbose and quite difficult to follow especially if you’re not very knowledgeable about mechanics but I’ll do my best not to be too boring or technical.

First up in McIntosh’s list was “Mr Saul’s tree and shrub lifting machine” which was  a “very simple contrivance, and exceedingly well calculated for the removal of subjects under half a ton in weight.”  Matthias Saul was a Lancaster gardener and nurseryman who devised a whole series of other “interesting” gadgets and he too will be getting  a post of this own one day. He often appears in the gardening press  from the 1820s until his death in the 1860s.

Luckily apart his description MacIntosh also includes an engraving of Saul’s machine.  Once a trench had been dug around the tree one part of the frame in the foreground was dropped into the trench on each side.  Iron rods were pushed through the holes on one side, then through the soil/tree roots, and then finally into the holes on the other part of the frame. They were locked into place and, in theory, held the rootball and its earth in place. The frame and the  tree were then pulled out, using horse power, and taken off to its new home where the process was reversed.   Mr Saul also suggests that the removal, especially for more delicate plants could be done in stages, the rods inserted and left for several months so the roots grow round them before lifting.

The principle of allowing the tree to partially regrow before removing it underlay the next of the inventions described by McIntosh. This was Standish and Noble’s crate, devised by two nurserymen  to help prepare trees in their nursery grounds for moving after they had been sold.  These  “enterprising cultivators” suggested growing trees “for a season or two in skeleton boxes or cradles” made  from  elm slats with lots of gaps for the roots to grow through.  When planted out in their final position the trees “need not be removed from their crates, as they will be quite rotten before the roots are of sufficient size to be obstructed by them.

We move on to Edinburgh next and the devices created by James M’Nab of the Botanic Gardens where “great success has for years attended the removal of trees, both deciduous and evergreen”.  M’Nab devised a whole series of gadgets for lifting plants of different sizes: that were ” simple and easily constructed ”  The one for moving large trees worked on a series of ratchets, winches and rollers reducing the physical effort involved.

It certainly worked and McIntosh himself used one at Dalkeith “made of the very best materials and workmanship, [which] cost £25. It has been in use 11 years, and has not required the least repair. It is capable of removing trees to any distance : we once brought a tree to Dalkeith from the neighbourhood of Glasgow, 46 miles, with one horse, with the greatest ease. ” There was also an ingenious system for raising smaller trees by using the power of leverage.


It was now the turn of William Barron to be explained by MacIntosh.  Barron was head gardener to the Earl of Harrington at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire and became famous for the creation of an extraordinary garden there.

The earl was extremely fond of conifers and many of his collection had been moved as mature specimens by Barron’s machinery.  They included this large yew, used an arbour,  which was approaching a hundred years old and had been moved 25 miles.

Barron  had already published an account of his machine and methods in his own book The British Winter Garden.  but some reason  MacIntosh isn’t very positive.  “Although illustrated by three very good woodcuts in ” The British Winter Garden,” the letterpress description of this machine is rather too brief to be clearly understood.”

He  describes Barron’s machine  as “ponderous” which it certainly was.   It was solidly constructed out of huge oak beams – the longest 21 feet long – and iron rods, and mounted on a pair of massive broad-tired wheels. Despite this it  was easy to disassemble, manoeuvre into position and reassemble.  It took me a while to work out how the tree was actually lifted but it is very clever.  It involved an advance on earlier systems by getting a cradle right under the rootball. It was clearly hard to do but almost equally hard to describe so follow this link if you want to know the technicalities.

Barron also built a second machine for moving smaller trees of  up to a couple of tons in weight which worked by a system of cables and windlasses which “as in weighing an anchor, the cable is wound round and  becomes at each turn more and more shortened, [so] the platform and rootball upon it are elevated until sufficiently clear of the ground. By these simple mechanical appliances the great transplanting operations carried on at Elvaston during the last twenty-five years have been executed.”

Probably even more famous was his successful transplantation of the 800- year old Buckland Yew.

Amport House. I’d guess some of the larger trees here were moved there by Holmes

Next on the stocks was the technique devised by Joseph Holmes, head gardener to the Marquess of Winchester at Amport House in Hampshire. He had previously written this up at great length in The Journal of the Horticultural Society  of London [the future RHS] in 1851. Unfortunately there no illustrations but presumably it was successful because the journal listed all the trees on the estate which had been moved. “It is worthy of remark that Mr Holmes’ season of operation commenced in September, and was finished in December, The number of trees transplanted in 1847 was 204, of which 199 were in a thriving condition in November 1850”

Holmes had a slightly more sophisticated approach to the others.  It involved not only digging a trench round the tree but also cutting away the ground on one side to create a ramp.  The roots were tied into loose bundles and the ground gradually cut away. Next  what Holmes called a truck or a sledge  which had  a tapered metal end  and looked like  “a ponderous shovel” – was then lowered down the slope on rollers and gradually pushed under the rootball until it was secured on the shovel.  The sledge with the attached shovel was then pulled up the slope on the rollers with the tree standing upright on it.

aerial view of Kingston Hall and its parkland. Many of the trees were moved and transplanted here in the 1840s by Mackay and Strutt.

