The Plantations on the Estate of Wentworth (1888)

I recently came across a report entitled The Plantations on the Estate of Wentworth, Yorkshire in Volume 12 of the Transactions of the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society, published by that Society in 1888. (You can find a full copy of the book at The report provides a fascinating first-hand account of estate forestry at the end of the nineteenth century - and the proximity of Wentworth to my hometown makes this of especial personal interest. The devastating effects of industrial pollution are given prominence, and the innocuous line that “For underwood and game cover we find… none take so freely to the soil as the Rhododendron” should ring ominously for every conservationist.

I’ve reproduced almost the whole report here. Even though it makes for a much longer than usual blog post, it’s a rewarding read and well worth your time. [Notes in square brackets are my own.]

The Plantations on the estate of Wentworth, Yorkshire. By George Dodds, Forester, Wentworth, Rotherham, Yorkshire.

In this Report I propose giving some details of the nature, extent, and management of the woodlands upon the estate of the Right Hon. The Earl Fitzwilliam, K.G. [William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, b. 1815 d. 1902, who was MP for Malton 1837-1841 and 1846-1847 and MP for Wicklow 1847-1857 before becoming the 6th Earl], at Wentworth, Yorkshire. [The famous Wentworth Woodhouse was the Fitzwilliams’ stately home.] The estate is situate in the southern part of the West Riding, and extends to close upon 60,000 acres; the woods and plantations occupying about 5640 acres of that area.

The difficulty now to contend with in growing trees in this district is the amount of smoke in the atmosphere, and any one not accustomed to iron and coal mining districts can scarcely conceive the damage done to vegetation by the smoke and fumes from the mines, and also from the coke ovens which are in constant operation in the locality. In making new plantations or in renovating the old woods upon the estate, much care has to be taken to use the species of trees upon which the smoke seems to have least effect. These are principally trees having a smoothish bark, such as ash, beech, birch, Spanish chestnut, horse chestnut, lime, wych elm, and sycamore.

A considerable quantity of larch has been planted of late years, but after reaching a height of ten to twelve feet the trees are gradually dying off, chiefly on account of the unsuitability of the soil for the growth of larch, but also in some measure from the surrounding atmosphere being impregnated with noxious vapours, which are injurious to plant life. I notice the only trees of the pine tribe that seem to thrive here are the Scots fir, Pinus sylvestris, the Austrian pine, P. Austriaca [Pinus nigra subsp. nigra var. nigra, a subspecies of black pine], and the Corsican pine, P. Larcicio [Pinus nigra subsp. salzmannii var. corsicana, another black pine subspecies].

Many of the newer conifers, especially Cedrus Deodara and Wellingtonia gigantea [Sequoiadendron giganteum - giant redwood a.k.a. Sierra redwood], have been planted in the Home woods and Park, but after lingering for a few years they have mostly all died out, and those that are alive present a very sickly appearance.

1. The Home Park.

Beginning with the Home Park, which extends to about 2000 acres, we estimate the area under wood, including some plantations that lie contiguous to the Park, at 1000 acres, of various ages. … Some of the trees in the Park have attained to large dimensions, chiefly oak, and it is currently reported here that some of the older and larger specimens are the remnants of the ancient natural forest, which I have no doubt once stretched across from Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire to this part of the country.

I regret to say that many of the largest of the old trees are dead, and more dying every year, some of them containing from 400 to 500 cubic feet of timber. In fact, we felled some last season which contained 430 feet of timber when measured. It is a pity to see so many hoary-headed monarchs of the forest standing dead or dying side by side. They well exemplify Dryden’s beautiful lines:-

“The Monarch Oak, the Patriarch of trees,
Shoots rising up, and spreads by low degrees;
Three centuries he grows, and three he stays
Supreme in State, and in three more decays.”

