By the 1820s sales of large oak and ash timber had become minor elements in wood accounts. Only small sales of carpentry wood and wood for different buildings are recorded, making up less than 10% of the total income from the Silvertop woods each year and bringing in, on average, only 100 a year from Allensford. 23 Between 1834 and 1846, the woodmonger Joseph Robinson was taking all the timber cut at Allensford for only about 50 per year, less than the income from corf rods in some years. 41 This seems to indicate that most old woodland by that time was managed by coppicing for small wood (props and fence posts) and tanning bark. Though the local traditions of woodland management continued well into the nineteenth century, a new approach to timber production, reflecting the increasing commercialisation of the woods, is evident as early as the 1770s -the idea that one could grow trees as a crop, like wheat or turnips. Several distinct forms of this idea can be discerned locally.

The first of these new approaches involved planting new trees in existing woods -filling up vacancies. The second innovation was to plant new woods or extend old woods, on land previously not occupied by trees, in imitation of the ancient woods and for a similar kind of management. Thirdly, the introduction of new species into the country, particularly fast-growing conifers, led to plantations of a new kind - monocultures of non-native trees of uniform age - with the aim of harvesting the trees all together, as a crop.

These developments ought to be viewed in the light of the movement for agricultural improvement of the period. They were not, however, necessarily successive stages on the road to pure conifer plantations. There appear to be no records of the sale of conifer wood from the area before 1800. The agent's reports of work at Crooked Oak and a survey of the Allensford woods by William Robson in 1829 make it clear that they were still well stocked with broadleaved trees 42,43. Advertisements for the sale of trees from the Greenwich Hospital estates at Newland and Whittonstall record substantial numbers of broadleaved trees as late as 1844 and 1849, amounting to about 30% of the total number, while they regularly made up 20% of the trees advertised from Dilston and Dipton 36. The Duke of Northumberland was still planting oak on a commercial scale on his Prudhoe estate in the 1850s 30 However, in these later records there is no indication of whether the sales are from the old woods - Greenwich Hospital created mixed plantations in the early nineteenth century and broadleaved trees from these would have been of coppice size by the 1840s. Thus, for many years the different kinds of planting continued together, and the evidence to be presented shows that larch, the dominant conifer until the second half of the nineteenth century, played a unique part in local developments for reasons other than its qualities for upland monoculture plantations.

A need to meet local industrial demands for pit wood and tanning bark must have impelled many of the early ideas on planting. Coppiced broadleaf woods had two disadvantages - they contained an invariable range of tree species and provided wood products in invariable quantities, if the fine balance of perpetual management was maintained. Proprietors were faced with changes in demand for particular woodland products that occurred over much shorter periods than the lifetime of a tree. To increase output required additional planting, or the replacement of existing native woodland with faster growing species. I will discuss the extent to which these changes affected the local forestry business, and the ways in which it responded.

The local impetus for change

A great deal of early nineteenth century writing attributes new oak planting to the need for timber suitable for naval shipbuilding. Parliamentary reports on the matter proliferated, the Royal Forests were surveyed and common rights in them expunged to allow oak planting 44. Admiral Collingwood did his patriotic duty by planting oaks in his Northumberland estate, ‘for future navies,a great national and public object as William Billington, the planter of Chopwell Woods, could still call it in I825 45. There appears to have been a national belief in the last quarter of the eighteenth century that oak, the heart of the navy, was disappearing. This impression was due partly to the belated recognition of the amount of destruction woods had suffered throughout the seventeenth century, and partly to the polemic of the Royal Navy. Rackham has persuasively argued that there was no real shortage of ship-building oak 14. The big, curved timbers required for building naval vessels came from oaks growing in the open, in hedgerows, parkland and wood-pasture rather than from dense native woods. Dilston Park, near Corbridge, for example, had provided some of the biggest timbers in the 17th and 18th centuries 45. The Eleventh Report of the Commission for Woods and Forests in 1792 estimated that it would take about 100,000 acres of plantation (less than the area of the Royal Forests and under 10% of existing woodland) to meet all the needs of the navy indefinitely 46. It was probably the Royal Navy's reluctance to pay the market price for timber, particularly after the sharp rises caused by the Napoleonic wars, that encouraged the government to embark on a programme of oak planting in the Royal Forests and other Crown land in 1808 41. The only direct result of this in our area was the replanting of Chopwell Woods, which will be discussed later.

