Between 1750 and 1850 a pattern of conifer plantations was established in SE Northumberland that survives essentially unchanged in the present landscape. For landowners in this part of the country, making conifer plantations was a logical progression from management of their ancient woodland. Coppicing the oakwoods produced small timber for props, fence posts, wagonway sleepers and rails, and coal trucks. The sale of oak bark to local tanner made this labour-intensive process financially viable. In some cases conifer planting began as "improvement" of these existing semi-natural woodland by interplanting with larch, whose bark was a cheap substitute for oak tanning bark. In other cases new larch plantations were a profitable way of exploiting marginal land, for which the extensive enclosure of upland commons provided new opportunities. Other plantations began their lives as new plantings of oak. These plantations were frequently extensions of ancient oakwoods on ground that would favour good oak growth, and larch was frequently interplanted to provide shelter for the young oaks. Many mixed plantations were turned over completely to conifers following the arrival of iron shipbuilding. The increased demand for young larch plants was met so successfully by local nurseries that prices fell dramatically during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Scots pine also rapidly gained popularity and many tens of millions of these trees were planted. The records of woodland management and planting of three landowners in particular, the Greenwich Hospital on its estate at Whittonstall and Newlands, Robert Ormston at Healey and George Silvertop of Minsteracres, illustrate these different aspects of plantation history.

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Local topography and land ownership

The subject of this study is the region between the river Tyne in the north and the Derwent in the south, bounded on the west by the Devils Water and on the east by the Stanley Burn (Figure 1). Most of the land is more than 200m above sea level, but several burns running into the main rivers have cut deep, narrow, wooded denes: from west to east these are the Devils Water, and the Acton, March, Stocksfield, Lynn and Mill Burns. Of these, the Acton Burn and Mill Burn flow south to the Derwent; the rest take the longer route to the Tyne. The soil is generally thin and not very fertile, except the alluvial haughs of the river valleys. Some of the highest ground is poorly drained and peaty. Most of the semi-natural vegetation is bent-fescue grassland which generally reverts to gorse scrub if grazing is abandoned, and there are still residual patches of heather moorland. 1

Within the area of study, the only substantial villages are Slaley, Hedley and Whittonstall. Most of the settlements are isolated farms or small clusters of two or three, such as Newlands or Birkenside, which before the enclosures of the commons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were small enclaves of enclosed ancient freehold with extensive grazing rights in the huge common upland wastes that surrounded them. Of these commons, by far the largest was Bulbeck Common, stretching the full length of the area of study and rising to heather moorland over 350m above sea level in the west and south. It was on this largely marginal agricultural land that the proprietors began their experiments with plantations in the second half of the eighteenth century.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the area was predominantly in the hands of 6 landowners: the Duke of Northumberland, Sir William Blackett, George Silvertop of Minsteracres, Sir William Middleton of Belsay and Robert Ormston of Newcastle.2 Land ownership is outlined in Figure 2


I am grateful to the staff of the Northumberland Record Office and Newcastle Central Library for their unfailing helpfulness during the research for this paper. I particularly wish to thank the private owner of Mary Ann Ormston's diaries and Robert Ormston's notebooks for his generosity in making them available to me and allowing me to quote from them. Some of the material in this paper originates from a dissertation submitted for the Certificate in Local History, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1992.


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

References and Notes


1. Department of Geography, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Map of the Vegetation of Northumberland (1976)
2. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the area was predominantly in the hands of six landowners. Five were Northumberland men of very different backgrounds: the Duke of Northumberland, Sir William Blackett, George Silvertop of Minsteracres, Sir William Middleton of Belsay, and Robert Ormston of Newcastle. The sixth was the Greenwich Hospital which had acquired the confiscated estates of James Radcliffe, the third Earl of Derwentwater, in 1735, twenty years after his execution for his part in the rebellion of 1715.The Middletons were old landed gentry, Robert Ormston was the grandson of a Quaker Scottish banking family, George Silvertop and William Blackett were from families that had made their fortunes from coal and lead mining, and the Duke of Northumberland, the lord of one of the greatest estates in the country.