100,000 trees might fetch £100,000 and a few medals

We often talk of the English landscape garden with the emphasis on garden but the wider landscape was equally important in design terms and far more significant in economic terms. Landowners  planted trees to ornament their estates for aesthetic as well as patriotic reasons but also to allow  their grandchildren to reap the rewards  when the trees were harvested and sold as timber for the navy, for fuel, building or furniture.

This attitude had been encouraged since John Evelyn first published Sylva his great work on trees , complaining about the destruction of the nations woodland and calling for mass reforestation. Unfortunately it’s not really until the 1750s that this begins to be taken up and forestry and woodland planting become the subject of more interest, with many books showing how to marry the beauty of trees to the beauty of money.

It was the oak in particular that was the object of most attention, and might explain why Capability Brown filled the land around Fisherwick Park in Staffordshire with oaks assuring the owner Lord Donegal  “that one hundred thousand trees  had been put in which in  due course might fetch £100,000.”

There were several inter-related reasons for this. The first and most obvious was the reason behind Evelyn’s Sylva: shortage of timber for the NavyBy the time Evelyn wrote Sylva the amount of forested land had declined rapidly with just estimated          3 million acres of non-cultivated  woodland  left in England and Wales -about 8% of the total land area. It became patriotic to grow trees, especially oak,  for warships.

The scale of need was immense. As Tom Williamson points out in Polite Landscapes, to construct a large ship of the line required 5,560 loads of oak and between 1730 and 1789 the naval shipyards used on average about 30,000 loads of oak or 1.5 million cubic feet.  This mainly came from royal forests nearest the sea but when the trees were felled there was no deliberate replanting, and because sheep and cattle were allowed to browse there was little natural regrowth either.

It’s true that as some observers noticed there were still stocks in forests much further inland but most contemporaries  believed that England faced a major crisis and therefore they had a responsibility to do something about it.  This sense of duty went hand in hand with economics too.  As formal gardens became more and more expensive to maintain. it became cheaper to remodel an estate into a more informal style, planting trees as a long-term crop. As we’ll see there were plenty of books which did all the calculations of the costs and savings of the wooded park over more traditional land management.   Increasingly important too was the arrival of new tree species, particularly  from North America. Planting these exotics helped show the owner’s status and wealth, and were also thought to make the landscape of an estate more beautiful and interesting.

The great historian of the natural world Keith Thomas added another underlying change on attitude to the renewed interest in tree planting.  He suggests that people had a love hate relationship with trees, especially en masse.  Woodland generally but  dense forests in particular were usually seen as hostile places.  They were lawless, the home of robbers and wild animals, and in the mediaeval and early modern periods, indeed right up until the late 17thc there had been concerted efforts to clear many of them for agriculture.  On the other hand orchards and clumps or groves of trees near the house were much loved and appreciated for their productiveness as well as their beauty.  Wealthy landowners had the best of both worlds so  cutting rides through dense woodland, or planting long avenues away from a mansion out into the distant countryside was as much a  way of showing ownership and control as much as either economics or ornament.  I doubt the Duke of Montague was terribly worried about the financial gain for the future when he planted 70 miles of elm avenue on the estate at Boughton in the 1730s.

So reforestation figured quite significantly in the mindset of great landowners  but even so  it took a long time for planting  to really get under way, and I suspect John Evelyn would be immensely disappointed that all his pleas seem to have fallen on relatively deaf ears because the decline in the availability of timber doesn’t really turn round until the Napoleonic Wars.  By that  time it was almost too late, because before  the newly-planted oaks had reached a useful size timber warships had been supered by ironclads.

A few books on forestry and woodland planting appear in the early part of the 18thc in the footsteps of Evelyn but things begin to move a bit faster from the 1750s with  many more tracts being published.  Most  are pale echoes of Sylva, copying the structure if not Evelyn’s actual words, and definitely seeming to lack his passion. Sadly too few carry any images which can make them rather dull for the modern reader. Luckily the interest in trees and forests had also began to attract artists and so there are plenty of contemporary images to help illustrate what I’m talking about.


One of the earliest of these forestry books was Batty Langley’s  A Sure Method of Improving Estates which was published in  1728.