Despite the importance of commercial shipbuilding on the Tyne and Wear, there is no evidence that the woods covered by this study provided ship timber during the eighteenth century, though it has been said that woods near Newcastle had long provided timber for shipbuilding 29. This may have been true in the seventeenth century 47, but Dougan has pointed out that during the eighteenth century local commercial shipbuilders imported much of their timber and this was the reason, according to commentators of the time, for their failure to compete successfully with the Dutch shipyards in the first half of the century 48. Although the Greenwich Hospital estates were planting oak locally before 1775 45, and Silvertop and Middleton by 1800 49, 50, the main products of these woods continued to be bark and coppice wood and this does not suggest any intention to grow big ship timber. While the local woods were probably not involved to a large extent in the expansion of shipbuilding at the start of the nineteenth century, for the same reasons they are not likely to have suffered severely from the dramatic decline in demand for ship timber following the acceptance of iron ships from 1840 onwards.

Although some of the outlets for timber, such as waggonways, were declining as iron and steel took over as the engineers' chosen material, the continuing demand for mining timber and the enormous growth of the leather industry at the beginning of the nineteenth century appear to have been key factors in the development of local forestry. As described above, the production of coppice wood for pit props and fence stakes was the perfect adjunct to bark production for tanning. On the other hand, efficient bark production was incompatible with the growth of large timber, which was normally felled in winter when the bark lacked the required sap and yielded little bark in proportion to mits weight. Whether the loss in regular bark production occasioned by allowing oak to grow to maturity was compensated by the price available for large timber depended very much on the local demands for wood 33.

The boom in the leather industry was such that tanning became the largest consumer of oak nationally 51. The local situation was similar. In 1860 the leather industry was the eighth biggest on Tyneside, with an annual turnover of over 135,000 and there were many tanyards in Newcastle, Weardale and Tynedale. It is probable that by the start of the nineteenth century the output of the ancient coppiced woods could no longer keep pace with the demand for tanning bark. The evidence for this is strong - the price of oak bark was rising rapidly (Figure 3), proprietors were planting oak for coppicing and there was an increasing market for larch bark, at about one third the price of oak bark, despite its much lower tannin content. George Silvertop was selling larch bark by 1823 (when it accounted for 15% of his bark income) and output increased steadily from about 2 tons in 1825 to 8 tons in 1828 (when it contributed 30% of the income from bark) 23. In the 1840s Robert Ormston of Healey still found it worthwhile to invest in a new bark shed at Burnt House Farm 52. His sister's diary for May, 1846 records ...about twenty men, women and children are imployed in cutting down and peeling Larches ... in the bark wood at Harts Hill Plantation 53. The Greenwich Hospital estates in South Northumberland also took advantage of the boom, selling, for example, 90 tons of oak bark and 69 tons of larch bark in 1844 36.

The widespread enclosure of upland commons by Private Act of Parliament between 1750 and 1820 in South Northumberland must have made a significant impact on the wood market by its demand for fence posts and gates. Acts for enclosure were obtained for Hedley and Mickley commons in 1770 54, Bulbeck common in 1771 55, Whittonstall and Newlands in 1811 56 and Broomley in 1816 57. These amounted to over 12,000 acres of land, and at least 46,000 acres more were enclosed in nearby Hexhamshire between 1753 and 1800 58. While drystone walls were used extensively on the new enclosures, particularly to define landowners' boundaries and where stone was available on the spot, fence posts were nevertheless required in large numbers to provide temporary boundaries and to protect young quickset hedges from livestock. Extraordinary numbers of gates must have been erected. The Allensford woods yielded nearly 11,000 hedge stakes in 1810, while between 1823 and 1829 George Silvertop's Crooked Oak woods produced between 1500 and 2200 per year, selling at 5 shillings per hundred 22,23. By this time, however, some of these were thinnings from larch interplanted in the oakwoods.

