The Holwood Oaks

It’s a complete truism that London used to be a relatively small place, with a great deal of naturally occurring ‘green belt’ both between the City and Westminster, and also between London and the surrounding villages, often used for market gardens (as at Lambeth, Bermondsey, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Stepney, and Stockwell, to name but a few) to supply the metropolis’s growing population. At the two current Stuart exhibitions – Charles I at the Royal Academy and Charles II at the Queen’s Gallery (do go, BTW) – there are several opportunities to observe that in seventeenth-century views of Whitehall Palace from the opposite bank of the Thames, there are no buildings at all on the south side of the river.

This was further brought home to me when I was looking up Holwood in Kent, home of William Pitt the Younger and location of the famous Holwood Oaks, mentioned in an article in William Robinson’s The Garden of 13 October 1888. Holwood is described in Thomas Wilson’s 1797 Accurate Description of Bromley in Kent:

The title page of Wilson’s book, which indicates that he is Bromley bookseller, and that this is a cut-and-paste job.

The book is a fascinating social document, starting with the list of subscribers, who include many people from Bromley, but also London booksellers acquiring multiple copies, and the entire Wilson family. One name that stands out is ‘Stanhope, The Right Hon. the Earl of, Chevening, 10 copies’. We will return to the earl later …

Wilson also offers, culled from local directories, ‘a list of the names of the principal inhabitants in the town and parish of Bromley’, ordered as Gentry, Clergy, Law, Physic, and Traders. One familiar name among the gentry is Thomas Raikes (1741–1813: father of the dandy and diarist, and brother of Robert, the founder of Sunday Schools), who counted Pitt and Wilberforce among his friends. (One wonders if Thomas junior was a bit of a disappointment to his apparently high-minded family?) Another is George Grote, father of the historian of Greece.

The most eminent cleric was the bishop of Rochester (whose palace was at Bromley, as was a ‘college’ for 20 elderly widows, endowed by an earlier bishop).

Bromley Palace, now the Civic Centre, with modern wings that I have cropped a bit to protect your sensibilities. (Credit: the London Borough of Bromley)

The entrance arch of the college for widows of the clergy. Only the Orthodoxe and Loyal need apply. (Credit:

Among the traders are Matthew Bentley, writing-master; Jarvis Bexhill, plumber and glazier; Elizabeth Cripps, toy shop; William Day, leather breeches maker; William May, brandy dealer; Ann May, baker (are they related?); John Pippet, hair dresser; Thomas Ribright, glass miller; Godfrey Stidolph, nurseryman; William Storer, ginger bread baker; and of course Thomas Wilson, bookseller.

He says of Holwood House, near Keston, in the now London Borough of Bromley:

After this slightly dismissive sentence, however, he goes on to explain that Pitt chose the house (where he lived from 1785 to 1803) because it was close to his family home at Hayes, as well as to the seats of Lord Camden (Pitt the Elder’s Lord Chancellor, and eponym of the London district) at Chislehurst and Lord Sydney (supporter of Pitt the Elder and eponym of Sydney, N.S.W.) at Frognal; moreover, it has wonderful views in all directions, including a panorama of London, ‘where St Paul’s majestically rises, as if artificially erected, to terminate the view … it may not, perhaps, be improperly stiled an amphitheatre of parks, woods, and villages, spires, hills, and mansions, which in these charming prospects are not only various, but extensive’.

Pitt used Sir John Soane as his architect to enlarge the house, adding a drawing room ‘about fifty feet by thirty; it has one handsome bow window, which faces the south’; and Humphrey Repton worked on the grounds, but alas, this (relatively) modest home was demolished in the 1820s by its next-but-one owner, John Ward, who had Decimus Burton run up a Greek Revival mansion, which last changed hands for a lot of millions (rural retreat 14 miles from Canary Wharf, what’s not to like?) a few years ago.

Holwood House in Pitt’s day, with Soane’s work on the right.

… and Decimus Burton’s version, with a cedar of Lebanon (I think) on the left.

Ward (1779–1855) was briefly (February to August 1830) M.P. for Leominster in Herefordshire, where, interestingly, Sir John Lubbock (1744–1816), first baronet, had been one of the two M.P.s from 1806 to his death. Lubbock’s house in London was sold in 1792 to the abolitionist Henry Thornton, and his cousin William Wilberforce shared it with him for some years. And the first baronet’s descendant, Sir John Lubbock (1834–1913), the great philanthropist, also lived for his entire life near Keston, at High Elms: he in turn was a neighbour of Charles Darwin, who with his family apparently loved and often picnicked in the grounds of Holwood. Ward meanwhile sold Holwood in 1852 to Thomas Brassey (1805–70), railway engineer and father-in-law of the delightful Annie, though ten years later it was in the hands of Lord Cranworth (see below), and by 1888 it was part of the extensive land-holdings of Lord Derby.