The earliest planting here of any note was done by the first Marquis of Rockingham [Thomas Watson-Wentworth, b. 1693 d. 1750], who lived about 180 years ago. It is rather a curious fact that even the trees that appear to be about 100 years’ growth, have not the least appearance of the older trees, as they are now showing symptoms of premature decay, by the stunted and sickly appearance of the foliage that they put on every season. This I attribute in a large degree to the prevalence of smoke and noxious fumes, which have arisen in this locality within the last hundred years or so.

There are some very fine rows of lime-tree and elm in the Park, planted in the same form as the Duke of Marlborough drew up his troops at the battle of Blenheim. The lime-trees are all intact, and are admired by every one, but a great many of the elms have been blown down from time to time, and not having been replaced, the gaps spoil the general effect. These trees are now about 170 years old.

… For underwood and game cover we find Rhododendron ponticum the most useful, although we plant several other sorts, such as blackthorn, privet, and hazel, but none take so freely to the soil as the Rhododendron.

[Ordnance Survey mapping shows plenty of woods in and around Wentworth Park, with some even including ‘plantation’ in their name, e.g. Cortworth Field Plantation and Mausoleum Plantation. Google Maps shows two lines of trees ‘facing’ each other (see below) – are these the remains of the ‘Battle of Blenheim’, or just a northern approach avenue to the big house? More research and a visit is required!]

2. Rainbro’ Park.

This wood may be said to be one of the Home plantations, as it lies immediately outside of the Park, and extends to 200 acres, varying in age from 6 to 150 years. …

The original crop has been oak, but as it was showing symptoms of decay, the greater portion of the old trees were cut down a few years ago, leaving only a few of the healthiest and best for the sake of appearance in the landscape. … A great many of the old trees are dying off and should be removed, which process will now require extra care, to avoid much damage to the healthy growing young trees.

[Rainborough Park is still a good-sized wood on OS mapping.]

3. Hood Hill.

It is about 80 years old… Some very promising specimens of beech and Spanish chestnut are growing here. …

[Today the OS shows 3 woods around Hood Hill, including Hood Hill Plantation.]

4. Low Woods.

This plantation extends to 180 acres, and is about 150 years old. … This wood has suffered severely from being in the neighbourhood of iron-works, which, however, are now done away with. I have advised to clear the greater portion of the present crop away and replant the ground with the most suitable kinds of trees.

[OS shows a Low Wood and adjacent Lowe Wood two or three miles north-west of Tankersley.]

5. Tankersley Woods.

This district comprises a parish and township lying at a high elevation, and is consequently much exposed. The highest part is about 600 feet above sea-level, and lies very exposed to the west wind. The woodlands extend to about 600 acres, and the trees vary in age from 10 to 70 years. … The younger woods have been planted in narrow belts, and mostly on land which has been occupied by old pit workings… This is also a smoke infested district, one of the largest iron-works in Yorkshire being upon the land, and also an extensive colliery. We are kept continually felling dead trees, and I am of the opinion that, if the smoke continues, very few live trees will be found in the course of a few years.

[There are still several woods around the small villages of Tankersley and Pilley, although an industrial estate and three major roads, including the M1, are now prominent in the area.]

6. Swinton Woods.

The woodlands in this district extend to about 300 acres. The trees are chiefly oak. …

The woods in the district have all the appearance of having been well attended to, and thinning has been judiciously practised. The great majority of the trees are well grown and healthy, and exhibit all the signs of attaining to valuable dimensions.

[Swinton now forms an urban conurbation with the towns of Wath-upon-Dearne, Mexborough and Rawmarsh; however, there are still a few small woods mostly to the south-west of town, many of which have ‘plantation’ in the name, e.g. Blackamoor Inn Plantation and Long Plantation.]

7. Eccleshall Wood.

This is a large wood extending about 450 acres, and lies to the south-east of the town of Sheffield. Portions of it have already been taken up for building sites, and in a few years hence, I have no doubt it will be extensively used for that purpose, lying as it does within easy reach of such an important and progressive town.