The proprietors of woodland in the locality were also agricultural landlords keen to proclaim the improving spirit of Northumberland farmers of the period. The Greenwich Hospital Commissioners administered their estates through local receivers who, from the evidence of the the visitation reports on their estates from 1775 onwards, also made considerable efforts to commercialise forestry, to modernise their farms and to enclose the common land in which they had rights 45, 59, 39. All were prominent in a county noted for its progressive and successful approach to agricultural improvement 60. It is not surprising that these men should have embarked on tree planting as a way of maximising the productivity of their land. Young trees were becoming available in large numbers from commercial nurseries, new species with extraordinary powers of growth were being imported, and just over the border in Scotland the possibilities of plantation forestry were being demonstrated on a huge scale, particularly by the Earl of Hadddington and the Duke of Athol 61, 62. The enthusiasm and ability of the agents responsible for day-to-day administration of the estates was important. Robert Ormston ran Healey himself, with the help of a farm manager and a woodman 63. However, George Silvertop spent long periods in London and abroad and relied on an exceptionally able agent, William Todd, who superintended the new plantations at Minsteracres and advised some of Silvertop's fellow Catholic landowners throughout the North of England 42. Their influence changed the landscape between 1770 and 1850.

Planting broadleaved trees

The report of the Visitors of the Greenwich Hospital's northern estates in 1775 sheds an interesting light on the improvers' approach to woodlands. Throughout their survey of the Northumberland estates three themes repeatedly appear 45. The bailiffs were to be encouraged to fence wooded denes (the main surviving areas of ancient woodland) against grazing livestock, to discourage the tenant farmers from destroying trees under the guise of taking hedgeboot and gateboot, and to plant any vacant spaces in suitable denes and banks with acorns. The recommendations were very specific. The 31 acre Calf Close at Wooley, which contained some fine oak and ash trees, was reckoned to be good land for oak and vacancies were to be filled up by planting acorns. At Dilston, the banks of the Devils Water contained a great many fine young oaks that were being injured by cattle; the banks were to be fenced top and bottom, the trees pruned and weeded and acorns planted in the vacancies. At Newlands North and South Farms, woods were to be fenced, vacancies filled with acorns and steep banks planted. The Visitors made a general recommendation that gates and stiles should be bought centrally to prevent farmers felling trees to make their own.

This activity reflected a general emphasis on woodland improvement throughout the Hospital's northern estates. Between 1775 and 1780 annual expenditure on woods increased from an average of 140 to 940 (see Figure 4) 64. It was particularly active in wood improvements at Dilston and on the Newlands & Whittonstall estate under the supervision of Nicholas Walton, one of the northern receivers. In 1777, 139 acres of ancient woodland in Newland & Whittonstall was felled and subsequently ... filled up at different times. ..with Ash, Elms, Beech, Larch and other trees 59. The original trees were coppiced, not grubbed out - in 1817 it was reported that The oaks which have arisen from the stools of the trees then taken down, as well as the trees which were planted, have all made great progress 45. Further patches of old woodland were given similar treatment in the 1790s, and vacant spaces throughout these woods were again planted with oak, ash, elm, beech, birch and Scots pine, alder, poplar and willow, to suit the different qualities of the soil between 1801 and 1805 59. Messrs Bower and Claridge, the Visitors in 1817, seem to have had an access of oak-planting fever and they recommended acorn planting in vacancies in the new larch plantations as well as in broadleaved woods - The land selected for planting has been judiciously set out, well fenced and properly planted, with a mixture of Forest trees, except in the instances we have before mentioned, as to a want of a due proportion of oak 45. The influence of the navy's concern over oak supplies may be seen here.

At the same time, Mr. Walton, the Greenwich Hospital Receiver, was creating completely new broadleaf plantations. The most ambitious of these were on the newly enclosed Corbridge Fell, adjacent to the Duke of Northumberland's Dipton Wood, where Dipton, Snokoe and Fell plantations, amounting to 510 acres, were planted between 1779 and 1805 59. Fell Plantation consisted of 71 acres of pure oak, planted as acorns at the rate of about 1500 per acre. When surveyed by John Fryer in 1782 the majority had germinated and were doing well 65. The other plantations were said to contain every description of wood. The whole was valued at 21,453 in 1805, when it was described as ... part ... very good and in a promising state, but the trees on other parts ... are very indifferent, although as well as can be expected considering their situation and the nature of the soil on which they grow.