It was a treatise on the economics of growing various trees and dedicated to Lord Torrington and the other Commissioners of the Royal Navy.  Langley calculates that there was just 60 years worth of naval timber left and that Britain was already “much obliged to foreigners” for timber.

Apart from accounts of  some  simple experiments designed to work out the best growing conditions for trees,  the bulk of the book is, like Sylva, divided into sections about each major tree species starting with the oak.   But it also  includes all sorts of detailed  calculations reminiscent of old school maths exercises on the cost of digging planting  holes, weeding, labour rates, interests rates etc etc before revealing that after 20 years the profit would be £4785.

Equally confusing, and let’s be honest dull, this time because of its ponderous language rather than its arithmetic,  is James Wheeler’s The Modern Druid of 1747.  Wheeler was a Suffolk gentleman and his main concern seems to be how to get oak trees to grow as straight as possible. The frontispiece is instructive too.  An oak, its lower branches removed, is seen against a background of naval vessels, and with Britannia seated by its side. Overhead the motto stresses the importance of the oak. It is similar to that added to the rim of one pound coins when they were introduced and serves the same purpose: Britanniae Decus et tutanem or roughly translated: Britain’s shield and ornament.

Clearly neither Langley or Wheeler’s books [or any of the others that I haven’t mentioned] made much of an impact, because William Watkins says his   A treatise on Forest Trees of 1753 was written because of “the continual Devastation of Wood in this Kingdom.” It was “put together in a great Hurry” drawing “on such authors as I am fully satisfied may be depended on.” He warns landowners against “squandering away their time and fortune in idle and unsatisfactory pleasures such as “an evening’s debauch”  when the same 5 or 6 guineas would enable “as many poor Peasants to plant so many hundred Trees.” Although he does include some accounts of his own experiments once again the text is based on earlier works.

1755 saw the publication of  A proposal for improving and adorning the island of Great Britain   by Rev Edward Wade which covered exactly the same kind of ground as Watkins. Three years later William Hanbury an horticulturally-minded Leicestershire clergyman published his Essay on Planting insisting, like many earlier writers,  that planting was a patriotic duty as well as suited ‘to the preserving of Health, and the prolonging of Life.

He also made what was effectively the first call for a coordinated national policy on tree planting arguing that because “It is a melancholly Prospect to view the Royal Forests; almost all dismantled; in many scarce a Stick left”. He argued that  there should be  a network of tree nurseries, one in every county, to restock our forests, particularly with oaks for naval needs. Hanbury’s grand scheme fell on deaf ears but his and Wade’s call to patriotism did not.  Indeed Wade  became an early member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which was to be the catalyst for a change in attitude.

Founded in 1754  the Society hoped to stimulate “Agriculture, Polite Arts, Manufacture, Colonies and Trade, Chemistry and Mechanics” by means of prizes funded by public-spirited people.  The first prizes were awarded in 1755, and by 1758  when Hanbury’s book was published the first money and medals had been  awarded. After taking advice from amongst others Peter Collinson and Philip Millar it was decided these should   initially be for sowing the greatest quantity of land with acorns (5 acres at least), at four bushels to the acre. Prizes were also offered for planting chestnuts, elm and fir.

A total of 127 gold and 40 silver medals were awarded by the Society before 1821 mostly to  the great aristocracy and gentry landowners. Amongst them was Lord Donegal for the first 50,000 trees he planted at Fisherwick.   There is a full  list of winners in the July 1912 Journal of the Royal Society of Arts  [freely available at JSTOR although you will need to register for an account].   In the early years the winning projects sound substantial. The Duke of Beaufort won the first award for sowing 23 acres in Gloucestershire with acorns. The following year it was the turn of wealthy Devon landowners Dennis Rolle MP  for  sowing of  25 acres. Rolle obviously liked winning because  two years later he received another gold medal for planting over 100,000 scotch firs.


But such schemes pale into relative insignificance in the light of others.  It’s clear that there were some enormous forestry projects taking place  elsewhere and not all on connection with the Society.   At Hafod in Ceredigion Thomas Johnes is thought to have planted about 5 million trees over the 30 years from 1786-1816 while the Duke’s of Atholl planted some 14 million larch trees on their Perthshire estates. Down at Bowood in Wiltshire the Earl of Selborne planted 10,000 trees a year in the 1770s and 1780s and on the Welbeck estate the Duke of Portland converted 60-100 acres a year to woodland.

