A Step Back in Time with the Barron Tree Planter
by Daphne Turner of Brighton, Sussex, England
photographs by David Baker
Today the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, West London, England, is a world leader in the collection and scientific investigation of every type of plant, and open to a public who appreciate its open spaces, temperate and hot houses exhibiting plants from every kind of climate and its variety of outdoor features, but its beginnings in 1759 as a private garden for Princess Augusta were far more exclusive. The 18th century saw a tremendous interest in landscaping private parkland on a grand scale with the movement of entire hills and mature trees, all by man and horse power, to fulfill the designs of celebrated gardeners such as Capability Brown. As part of this trend Kew’s earliest major tree planting started in 1761, with a second wave in 1846. Since then tree planting has continued with only a gap between the First and Second World Wars. Nowadays mechanisation does away with the great manual effort needed in the past but in the mid 1800s the movement of mature trees was revolutionised by the introduction of the Barron tree transplanter. As has been reported elsewhere the first planter was designed and built by Barron in the mid 1800s for the transplantation of maturing trees at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire.
Today the only known example of this machine is at Kew, and since the 1930’s when it was last used, it had been decaying under a tree. Had it not been for Tony Kirkham, head of Horticultural Operations, that would have been the end of the story but he had the foresight to recognise its significance and spent ten years obtaining the funding to make the planter’s renovation possible thus preventing it from passing into legend as the last of its kind. David Baker and I had become aware of this fascinating piece of equipment when our friend Gus Kitson, a Suffolk wheelwright, had been asked to restore it. From Gus’s description of its condition the 150 mile journey to Suffolk was almost too much for the planter but he managed to unload it in one piece, and the first time David and I saw it in Gus’s barn it was once again a solid, fully usable and pristine machine, the restoration partially incorporating timber from Kew.
To celebrate the return of this renovated giant to Kew it was decided to have a tree planting weekend in early November 2000, and for those lucky enough to see the planter and its team in action it was an exciting, memorable two days which held the public’s attention throughout.
As Suffolk horses were last used with the planter Tony Kirkham wanted to use them at the Kew debut and it was arranged that Nigel Oakley and David Chaplin, well known in the world of the Suffolk horse would provide 5 year old Thomas and 8 year old Punch. To add an air of authenticity the crew would dress in Victorian clothes and to increase the sense of occasion, Gus’s assistant John Barber, who includes being Town Crier for Southwold amongst his many activities, also agreed to appear in his magnificent scarlet and black uniform complete with handbell to announce and explain the history of the machine before each planting.
Gus had asked David to be his official photographer, and so early Saturday morning David and I drove into Kew Gardens through the nostalgically named Oxen Gate and found the Suffolk party comfortably settled in one of the staff canteens for the weekend. Christine Oakley and Jean Chaplin cooked up a fortifying breakfast for us all before going out to plait up the horses’ tails and manes and then it was time for harnessing up, collecting the crew together and marching out to hitch into the planter.
Fortunately the entire weekend remained dry and we even saw the sun for some of the time so our “Victorian” workers did not have to resort to modern wet weather gear and they looked the part in waistcoats, neckerchiefs, and caps, with the hierarchy in jackets and bowlers. In fact the atmosphere generated was so authentic that Tony Kirkham and Nigel Oakley in particular shifted into full thespian mode at times and “Are you ready Oakley?” in a strong Yorkshire accent receiving the reply “Yes, Guv’nor” was among some of the dialogue, topped with the final accolade. “You’ve done well, Oakley. Go to the Office and see about a bonus.” True to the spirit of the time, the majority of the men stuck to “Yes, sir. No, sir.”
The trees being transplanted into the main avenue were 7 year old cedars from Italy and to save time were lifted into the planter by JCB, although of course it would have been necessary to go through the process of dismantling the planter to load them in the past. However, the public found this just as interesting as other parts of the process. The plan was to plant trees first by the Victorian method on one side of the avenue and by modern machinery on the other alternately to acquaint visitors with the old and new methods.
Thomas and Punch were hitched in tandem into the planter and, followed by a large crowd, pulled the load to the prepared site. Although we had no rain the ground was very wet and it was quite a pull for the horses to get the planter up a slight incline and into position for backing. Whilst Thomas was unhitched and led aside, John Barber rang his handbell, and preceded his introduction with “Ovez, Ovez.”
The reader can see from the accompanying photographs the tremendous strength needed to push back the machine, but what is not so easy to appreciate is the skill necessary to back it precisely over the planks each side of the hole. Once in position the wheels were chocked. Punch taken out of the shafts and the planks near the centre of the hole removed. Tony Kirkham then took up his post as overseer, checking everyone was in place and ready. Using levers the two men on the front and rear winches raised the rootball so the planks on which it had rested during transport could be removed. The weight of the rootball was now taken on ropes slung beneath it as two teams, each of two men, on each side of the planter, steadily and evenly lowered it into the hole. Tony ensuring all was carried out according to the clear instructions he gave for every stage. Finally the ropes were removed.
We now had the tree in place enclosed by the planter and great was the mystification of the spectators as to how matters would proceed. I even heard one man ask if a machine would be brought along to lift the transplanter up and over the tree in its entirety and carry it away!
Again Tony checked all was ready and then gave instructions for the rear winch to be manhandled to the ground. Once that had been removed the crew gathered down each side of the planter, and as the rear wheels were removed, took the entire weight of the side pieces on their shoulders. Meanwhile Punch had been put back into the shafts, and when the command was given, pulled the front wheels with the side pieces still supported by the men, forward until they were well clear of the tree. Wooden props were then placed under the side arms whilst first the rear wheels and then the rear winch were replaced. Finally Thomas was hitched into tandem and the equipment pulled back to the tree loading area, whilst modern equipment was used to firmly anchor the rootball with metal stays and replace the earth. Such was the teamwork that from pulling the load up the incline to moving the reassembled planter away from the site was timed at 20 minutes.
It had originally been planned to plant three trees on Saturday and one on Sunday but everything went so well and the spectators’ interest was so great that eventually three trees were planted both days. It was a pleasure to see a crowd of around 200 of all ages at every planting and especially to see the children’s delight at being so close to the horses. Even the crew, who knew they would be full of aches on the Monday, were thrilled with their weekend, especially as there had been no problems. Apparently in its day the transplanter was nicknamed The Devil as it has a bad reputation for breaking arms.
But I still don’t know if Nigel Oakley collected his bonus from the Office!