Smaller broadleaf plantations were developed in Newlands & Whittonstall at about the same time. The policy was described by the Visitors in 1775:
With respect to new plantations the Board will find we have proposed a great many to be made as well for Shelter as Profit, but we have been very attentive to pitch upon such pieces of Ground only as are more likely to turn to good account that way than any other; being chiefly steep, rough Banks; the Corners of Inclosures & other small Screeds of Land very inconveniently situated for the Farmer or improper for cultivation; the outside Boundaries where the Situations are bleak & expos'd; and round the Tenants Houses most of which stand high & suffer much from the Wind for want of Shelter 45.

In Newlands the mixed woods originally planted between 1796 and 1815, in Low and High Pasture plantations (NZ 085549) are still broadleaved woodland. The oaks growing there have many features of sessile oak, the native oak of the ancient woods in this part of he country and there is no indication that pure English (pedunculate) oak was planted at any time. Nevertheless, there are hints in the Greenwich Hospital reports that attempts were made to plant improved strains. Thus, in 1775 the Visitors reported that at Wooley some of the wood consisted of ordinary oak of old stock, weak and recommended to be felled. Acorns for seed were only collected from the healthiest and most vigorous trees, but there is no indication of whether they were collected locally. The Earl of Haddington, one of the pioneer planters in East Lothian in the eighteenth century, always used acorns collected in England, so there may have been ideas of new blood in the introduction of acorn planting 66.

Mixed planting of broadleaved trees and conifers

The introduction of European Larch into general cultivation was, without doubt, the most significant event in the plantation movement. Its arrival in the Tyne-Derwent area had a particular importance due to the nature of the local requirements for wood products and to a unique property of larch. Of all the conifers, it produces the strongest and most long-lasting timber and is the only species that produces bark suitable for tanning. Tannery bark played a central part in the economy of the local woods, as previously described. It is thus arguable that the proprietors initially saw larch as a fast-growing alternative to oak, rather than as a revolutionary method of monoculture timber production.

In our area, Robert Ormston created 620 acres of new larch plantations on the newly enclosed Broomley Fell between 1818 and 1821 38 and by 1824 George Silvertop was selling large amounts of larch posts and bark from plantations at Cronkley and Minsteracres which had been planted at least 10 years earlier 23. Elsewhere, larch seems to have been used at first as a fast-growing shelter or nursery tree for young broadleaved trees, especially oak, in mixed plantations. At Newlands & Whittonstall there were some small plantations of oak and larch planted in 1787 and 1792 and larch features regularly as a component of mixed woods planted there up to 1817 45, 59. Scots Pine (Scotch Fir) was also in regular use over this period. In 1812 George Silvertop was filling vacancies in his ancient oak wood, the Sneap at Crooked Oak, with larch plants bought in Hexham 67. Sir Charles Monck experimented with a variety of oak-conifer mixtures between 1812 and 1821, trying larch with oak in 1812, spruce with oak from 1813 to 1817 and oak with Scots pine in 1821 43. These were planted in alternate rows, and comparisons were made between the performance of acorns and oak plants. Unfortunately the results are not recorded. The survey of the Allensford woods by William Robson in 1829 mentions larch ready to be cut in the ancient Mosswood there 43.