… It is moderately sheltered, and I believe is also an outlying part of the ancient Nottinghamshire Forests. The crop is oak, and must be of great age, as all the trees have the appearance of being grown from old stools.

The oak is not healthy, and shows symptoms of dying off in the course of a few years. Some planting has been done in a few of the openest parts, and consists of larch, Scots fir, sycamore, Spanish chestnut, ash, elm, mountain ash, birch, and beech, and all promise to grow well. The ages of the recent plantings are from 12 to 4 years. The great difficulty to contend against is the brackens and other rank herbage that grow upon this land, which entail a great amount of labour and expense in keeping the young plants clear. It has been found advantageous to cut the brackens in their early growth, as the constant bleeding weakens them much.

[Ecclesall Woods are today owned by Sheffield City Council and cover about 350 acres.]

8. Tinsley Park Wood.

This wood lies intermediate between the towns of Rotherham and Sheffield, and receives the full effect of the smoke, sulphur, and other fumes, no matter from which direction the wind may blow.

… The extent is 350 acres, age unknown, but to all appearance the wood is natural. The crop is oak, with a few birch that have grown up naturally. The greater portion of this wood is, consequently, a matter of some consideration for the owner, as to whether to keep it up as a wood or not? It is completely surrounded by public works, which entail great difficulties in the matter of planting. If replanting is undertaken here, I have recommended to plant sycamore, ash, birch, beech, and wych elm, as the trees most likely to grow to anything approaching timber size in such a locality.

[The ancient and historic Tinsley Park Wood is no longer with us; in its place we have Sheffield Airport, Tinsley Park Golf Course, the A630, and a big Morrisons. It was coal-mining, however, that brought about the wood’s destruction.]

9. Edlington Wood.

This wood extends to 510 acres… This is one of the most valuable woods upon the estate, and is no doubt a part of the remains of the Nottinghamshire Forests, as it is situate close to the borders of the counties of York and Nottingham. Some yews in the centre of the wood are of immense size and great age. The are still growing, and very healthy, and may at one time supplied Robin Hood and his merry men with bows and arrows.

The crop is principally natural oak, having a few ash, beech, and larch mixed through it which were planted about 60 years ago. The trees are generally healthy, but in some instances the older oaks show symptoms of decay, chiefly in the top branches, which may be attributed to the repeated cutting over, and springing up again from the old stools. The old oaks contain an average from 40 to 70 cubic feet. This wood has been worked upon the coppice principle. There are several miles of fine drives through it in various directions.

[Edlington Wood still exists, albeit adjacent to the M18.]

10. Bradfield Plantation.

An extensive tract of moorland extending to about 1800 acres. This district lies at an altitude of about 900 feet above sea-level… A ravine traverses a great portion of the wood, and upon the slopes, on both of its sides, the trees have done well.

The first planting was begun here in 1817 with 45 acres, and the whole extent was finished in 1830. The crop is principally larch and Scots fir, with a few spruce. The earliest planted parts are fast coming to maturity, hundreds of trees dying off every year. We are now contemplating clearing it off in sections, and replanting.

An experiment was tried here in a part where the soil is deepest and best. About 40 acres were sown with oak acorns; these have grown, but never attained to any size or value. The largest trees after 60 years’ growth may contain from three to four cubic feet, whilst many of the larch grown beside them contain 25 feet of wood. This has been a very profitable investment for the owner, as the land is chiefly moor, and of very little value for any other purpose. The larch grown here has the reputation of being very tough and durable. It has been mostly sold at one shilling per foot, at a distance of nine miles from a railway station or the nearest market. The whole of this wood is enclosed with a substantial stone wall.

[I have driven through this wood countless times. A couple of years agoI noticed that a large compartment had been clearfelled. This work was carried out as part of the ‘Bradfield Moorland Regeneration Scheme’1 – I have a bit more to say about this in a note at the end of this post.]


I cannot say that the woods upon this estate have been managed upon the most scientific principles, still they will compare favourably with most other extensive woodlands in the district.