I feel I should get to the point. Among the many magnificent trees in the grounds of Holwood were two oaks, known as the Wilberforce Oak and the Pitt Oak. According to A.D. Webster, who wrote the article in The Garden, they were both Quercus robur pedunculata, but the name today is simply Quercus robur, the English oak. (He also mentions a third massive oak; and ‘Scores of oaks similar to these might be noted as growing in the grounds of Holwood’, as well as specimens of Quercus suber (the cork oak) and Quercus ilex (the holm oak), cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) and Mediterranean cluster pines (Pinus pinaster)).

Portrait of William Wilberforce in 1788, by John Rising  (1753–1817). (Credit: Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries)

The Wilberforce Oak was so named because of an entry in Wilberforce’s diary in 1788: ‘At length, I well remember, after a conversation with Mr Pitt in the open air at the root of an old tree at Holwood, just above the steep descent into the vale of Keston, I resolved to give notice on a fit occasion in the House of Commons of my intention to bring forward the abolition of the slave trade.’

The Wilberforce Oak, engraved for The Garden in 1888, with Stanhope’s memorial seat to the left.

As Webster describes: ‘A stone seat bearing the above inscription was erected in 1862 by Earl Stanhope, by permission of Lord Cranworth, close to this historic tree.’ The Stanhope in question was Philip Stanhope (1805–75), the 5th earl, son of the subscriber to Wilson’s book, and a noted historian and antiquarian who wrote a four-volume life of Pitt; he was also a prime mover in the founding of the National Portrait Gallery, the Historic Monuments Commission, and President of both the Society of Antiquaries, in which capacity he lobbied the government to undertake excavations at Troy, and of the Royal Literary Fund. (His father, half-brother of the traveller Lady Hester Stanhope, was an interesting chap, but I must not get (further) diverted.) Lord Cranworth (1790–1868), judge and former Lord Chancellor, was the owner at the time: he died at Holwood, of ‘heat’ according to the Spectator.

The Pitt Oak ‘occupies a very conspicuous position on a circular mound, a portion of the old Roman encampment … this is the tree under which it was the Premier’s habit to sit and read when the Holwood property was in his own possession’. (He had to sell Holwood when he went out of office, as he could no longer afford it.) The ‘old Roman encampment’, known as ‘Caesar’s Camp’, was in fact an Iron Age hill fort, partially levelled by Repton’s landscaping of the park.

William Pitt, painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1787. (Credit: Philip Mould Historical Portraits Picture Archive)

Webster gives the dimensions of both trees, and details of their shapes, as well as a picture of the Wilberforce Oak and its seat. What he doesn’t mention is their age, though he does note that the Wilberforce Oak, ‘judging from its present healthy appearance, will, should no accident befall it, last for many years to come’. It had been encircled with a fence ‘to prevent damage at the hands of too ardent admirers of the great statesman’, and some of its limbs were propped with iron rods and bands – though these supports are not visible in either of the images above or below. Perhaps they have been edited out to improve the picturesqueness?

Pitt was a great planter himself, continuing the work with lanterns after dark. But the Holwood oaks must have been approaching their millennium when Webster was writing. The Wilberforce still exists as a shell; a self-seeded tree which was growing up inside it was brought down in the Great Storm of 1987, and a sapling from that tree is now growing as a replacement. Pitt’s Oak, according to Historic England, still survives.

The Wilberforce Oak in 1907, by William Gardner. Note the red squirrels.

This plate, a watercolour painted for Kent (by W. Teignmouth Shore, 1907) by the artist William Biscombe Gardner (1847–1919), shows the Wilberforce Oak in autumn, and in the autumn of its days.



This entry was posted in Art, Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, London, Natural history, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Holwood Oaks

  1. Pingback: Enter by the Founder’s | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  2. Anthony Anderson says:

    Pitts Oak is a very sorry and dead stump – hollow and bereft of life unless you include the parasites that are gently diminishing the remains. The new tree survives but if anyone wants to see the original in the last gasp of its life I suggest you have few years left – in fact one slight fire would see it off.


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