The most ambitious mixed planting of this kind was carried out by the Crown Estates at Chopwell between 1813 and 1821. This was part of the plan to exploit Crown land for growing navy oak. The old Chopwell Wood, which had supplied small amounts of naval timber in the seventeenth century, was much decayed and consisted of about 800 acres of low grade farmland and 100 acres of run down ancient woodland 68. The plan was to plant it with a mixture of larch, oak and smaller numbers of mixed broadleaved species. The original contract was given to William Falla's nursery at Gateshead, who planted about half the area between 1813 and 1815 45. Four years later, the Commissioners of Crown Woods transferred William Billington from work in the Forest of Dean to supervise the remaining planting. Billington had learned the forestry business as the Earl of Haddington's gardener and had been in charge of large-scale oak planting in Dean for the Commissioners. On his arrival at Chopwell he rapidly revised the planting programme, and he has left a personal account of the subsequent work 45. In the first planting, oak had been interplanted with larch and sycamore, but Billington decided that sycamore was not satisfactory as a nurse tree as it smothered the oak. The larches, too, which made up 50% of the trees planted, were so close that they had overgrown and shaded out the oaks. Although the lower larch branches were stripped off to a height of 4 to 5 feet, as is the common practice with numerous gentlemen who have plantations, nevertheless they grew so rapidly that the higher branches soon met above the oak saplings. He had the larches drastically thinned, with immediate improvements in growth of the oak and the remaining larch. Subsequent planting used half as much larch as the first planting and double the amount of oak, at about 1470 larch to the acre (that is, 5 to 6 feet apart) and these were thinned several times in the next few years. This seems to have been quite successful and the larch thinnings provided a regular income from fence posts and bark of about 50 a year.

Billington was a strong advocate of the scientific approach to tree planting and was very critical of examples of over-planting that he saw locally. He deplored oaks newly planted under the thick shade of larches that he saw in the Greenwich Hospital woods. He emphasised the importance of adequate drainage of the site, choice of the proper trees for the soil conditions, and methodical thinning of young trees. Is it not strange, he wrote,...that, while improvements in the knowledge of Agriculture Horticulture, and every other art, have and are making such rapid progress, the knowledge and proper management of young plantations and woods should be left so far behind... . It must be added, however, that the local type of coppiced oakwood management going on when Billington arrived on Derwentside was probably outside his experience and he could have misinterpreted some of the practices he saw there. His book, published in 1825, may have been quite influential locally, for among its subscribers were George Silvertop, Anthony Surtees of Hamsterley Hall, William Coupland of Gibside and Messrs. Joyce, the nurserymen from Gateshead, all tree planters on a large scale.

The idea of interplanting larch and oak was, in principle, a good one. If Billington is to be believed, properly carried out the system did shelter and encourage the slower growing oak, and indeed larch is still favoured by the Forestry Commission as a nurse tree 69. Importantly, larch also provided income within 10 years of planting, at least 10 years before the oak could be coppiced. The practice certainly survived in the area for many years. Following substantial sales of oak from the Duke of Northumberland's ancient West Riding Wood at Hedley in 1851, the ground was replanted with oak and larch. Scots pine, spruce and oak cleared from Linnels, near Wooley, were also replaced with oak and larch; while along the Stanley Burn above Prudhoe, Alexander McCleish, the Duke's woodman, proposed to fell 2,800 feet of oak timber and replant with larch, leaving the best oak trees to stand among the new larches 30.

References and Notes

23. ZCO IV/34
24. ZCO IX
'Props are used in the Collieries ... They are from 3 to 71/2 feet long, and from 2 to 5 inches Diam. & most generally made of Birch & alder, Weed out or Cut from amongst Timber Trees.'
25. ZCO IV/4
26. CJ. Hunt The Lead Miners of the Northern Pennines in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. (Manchester University Press, 1970)
27. Props were an important product of Silvertop's Crooked Oak woods (sometimes called Common Crook). These consisted of two pieces of woodland called the Sneap and Low Pasture, in a bend of the Derwent, which amounted to 84 acres. Between 1790 and 1792 they yielded about 18,000 props, mainly 4 inches in diameter and ranging from 3 to 9 feet long, as well as thicker 'strong props' . They were sold according to length (in feet) and thickness (in inches): 3/4 props ('yard props') were sold at 1d each, 5/4 props at 1 1/4d., 6/4s at 2 1/4d, 7/4s at 2 3/4d, 8/4s at 3 1/2d and 9/4s at 4 1/4d each. ‘Strong props’ fetched 9 1/2d. Silvertop sold props to several local collieries - 'Tanfield Moor, Unthank, Wall House - as well as supplying his own mining interests, particularly the Stella Grand Lease and Coalburn collieries. The local lead mining companies also purchased considerable amounts of birchwood, though this is not specifically described as props. Easterby Hall's Derwent Mining Company was a regular customer from 1809 when they were developing lead mine shafts at Beldon and Shildon , and sales to Crooked Oak Lead Mine Company (the Silvertongue mine?) are recorded for 1827.