All in all it’s  estimated that over 50 million trees were planted as a result of the Society’s endeavours, including 15 million oaks and 20 million larches and firs, with several landowners recording well over half a million. Local historians believe that it was also  thanks to the reforestation movement that we owe many of the forests of Northumberland, the Lake District and the Chilterns.   The Society’s scheme  faded out after 1821 and was  finally wound up in 1846 because incentives were no longer needed. The timber market had improved, and trees became a sound investment in its own right, while the enclosure of marginal common land by the aristocracy and gentry  at the expense of the rural labouring classes, gave added further “free” land for afforestation.

It’s also  important to note that the Society’s scheme began just before the start of  the Seven Years War against France. This ended in 1763 with the acquisition by Britain of a string of French colonies, the most significant of which in forestry terms was Canada.   Many more new tree species began to appear in Britain in the second half of the 18thc, particularly from north America. They quickly entered the commercial trade through nurserymen like Christopher Gray of Fulham who grew “many rare oaks” and so gave a boost to ornamental as well as economic forestry.  The export of trees also became a two way process with The Royal Society publishing accounts by John Ellis about his experiments with acorns and other seeds, in particular working out the best way to transport them “for the benefit of our American colonies.”

These new American trees begin to appear in print in books like William Boutcher Treatise on Forest Trees 1775 and when the new edition of Sylva, supplemented by Alexander Hunter,  came out in 1776 it reported  The Duke of Portland’s gardener, William Speechly,  as saying “I have several times made trial of twelve or fourteen kinds of American oaks sent over to his Grace in great quantities.” That is matched by accounts of the planting on other great estates.

Hunter’s Sylva was extremely well received and may well have encouraged  another wave of forestry and estate management books.  Some, like William Marshall’s Planting and Ornamental Gardening  of 1785, were largely derivative but others were based on practical experience.  Many of these were written by the head gardeners on great estates including   James Meader, who worked for  the Earl of Chesterfield and later the Duke of Northumberland, and  wrote his Planter’s Guide of 1779.    Others  included a  Treatise on the manner of raising Forest trees probably by the Earl of Haddington which  recorded the experiments carried out at his Tyninghame  estate, and Robert Callender’s book on growing Hawthorn of 1785.  More mathematically based, rather like Lnagley’s book we saw earlier,  James Anderson’s Miscellaneous Observations on planting and training timber trees of 1777 which contains very detailed calculations of costs of planting, and  expected profit margins etc.

The growing importance of the ornamental over merely economic planting also saw a change in the way these new woodlands were laid out. Rather than dense woodland or formal avenues Capability Brown preferred clumps of trees and perimeter belts. Despite changes in taste since Brown’s day his approach is still the defining feature of the English landscape.

Despite all this by the end of the 18thc England was the least forested country in Europe, and it was clear that reversing the long slow decline of  forests was going to be a long slow process.  As war with France loomed again in the 1780s, and the demand for oak for the navy grew,  Andrew Emmerich, deputy surveyor of Royal Forests, Chases and Parks wrote  The culture of Forests reiterated the problem and  urgently calling for their recovery “from their present waste and ruin”.  Two years later another pamphlet by Thomas Nichols, Purveyor of the Navy, outlined what was  needed to restore the New Forest which had been an important source of timber for the Royal Navy since the 17th century.

The problem was this renewed call was 50 years too late for the royal forests  because before  the newly-planted oaks had reached a useful size timber warships had been supered by ironclads. Luckily because of the efforts off so many landowners As much Oak now came from private estates as from the royal forests and the navy didn’t ever run out of supply. 

Of course, the question of tree planting is much more complex than might at first be imagined. In parallel there are changing attitudes to not only wilderness and mountainous scenery but also to woodland and forest scenery too. We can also see the emergence of what today is seen as perfectly natural: a growing emotional attraction to trees. This is neatly summed up by Keith Thomas  who said that  “trees were not merely domesticated but gradually achieved almost pet-like status”…and having run out of space today I’ll come back to both those ideas in other posts soon.

For more on todays subject a good place to start further reading is Chapter 6 of Tom Williamson’s Polite Landscapes [1995] and Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World [1983]




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