Monday 24 July 2017

The Wembley Elm – why is it special?

Guest post by Philip Grant

I agree with Martin’s comment, in his blog about the Marriage Garden willow LINK, that trees are too often an undervalued part of our local heritage’. His article jogged my memory about an unresolved local history enquiry that I received last year about “the Wembley Elm”. I wonder whether “Wembley Matters” readers can help to solve the mystery around why this particular tree is special?

“The Wembley Elm”,
outside the former Greyhound pub,
at the junction of Oakington Manor Drive and Harrow Road.

Elm trees have been part of Wembley’s history for centuries, and have left their legacy in place names around our area. Hundred Elms Farm in Sudbury existed in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and may even have belonged to the Archbishops of Canterbury before her father, King Henry VIII seized their local lands in the 1540’s. An avenue of elm trees is shown leading to the farm, across Sudbury Common, in a mid-18th century map, and Elms Lane still survives as a local street today, between the Harrow Road and Sudbury Court Road.

An extract from John Rocque’s  1746 map
 of London and environs,  showing
Hundred Elms Farm and the avenue of elm trees.

The Read family were tenant farmers in Wembley from Tudor times, and Brent Archives holds some of the family’s farm and personal records from the mid-18th century onwards. At various times they farmed land at Wembley Hill and around East Lane, but one of the main family homes was at Elm Tree Farm, in Blind Lane near its junction with Wembley Hill Road. Just before the First World War, part of the land they rented was sold off to Wembley Urban District Council, to create King Edward VII Park, with Blind Lane renamed Park Lane. When the rest of their farmland was earmarked for housing development, the Reads sold off their livestock and machinery in 1922, and emigrated to Australia.

Elm Tree Farm, Park Lane, in the 1920’s.
[A painting by Norah Parker, in the Wembley
History Society Collection at Brent Museum]

A hundred years ago the elm was a common sight around Wembley, often growing as tall individual trees in hedgerows. During the First World War a local architect, Ernest Trobridge, studied the properties of its timber, which was soft and easy to work when first cut, but really solid within two months when it had seasoned. He developed the compressed green wood construction system, using the abundant supplies of elm wood (many hedgerows were being removed to widen roads for motor traffic) to build cheap and comfortable “homes for heroes” from 1920 onwards. His Elmwood Estate in Kingsbury was one such development, and although Elmwood Crescent still exists, only four of the original elm-built houses from it survive in Stag Lane. If you would like to discover more about Ernest Trobridge and his work, Brent Archives has an online local history article about him LINK.

Rose Cottage in Stag Lane, Kingsbury, one of the surviving Ernest Trobridge houses from the Elmwood Estate, built 1922-1924.

The English Elm (Ulmus procera) was still a widespread feature of the landscape until the 1970’s, when millions of its trees were wiped out by Dutch Elm disease (caused by a fungus spread by elm bark beetles). You can still find young elm saplings in Fryent Country Park, growing through suckering from the roots of old trees, but the disease kills off the trees before they can reach maturity. That may be one reason why the mature “Wembley Elm” is special, and the man who wrote with the enquiry about it has said it is an unusual species of elm (Ulmus laevis) - the European white elm - which is rare in this country. However, the main reason for the query is the plaque set into the paving beside it:-

“The Wembley Elm” plaque.

The plaque, put here by the London Tree Forum (if it still exists, I can’t find it on the internet), states: ‘The Wembley Elm, one of the great trees of London, has been a focal meeting point since 1900.’ What I am trying to find out is when this particular tree was first known as “the Wembley Elm”, why it was considered so important and why it became ‘a focal meeting point.’

In 1900, the tree, if it existed, would have been near the edge of a farmer’s field. After the Great Central Railway opened a branch line through Wembley Hill in 1906 (with a station now known as Wembley Stadium), these fields were to become the Wembley Hill Garden Suburb. Planned in 1913, its first roads and houses appeared in 1914/15, but the rest of the homes on this estate were built between the early 1920's and mid-1930's.

A 1914 advertisement for homes in
the Wembley Hill Garden Suburb
(surrounded by beautiful country /
 12 minutes from Marylebone)

From the size of “the Wembley Elm”, it is thought to be at least 80 years old, but it seems unlikely that it was a significant tree as early as 1900. As it is a rare elm species in England, it may have been planted to mark a special occasion, perhaps the opening of Oakington Manor Drive (the first main street laid out in the garden suburb, although the varieties planted along it were mainly lime and white beam trees), which it stands at the entrance to.

As the tree is outside “The Greyhound”, it might have been part of the landscaping for this landmark pub, which opened in 1929. The licence for the pub was transferred from “The Greyhound” in High Street on Wembley Hill, which began life as a beer shop in 1810, but was too small for the crowds who came to events at Wembley Stadium, and was demolished when the new pub opened. Perhaps it was for F.A. Cup final crowds that “the Wembley Elm” became ‘a focal meeting point’!

Crowds outside the old “Greyhound”
in High Street, for the first Wembley
F.A. Cup Final in April 1923.

If you have any information which might throw some light on the history of “the Wembley Elm” and why it is special, please include this in a comment below. Thank you.

Philip Grant


L Green said...

Apparently it featured in a Time Out Guide to trees

Philip Grant said...

I sent a copy of this article to the former Wembley resident who originally wrote to me about "the Wembley Elm" last autumn. He has replied with some further information:

'I went to see the Wembley elm this spring when it was in flower as that is the only way to make a positive identification of Ulmus laevis, which I was able to confirm that it is. [This species appears to be resistant to Dutch Elm disease.]