The woods No. 7, 8, and 9, mentioned in this report, have been treated as coppice woods, or as they are termed in the district, “spring woods.” The routine of management of these woods is to have a fall every year; so that all the ground may be gone over in twenty-one years.

The timber is sold standing, by public auction, in early spring. The trees are all previously marked, measured, and valued by the woodman. The purchase pays all the expenses for felling, peeling, cutting, and clearing the underwood, etc. In a book for the purpose, the reserved trees, and trees for sale, are all noted. No tree is measured that does not contain ten cubic feet of timber. Under that size they are classed as poles. The system of measuring is as follows. The men are supplied with six rods, each six feet long, with ferrules to slip the rods into as they are passed up the tree. One man uses the rods, another the tape for the girth, and a third enters the number of tree, the length, and the girth into the book. It is surprising how near, by this simple method, they can go to the contents of each tree.

It is the custom to peel the trees standing, which is certainly an advantage in getting the bark earlier cured, as no time is lost in felling. I am of the opinion that it is also better for the timber, as the longer it stands after being barked, it is always becoming more seasoned.

Many would perhaps object to the purchaser cutting down the wood, but in this case it is no objection, as the woodmen are the proprietor’s servants; the purchase agreeing to pay for the working of wood at prices stated in the Rules of Sale.

The usual contract prices for working the wood are as follows:- for felling, per ton of 40 feet, 3s.; barking, per ton, 30s.; cutting and ranking of cordwood, 4s. per cord; stakes per score, 3d.; and so on, the woodmen providing their own tools.

In the Home plantations and Park much the same system of piece-work is carried out, especially in felling, barking, and similar operations, the same price being paid as in the “spring woods,” but in all the cases the wood is felled before it is sold, which is mostly done by private bargain.

The younger plantations have been partially thinned, but no system of pruning has been adopted. The consequence is, that most of them are found full of straggling, lob-sided trees, which might have been straight and well-grown if proper attention had been paid in due time to the pruning of them.

Planting was formerly done by contract; letting it to some of the working men, at so much per 1000 for making the pits and putting in the plants. This is a system which I do not approve, and consequently it has been put a stop to.

There are two nurseries, of about three acres each, upon different parts of the estate, for keeping up a supply of young trees, and plants for underwood. Seedlings are generally bough and kept a year or two, as the case may be, and in this way the young plants become to a certain extent acclimatised before being planted out permanently. Plants grown in these nurseries lift with abundance of roots, and when planted out they soon lay hold of the ground, and begin to grow with vigour at an early period. In this and other ways, they are an important advantage upon an estate.

1 The Bradfield Moorland Regeneration Scheme is a scheme whereby a significant proportion of ‘Bradfield Plantation’ will be clearfelled over a three-year period, reverting the land back to its historic moorland state. I’ve plucked the salient points from the Scheme’e environmental statement, which can be found in its entirety on the Forestry Commission England’s website. The woods and surrounding moorland, by the way, are still owned by Fitzwilliam (Wentworth) Estates.

[Under the heading of ‘Historic Landscape Context’]
Thomas Jeffrys’ Map of 1775 shows the study area to be open moorland labelled as “Hallfield Moor”, and there is no indication of tree cover in the vicinity. The land in the study area was allotted and enclosed by a Parliamentary Enclosure Act of 1826, which shows a managed plantation/woodland in place. So, it seems the Wentworth Estate converted part of the moorland to plantation sometime between 1775 and 1826. … The beech and oak plantations date from around 1900 and the bulk of the conifers were re-planted between 1923 and 1956.

[Under the heading of ‘Overall Project Objectives’]
The revised Bradfield Moorland Regeneration Scheme proposes to restore approximately 69ha of existing conifer plantation to a mosaic of dry dwarf-scrub heathland, wet heath and mire communities, and native broadleaved woodland to be managed as a grouse moor, retaining 136ha of existing conifers and semi-natural broadleaved woodland within the study area.

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