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Westonbirt's creators: the Holford family

Westonbirt Arboretum is unique, not only because of the breadth of its tree collection, but also because of the style in which it was planted.

Robert Stayner Holford aged 54 from a photograph in 1862This is largely the result of one man, Robert Stayner Holford (1808 - 1892), the arboretum's creator.

When Robert Holford inherited the estate in 1839, it was a time of great excitement in the plant world. Victorian plant-hunters were bringing new and exotic species from the farthest reaches of the British Empire and these formed the basis of much of the collection.

Although Robert Holford never went on expeditions himself, he financed these trips and the collection contains some of the original plants brought back - like the Monterey pine on the junction of Main and Circular Drives.

Robert’s son George inherited the estate after his death. When George died in 1926, the estate passed to his nephew, the 4th Earl of Morley and in 1927 the mansion was sold to become a girls' school (Westonbirt School) and the estate was split up.

Read on to find out more about the history of this fascinating family.

The beginnings of the Holfords

The Holfords are thought to have come to Britain at the time of William the Conqueror and anglicised their name from 'de Runchamp'.  

The earliest Gloucestershire-based Holford was Richard, a 29 year old barrister, who married Sarah Crew; a 16 year old girl who had been left Westonbirt Manor (what was to become Westonbirt House and later, Westonbirt School) by her father. 

On Richard's death, the estate passed to his son, Robert, who by his own account was not entirely happy with the estate, however his father had ensured he could not easily dispose of it.

The estate passed to Peter Holford (1719-1803) when Robert died in 1753. Peter was grandfather to Robert Stayner Holford. He was also at one time the Governor of the New River Company – one source of Robert Holford’s wealth.

When Robert Holford inherited Westonbirt, his wealth was considerable. He had inherited a million pounds and six estates from a batchelor uncle in 1838. It is also rumoured that a wheelbarrow full of gold was found in the cellar of the uncle's house.

This wealth allowed Robert Stayner Holford the freedom to collect trees and plants from around the world and develop the arboretum as we see it today.

George Holford

George Holford aged about 25 (c 1885)When Robert Holford died, his son Sir George Holford (1860-1926) continued his work.

Sir George is responsible for many of the original maple and rhododendron plantings. He is also credited with expanding the arboretum across the valley into the the ancient Silk Wood area. Three drives, Willesley Drive, Broad Drive and Waste Drive, were created with wide verges and bays for ornamental trees.

Sir George Holford died in 1926 leaving no heir and the estate passed to his nephew, the Fourth Earl of Morley. 

In 1927 the mansion was sold to become a girls school (Westonbirt School) and the estate was split. The Fourth Earl died in 1951 and the estate passed to his brother, the Fifth Earl. 

By now, lack of maintenance, greatly exacerbated by the war, had left the arboretum in a poor state and the new owner decided to part with it. In 1956 the entire 240 hectares (600 acres) were handed over to the Forestry Commission and a new chapter in its history began.

Last updated: 8th August 2016

England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.