Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland - a majestic centenarian

The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry, 1906-1913, magnificently reissued by the Society of Irish Foresters.

In 1900 or thereabouts, a Gloucestershire landowner was frustrated by not being able to find any up-to-date information on trees, native or exotic, that he could plant on his land with the hope of commercial success, so he 'conceived the idea of commencing a work on the subject.' He was Henry John Elwes, of Colesbourne Park, and in his own reckoning this project, published from 1906-1913 as The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland', was to be 'the most complete and useful work I ever did.'   We are fortunate in that, in addition to 'the work' - one can hardly call seven hefty volumes a book - he also left an account of why and how it was written, published in his posthumous autobiography (1930). He records how he wanted it to be a contemporary, accurate and fully verified 'life-history of every tree which had been cultivated in this country from the seed to the stage at which it was converted or convertible into timber' and how the realisation dawned that 'an immense deal of research... would be necessary to come up to the high standard which I set up for myself.'

In consequence he looked about for 'a colleague who would help me'  and was put in touch with Dr Augustine Henry, already renowned for his exploration of the Chinese flora (see my post of 7 December 2011) and engaged him as his co-author, based at Kew. Henry was to do all the technical botanical part of the book, while Elwes attended to the practical aspects of cultivation, forestry and timber production and usage. Each signed their contributions with their initials, so there was no doubt as to who had written each section.Although HJE never ventured into technical botany, AH  frequently also comments on the growing trees, and often provides information  from his observations in China (though most of the Chinese species introduced by Wilson following in Henry's footsteps were too new in cultivation to warrant more than a note.)

In writing 'The Trees', Elwes and Henry left nothing to chance, and no expense was spared: 'My previous experience in publishing privately an important work on Lilies had also proved to me that where an author is prepared and able to finance a work of this size and cost himself, he will gain in many ways by dispensing with a publisher.' It was a lordly approach, and it worked. One suspects that HJE was proud of the fact that in the course of his travels in the British Isles alone, visiting 600 locations to see the trees there, he 'wore out two motor cars' and travelled thousands of miles by rail. Augustine Henry travelled a lot too, and his note that he travelled by stagecoach from Grants Pass in Oregon to Crescent City, California, in 1906, sets the book's date into perspective. Their correspondence must have been immense and indefatigable, with information recorded from contributors all over the world - and all in longhand, and by mail. By personal experience I know the effort involved in communicating with a body of contributors, even with the convenience of email.

The first results of their labours, in the form of Volume I, were published in 1906. Rather idiosyncratically they published the accounts of each species as they were ready, rather than organising them in any botanical or alphabetical sequence. It is odd, but as HJE said, there is a full index (the eighth volume) that renders the publication order irrelevant, and the advantages they gained were enormous, giving the authors longer to study the more difficult genera. It is not surprising that Tilia, Populus and Ulmus are found in Volume VII (1913). Each species gets a botanical description by Henry, followed by Elwes's notes. These cover its cultivation, notes on the best specimens to be seen (not only in Britain and Ireland, but frequently detouring across to Europe) and the timber and its uses, in extraordinary detail. It is this utter thoroughness that makes it such a useful and fascinating work.

A  spread from the 25 pages of text on Pinus sylvestris, illustrated with 11 full-page plates from photographs specially commissioned for the book. These were provided separate to the letterpress, to be added when the volume was bound.

"When, after four years' work, we had at last got Volume I ready to publish, my friend Sir Joseph Hooker [HJE is writing], then in his ninetieth year, asked me to show him some of the proofs, and I took down the first article in print to his house at Sunningdale. After lunch he pushed up his spectacles onto his forehead and read through the twenty-eight pages without a remark. When he had finished he congratulated me and said that he would not have thought it possible to say so much that was new and interesting to him about so common and well known a tree as the Beech." I think it is true to say that any modern reader would find it exactly the same. It is a wonderful book to browse in for unfamiliar facts, and both authors wrote beautifully clear, readable prose. No doubt now, a hundred years later, there are many facts that could be added or amended, but I have not come across any book on trees that is so satisfyingly complete.

This was, until it fell in 1911, the largest tree in the British Isles, standing 142' with a girth of 27' at 5' high.  'At my suggestion [the Bursar of Magdalen College] removed a scrubby tree... in order to allow [this] photograph to be taken...'
For many dendrologists it is the record of 'remarkable trees' that makes 'Elwes and Henry' so fascinating, though sadly most of the specimens they recorded have long gone, but the work preserves the memory of many fine trees of the past. Some we shall never see again, like the great elm of Magdalen College, illustrated above, but in fact many champion trees now exceed the dimensions of the specimens recorded here, by virtue of having had longer to grow. It is salutary to recall that when Volume I was published, Sequoiadendron giganteum had been introduced only 52 years previously, and the tallest was 100-105' (c 31 m)  by 17' in girth; the current tallest specimen in Britain is 54.5m.

For nearly ten years I had the privilege of working with, and seeing daily, the trees that HJE had planted at Colesbourne while working on the book. Some are mentioned in it, as young specimens . Among them is the fastigiate hybrid poplar now known as Populus 'Serotina de Selys'. From Volume VII we learn that this is of Belgian origin, and that in 1908 HJE visited the Baron de Selys-Longchamps, at Chateau de Longchamps near Waremme 'on purpose to see these trees'. The original had been 'procured by chance' from a local nursery in 1818, and the photograph shows trees propagated as cuttings in 1862, and standing 120' tall by 1908, compared against the leafed-out Lombardy poplars adjacent.

'Cuttings from  the fastigiate variety were kindly sent me by the baron, and are growing vigorously at Colesborne.' This is the surviving Colesbourne specimen in about 2004 or 2005, when it was 36 m tall. 

The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland appeared in seven volumes from 1906-1913, when an index volume was produced. Only 500 copies were printed, of which just over half were sold to subscribers, a list of whom can be found with the index; the ledger recording their payments is still at Colesbourne Park. The rest were sold through the bookseller Bernard Quaritch and quickly became sought-after. The original set were issued as rough blocks of folded sheets, in a flimsy grey paper wrapper. They look terribly rough, but it was expected that the gentlemen (and a few ladies - Miss Willmott had three sets) who purchased a set would have them bound in their own favoured style.

The Index volume, as issued in the first printing, with uncut pages and a flimsy cover.
 In the 1970s the Royal Forestry Society produced a facsimile, again in only 500 copies and unfortunately rather grubby in appearance. In 2012, to commemorate the centenary of 'The Trees' and honouring Augustine Henry, widely regarded as the father of Irish forestry, the Society of Irish Foresters has produced another facsimile reprint, of 250 copies. This time, with the benefit of modern scanning technology, it has turned out beautifully, with crisply rendered text and good rendition of the plates (although they are inevitably duller than the originals). This makes this great work available to a new generation of dendrologists, at a fair price. It is offered in two formats, either bound in linen boards for €500, or in half-leather for €1500. More information is available from

Through the munificence of a gentleman who I am sure would prefer not to be named, but to whom I am happy to have been able to render service, I have been presented with a set of The Trees in half leather binding. It is a gift I shall always treasure - and use.


  1. What a wonderful gift John, I am sure you will find much use for it.