Mr Mackay,  head gardener at the newly built Kingston Hall in Notts also devised a “large tree-lifting machine” for  “its spirited proprietor” Edward Strutt.   Commentators on Strutt’s ambitious building scheme worried that nothing had been done by way of planting as the mock Elizabethan mansion was going up and thought he had made a serious mistake not planting round it as he “could not reasonably expect to see trees much taller than himself during his own lifetime.”  Strutt – and Mackay – set out to prove them wrong. It was not easy. Their first attempt was carried out using Sir Henry Stuaurt’s system and  “about twenty trees of various sizes, from fifty feet downwards, were brought from St Helen’s, one of Mr Strutt’s estates, near Derby, [but] it was found, in the course of drawing these trees so great a distance (thirteen miles) along the public highway, with many of the branches frequently trailing upon the ground, that the latter got seriously injured and broken ; nor did the trees themselves, when replanted, succeed sufficiently to warrant any very extended operation upon this plan.” So Mackay invented a new machine and a new technique for using it, which relied on jack-screws.

This was reported by Robert Marnock in both  ” The Gardeners’ and Farmers’ Journal” and in ” The Forester”  Marnock watched some 40ft elms being moved from the edge of a wood the best part of a mile away.  Having cleared the ground and trenched the trees, and cut a slope for access  workmen dug under the rootball all the way round and “four stout oak planks were placed under this ball of earth in front and behind”. These were chained together  and the chains attached to jack-screws. The screws on one side were then turned to slightly lift the planks and with them the tree. Then the  screws on the other side were  turned and the process continued until the tree was lifted sufficiently clear to be dragged up the slope.   Mackay’s machine could lift trees up to 15 tons in weight and cost about £60 to build. A smaller version for trees up to 5 tons cost £25

Plan of the machine. You can find the iron frame that formed the basis of the structure by counting in 3 sections from the left and tracing it round.

However wonderful and ingenious these machines are McIntosh concludes his round-up with “the most powerful and perfect of all such machines, …invented and patented by Mr M’Glashan”.  It certainly true that its most ingenious and labour  saving and clearly   foreshadows modern technology.

It’s worth looking at this in a bit more detail.

The device was based around a square frame of iron  roughly the same  size as the rootball to be removed. Attached all round this were a line of adjustable iron cutters, rather like spade blades, a foot wide and 3-4 ft long. They were set at an angle and then hammered into the ground to the required depth, effectively cutting round the tree rather than trenching around it.  The frame was then assembled with massive wooden beams, and screw jacks which provided the power to lift the tree out of the ground.   When the workmen turned the screws ” the frame and enclosed mass rise erectly upwards. In ordinary circumstances, a tree with a ball of 10 feet, in about 20 minutes’ working of the screws, should be completely raised from the pit.” Once the tree was lifted clear the whole frame could be moved under horse power and taken to the new site where the pit should already have been prepared to take the tree in a reverse process.

Google street view of Dalkeith Palace and park

McIntosh made several suggestions for improvements while “Mr M’Glashan was lifting a large holly tree lately in Dalkeith Park… which he took up, with a most perfect ball of 4 feet on the side and 3 feet deep… and had it ready for attaching the horses, in one hour and five minutes, with no other assistance than one of his own men and three labourers to assist in driving in the cutters and working the screws by which it was lifted out of the ground.”

I won’t go on about all the other inventors I found but if you’re still awake and want to know more  check out Colonel George Greenwood’s The Tree Lifter [1844] and Charles R. Kelly Transplanting Large Trees and Shrubs [1873]. Of course they all largely relied on hand labour and were limited by the the problems of moving extremely heavy loads along a still rudimentary road system. It isn’t not until the late 1960s that there are any drastic improvements.

It’s always much more difficult to trace the history of inventions in the modern era but I think the man responsible was  Albert H Korenek of Angleton, Texas. In 1962  he began “building a model of my dream tree digger in our old farmhouse attic. This first model was built of plywood with four flat blades forming an inverted pyramid-shaped ball. After completing the model, I tried to hire Bill Peltier, a [local] welder and fabricator, to build a machine from the model. He was too kind to laugh at me, and refused to build the machine saying I’d only be wasting money because the idea wouldn’t work even if built.”

Peltier was wrong! Luckily  he was eventually convinced and “After many trials and frustrations, on June 26, 1965, we finally dug our first tree — a four-inch caliper live oak — with the new hydraulic tree spade. Thus the “Texas Tree Shovel” was born.”

And after the Texas tree shovel have come a whole range of extraordinary devices and techniques including air bags and water cutting which, instead of trying to describe I’ll just illustrate…








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1 Response to Movers and Shakers

  1. cboot says:

    Waddesdon Manor was called One Tree Hill before the Baron arrived, and he brought in hundreds of mature trees to make his park. Another more recent adventure is at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, where surrounding gardens were scoured and an offer made to householders for their ornamental garden trees. Most were only too delighted to be able to donate their trees to the cause, and a very attractive planting it makes too

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