Copyright 2005 Ian Hancock. All rights reserved.
Revised: 25 Feb 2005

References and Notes

28. ZMI B15/XI
29. ZCO IX
30. ZHE 34/19
31. M.J.T. Lewis, Early Wooden Railways (Keegan & Paul, 1970)
32. T.W. Beastall, A North County Estate (Phillimore, 1975 Chapter 8
33. Brown, 2nd Ed (1851) p382 Brown rather simplistically argued the case for mature timber against coppicing oak on the basis of prices and yields of the respective products, without taking into account the the value of regular income from bark and coppice wood. In editing the 6th edition Brown’s book Nesbitt omitted these arguments and James (54) has collected substantial evidence that in real accounting terms coppice management was more profitable.
34. Billington (1825), Chapter 3
35. ZCO IX Agent's letter book, 30 May 1808 William Todd wrote of operations on the Silvertop estate :‘As soon as the Sap would go [i.e. run] I got the Damaged Oak Branches in the Park Cut and peeled which have yielded well in Bark. We are now very busy thining [sic] the Oaks at Crooked Oak, which I suppose may take us a fortnight to finish & which from the goodness of the Sap, I flatter myself will turn out more productive in Bark than I expected...'

References and Notes

36. Newcastle Central Library L362.5 / G816G. Local Greenwich Hospital estates advertised 38 tons of oak bark from Whittonstall, Dilston and Dipton in 1844, and 14 tons in 1847.
37. Brown (1894) Vol.2, Chapter XI . The second edition, of 1851, while describing the use of larch bark, does not make this comment on costs.
38. Ormston Notebooks, 1876-1882. The Healey estate was still selling several tons a year to R.&H. Harrison at Stepney Tanneries in Newcastle in the 1870s
39. NRO M362 Microfilm of PRO ADM 79/60-62
40. NRO 3629/4
41. ZMI B41/7
42. ZCO IX various letters
43. ZMI S/38
44. James (1981)
45. NRO M361 Microfilm of PRO ADM 79/57-59
46. James (1981), Chapter 8
47. Rev. J. Lenders, Minsteracres: the Silvertop Family, the Minsteracres Estate, the Mission and Church, with numerous illustrations (Orphans Press, 1932)
48. D. Dougan, The History of North East Shipbuilding, Allen & Unwin, 1968 p31
49. ZCO IX 25 February 1812
50. ZMI S/38
51. Rackham. (1987), 92
52. Ormston notebooks.
53. Ormston Diaries, 16 May 1846
54. QRA 23/1
55. QRA 9
56. QRA 41
57. QRA 8/1-5
58. NCH Volume IV
59. NRO 467/42
60. S. MacDonald, Development of agriculture and the diffusion of agricultural innovation in Northumberland 1750-1850 , Ph.D. thesis, Newcastle University, 1974
61. J.H. Harvey, Forest trees and their prices before 1850, Quarterly Journal of Forestry 67 (1973), 20-37
62. Anderson (1967) Volume I, chapter XI
63. Ormston Diaries, 1839-1850, passim
64. Newcastle Central Library SL362.5 / G816

References and Notes

65. ZGI XVII /1a-c
66. Anderson (1967) Volume 1 passim
67. ZCO IX 25 February 1812
68. W.W.Tomlinson,Chopwell Woods. AA2 19 255-267 In February, 1634/5, the wood was surveyed with the aim of identifying oak timber in Crown woods suitable for the construction of a great naval vessel, the Sovereign of the Seas, at the Woolwich shipyard. It was reported that it contained 11,083 trees, and orders were given for 2500. However, after a personal inspection Phineas Pett , the navy’s master shipbuilder, found that "Chopwell Wood comes far short of his expectations and [the carpenters] must therefore wholly depend on Brancepeth, where they shall find excellent provision of long timber, and will require 1400 choice trees." Chopwell eventually provided few trees, Brancepeth West Park and Pedgebank meeting the deficit .C. S. P. D. Chas I (1634/5), 514; (1635), 73,113.
69. B.G. Hibberd (ed.) Forestry Practice (11th edition, H.M.S.0., 1991)