Nineteenth-Century Urban Trees: Britain and Europe: Part II

By Paul A. Elliott.

Paul’s book, British Urban Trees: A Social and Cultural History, c. 1800–1914 was published by The White Horse Press in May 2016. The first part of this blog can be read here.

Figure 6. Lion Group Sculpture in the Tiergarten, Berlin. By Friedrich Wilhelm Wolff (1814–87). Photograph: Author, 2007.


In the first blog we emphasised the importance of interconnections between British and European urban gardening and forestry. Here we will consider in a bit more detail how the transformation of European cities helped to inspire British urban greening including street tree planting.

In his richly illustrated Parks and Gardens of Paris (which were expressly considered in ‘relation to the wants of other cities and of public and private gardens), the leading landscape gardener William Robinson described the novel green spaces of the French metropolis including the striking tree-lined avenues and boulevards. Originating as a series of reports from a traveller wandering the street of Paris which were published in The Times and generated much correspondence, Robinson described and celebrated the ‘great system of public gardens’ including the ‘many squares, the vast series of tree-lined streets and avenues’ and generally the ‘public gardening’ that had made the French metropolis the envy of the world from which British cities ‘in need of change’ could learn so much (Robinson, Parks and Gardens of Paris, vii-viii). In the wake of Robinson’s book and other exponents of the ‘new’ Parisian grand mode of urban greening various British towns and cities strove to adopt and adapt aspects of the schemes. Large, rapidly expanding and industrialising cities such as London, Manchester, Cardiff, Nottingham and Glasgow invoked the cultured and sophisticated example of Paris as inspiration for their new tree-planting schemes, garden and arboretum cemeteries and public parks. The tree-lined Thames Embankment schemes undertaken by the Metropolitan Board of Works were expressly inspired by Paris as were the boulevards formed at Nottingham during the 1870s and 1880s, which were planted with numerous London planes (Lawrence, City Trees, 242-3; Elliott, British Urban Trees, 158).

Figure 7. Tiergarten Lake, Berlin. Photograph: Author, 2007.

Tasked with planning and undertaking the new urban tree planting schemes, British landscape gardeners, arboriculturists and parks staff undertook continental tours to gain inspiration and help to convince sceptical doubters and more parsimonious urban elites, who still tended to regard tree planting as a private preserve rather than public duty at taxpayer’s expense. In 1897 for example, James Whitton, Superintendent of Parks at Glasgow, attending an International Horticultural Exhibition at Hamburg, visited as many continental towns as possible to observe their gardens, parks and planting schemes (Elliott, British Urban Trees, 211-12). Whitton was inspired by what he saw, but also recognised the differences between British and many European cities which had not normally industrialised to the same extent and commonly had different kinds of open spaces such as those associated with old town walls. At Hamburg, Whitton remarked that there was a ‘varied and rich assortment of trees and shrubs’ which ‘we can never expect in the dull, moist climate of this country, and the soot-laden, chemically impregnated atmosphere of our city.’ He noted that the principal streets were lined with elm, lime platanus and false acacia, ‘carefully selected and trained for the purpose’ with straight stems and ‘well balanced’ heads, with protection where damage was most likely to occur from ‘an iron guard of simple, neat design’. Of these, Whitton preferred the elm and platanus because ‘however graceful and neat’, the lime lost its leaves ‘too quickly’ and was bare of foliage by August. In Berlin and other European cities, Whitton noticed the domination of picturesque planting in public parks and gardens and the absence of recreation grounds for sports, which he attributed to the ‘more vigorous demands’ of the ‘much-abused’ British climate which required more ‘active, energetic’ sports. British parks certainly needed ‘an abundance of trees’ but it was ‘essential in our moisture laden atmosphere’ that large open spaces be provided ‘whereon the sun and wind can act, and provide airing places for the infirm and aged as well as playgrounds for the young and active’ (J. Whitton, Report by… Superintendent of Parks on his Visit to Continental Parks, Gardens, etc., 1897 [Glasgow, 1899], 2, 5, 8, 11, 27-8).

Figure 8. Planes on Paris Quays, from W. Robinson, Parks and Gardens of Paris, third edition, London, 1883.

As well as providing so many trees in their parks and squares, Whitton observed that ‘our Continental friends’ beautified their cities with street tree planting to a much greater extent than their British cousins which was an ‘admirable practice’ practised in cooler, misty and more temperate climates like Amsterdam and Rotterdam as well as warmer places. With their ‘lighter soil and purer atmosphere’, conditions for ‘plant life’ in continental towns were ‘in marked contrast’ to those that ‘unfortunately’ characterised Glasgow where the ‘smoke fiend, with its trail of evils’ prevailed (for more on trees and smoke see Elliott, British Urban Trees, 259-296). Whitton claimed to have seen ‘more black smoke in one day in Glasgow than could be seen on the Continent in a month, even in the manufacturing districts’, which he attributed to the type of fuel used for manufactories and ironworks and imposition of laws which made the ‘absence of black smoke…very remarkable’. Although inspired by European urban tree planting, British architects, landscape gardeners and local elites recognised that it was not usually possible, for various reasons, to make such radical transformations of townscapes as those undertaken in some continental cities. Whitton believed that ‘German style urban improvements with wide boulevards’ would probably be ‘unattainable’ in most older British towns because of different land ownership patterns as much was held by ‘proprietors in small lots’ creating a ‘multitude of interests’ which mitigated against European-style grand city improvement schemes, ‘as our own authorities well know.’ Boulevard provision was more achievable in British suburbs, especially where land ownership rested with single proprietors but there were ‘many’ other features at Glasgow ‘equal to any on the continent’ including the quality of ‘parks and open spaces’. Whilst there was ‘not the beauty and richness of vegetation characteristic of the continent’ or warmer, drier parts of Britain with ‘brighter and purer…atmospheric conditions’ in Glasgow, yet parks and recreation grounds were ‘better distributed’ and ‘more fully equipped’ than in Europe. Looking to the future, Whitton concluded that when the ‘greater part of the filthy emanations’ from British manufactories were removed then the streets would be better beautified with trees and the ‘eyesores and nuisances’ of ‘waste places’ be removed or turned into gardens (Whitton, Report on Visit to Continental Parks, 28-30).

Grand cascade in the Bois de Boulogne, from W. Robinson, Parks and Gardens of Paris, third edition, London 1883.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s