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History of the tree collection

Westonbirt Arboretum's creator, Robert Stayner Holford, was an ambitious man.

He not only created the arboretum, but also rebuilt Westonbirt House (now Westonbirt School) and added formal pleasure gardens.

RHolford Ride. Westonbirt Arboretum Gloucestershire obert Holford, in keeping with wealthy estate owners of his day, created the arboretum for pleasure and as testament to his taste and wealth.

Plant hunting heritage

The Victorian era was a time of great excitement in the plant world, with plant-hunters like David Douglas bringing new and exotic species from the farthest reaches of the British Empire.

Holford financed plant collecting expeditions and the arboretum still contains many of the original plants brought back from these trips.

Design principles

By 1855, much of the Old Arboretum had been laid out, including Main Drive, Specimen Avenue and the three main rides - Holford Ride, Morley Ride and Jackson Avenue. Influenced by the Picturesque movement, the emphasis at Westonbirt was always on aesthetics, rather than science.

Expanding the collection

George Holford on his daily drive round the Arboretum c 1925From the 1880s, the dominant figure in the arboretum's development was Robert Holford's son, Sir George

He expanded the arboretum across the valley into Silk Wood, planting new species amongst the woodland that had occupied the site for centuries and creating vast drives with wide verges and bays of ornamental trees.

Sir George was also responsible for planting many of the rhododendrons and maples for which Westonbirt Arboretum is so famous today.

Sir George left no heir when he died in 1926 and the estate passed to his nephew, the Fourth Earl of Morley. In 1927 the mansion was sold and became a girls' school and the estate was split up. The Fourth Earl died in 1951 and Westonbirt Arboretum passed to his brother for a brief period.

The Forestry Commission

In 1956 the entire 600 acres (240 hectares) were handed over to the Forestry Commission, who had the huge task of making it safe for the public to enjoy its beauty for the first time. 

Like Holford the Forestry Commission had ambitious plans - including mapping, cataloguing and labelling the collection for the first time, as well as replanting and creating new areas, like The Link, in Silk Wood.

From its beginnings as a rich man's passion, the arboretum now revolves around the unique collection of trees and shrubs. It has become a vital resource for conservation, recreation and education, with over 350,000 visits a year to connect with the tree collection and enjoy its beauty and tranquillity.

The Forestry Commission is supported by the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum, whose 28,000 members support vital work and development, including the Westonbirt Project.

Westonbirt's timeline

1292 earliest evidence for coppicing Silk Wood.

1309 first recorded use of name Weston Birt – Weston derived from location of settlement west of Roman Bowldown Road, Birt from the Bret family (then Lords of the Manor).

1839 George Peter Holford dies; Robert Stayner Holford inherits the Westonbirt estate.

1840 Robert Holford acquires Silk Wood and cuts four principle rides through the wood. One of these was likely to have been Willesley Drive.

Early 1850s Robert Holford embarked on a major landscaping scheme that included with associated clump and individual tree planting. This constitutes the beginnings of the arboretum.

1854 Two Wellingtonias are planted by Mr and Mrs Holford. They were one foot high when planted, and cost £8 each.

1861 The three sisters (Wellingtonias) are planted along Mitchell Drive.

1860 Down plantation (so called on the 1921 OS map), the main area of the present arboretum, was planted. Prior to this much of the present core of arboretum was still mostly arable fields. A number of straight rides were cut through the plantation.

1870 Lime Avenue is planted.

1881 The arboretum is described as nearing completion. Subsequent developments include the creation of internal glades including Acer Glade, Savill Glade, Victory Glade.

1892 Robert Holford dies; Sir George Lindsay Holford inherits the estate.

1905 28 tulip trees are planted in Jackson avenue.

1910-12 Sir George contributes to Ernest Wilson’s Chinese expedition and is provided with seed from it. Sir George also makes donations to Kew including over 200 orchids raised at Westonbirt.

1914-18 Part of Lodge Avenue (now Jacksons Avenue) is felled to facilitate flying by Royal Australian Flying Corps based at Leighterton.

1922 (August) Stay of HRH Queen Mary.

1926 George Lindsay Holford dies; his nephew Lord Morley inherits estate.

1927 The estate is broken up, with the house sold to Rev. P Warrington, for the purpose of establishing a girls school. Arboretum placed under direction of WJ Mitchell.

1933 AB Jackson describes a new hybrid pine – the Holford Pine.

1939-45 Westonbirt Arboretum is requisitioned by the Air Ministry for use during WWII. It is said British fighter planes were kept from view amongst the trees of the Old Arboretum.

1956 Westonbirt Arboretum is given over to the Forestry Commission. 

Last updated: 10th July 2017

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