The interesting thing though is that there are several other specimens of this unusual and not native elm, all of the same age as the one outside the pub. They are in Oakington Manor Drive, Neeld Crescent and Grittleton Avenue, all of which were part of the Wembley Hill Garden Suburb.

There are a lot of other trees in these streets of the same age but all are common native species, so why this single very unusual species was also planted is an interesting question. All of them, including the one outside the pub, do not appear in a [aerial] photo of 1927, so they must have been planted about 1930.

Over the whole country there are not many examples of this unusual species, so why were they planted in a suburban development?

You also say that there were many other elms in Wembley before the Dutch elm disease outbreak. This is correct. I remember them particularly along the road below the railway line beyond Wembley Park station going towards the Century pub [Brook Avenue], also a lot around that pub and also many along Forty Lane where my parents lived after the war.'

Can YOU provide any further information, please?


Philip Grant said...

Thank you! Brent Libraries has one copy of this book, "The Great Trees of London" by Jenny Landreth, (which the Brent Magazine apparently had five copies to give away in a competition in July 2010). I have reserved this copy, and hope to find out what the Guide says soon.


Philip Bromberg said...

These 'Great Tree' plaques appear (according to the beeb's website) to have been a 2008 initiative of the charity Trees for Cities, but there seems not to be anything about this on their website.
There were several large elms in the garden behind Mount Stewart School; I remember measuring their canopies as part of a science lesson , probably in the summer of 1969 or 1970.
This seems as good a place as any to draw attention to the GLA's map of London street trees - This is a work in progress, but it's a very useful resource, allowing you to click on any tree to identify it. Brent, I fear, remains a blank space on the map, but no doubt that will change in due course.

Philip Bromberg

Anonymous said...

I read Philip's posting with great interest, as is usual with his postings. Although not directly connected with the above, I was fortunate to be invited to a tree planting ceremony in Elms Lane, Sudbury earlier this year to replace lost Elm trees on the area of Green space. I reported the event in our Sudbury Court Resident's Association Newsletter, the Courier. I thought I would take the liberty of posting it here, it was a very happy occasion to see a positive addition (replacement) to our area.The short article is as follows :

Tree Planting Ceremony at Elms Lane Sudbury on 22/3/2017

I had the pleasure of being invited to attend a special tree planting ceremony at Elms Lane on 22nd March. Brent’s Landscape Architect Martin Page and Lawrence Usherwood, their Principal Tree Officer, were both in attendance to supervise the planting, as was our Councillor Keith Perrin. The event attracted great interest from local residents and passers-by who were overjoyed to see trees being replaced in their neighbourhood. Demands for replacement trees following tree losses frequently outstrip available funding, so to see new disease resistant Elm trees being planted was something to celebrate.

It is always with regret when we see tree losses in our Ward, either through storm damage, vandalism, inconsiderate traffic damage or the end of their natural life. After such events we look forward to their replacement with new trees but in these times of declining budgets this often means long delays.

The Sudbury Court Residents Association (SCRA) has been raising funds for several years via the tree donation programme when annual membership subscriptions are collected. In conjunction with Brent Council we have managed to assist with the replacement of many lost trees. We would obviously appreciate many more replacements and continue to appeal for donations to our tree fund from our 3,000 residents, helping to assist this replacement programme.

I was particularly impressed to see a young primary aged school girl returning home from school with her father during the planting. She was so excited by the whole process and was delighted to be offered a trowel to help with the breaking up of soil around the new tree. She then went to assist with the planting of four other much smaller saplings.

More could be made of this type of event to encourage wider interest in trees and indeed the wildlife attracted by them, especially where children are concerned. It stimulates a feeling of involvement and ownership. An “adopt a tree” scheme could prove beneficial to all, with local people taking responsibility for say, the watering of the tree in periods of dry weather or their monitoring to prevent damage, however caused. Trees raise our spirits, encourage wildlife and help to combat the effects of air pollution.


Philip Grant said...


I have borrowed the Brent Libraries copy of “The Great Trees of London”, and can now give some more information.

The idea of identifying London’s “Great Trees” came after the “great storm” of October 1987, when so many trees were lost. As a project to mark the storm’s tenth anniversary in 1997, Londoners were invited to nominate “great trees”. These had to be publicly accessible, and to have historical significance, a landmark location and physical character.

Out of the nominations, a panel of experts chose 41 trees from across the capital to be awarded Great Tree status, and special plaques were placed next to them. “The Wembley Elm” (who gave it that name is unclear) was one of these trees.

A further 20 “great trees” were chosen after a second round of nominations in 2008, which concentrated on Inner London. Five of the “Great Trees” had been lost before the book was published in 2010, so only 56 trees are given full coverage in the guide (although the large stump of “the Kingston Weeping Silver Lime” is pictured, after the local council removed the tree ‘for health and safety reasons’).

“The Wembley Elm” is one of only three elms among London’s “Great Trees” (the others are the Marylebone Elm and the Lewisham Dutch Elm), and elms that survived Dutch Elm disease (first identified in The Netherlands, and not specific to the Dutch variety) must be quite special anyway.

How “the Wembley Elm” earned its “great tree” status is perhaps questionable, and the book (page 138) does little to explain why this particular tree is special. The writer seems to link the tree to Wembley Stadium, and of the new stadium says ‘the arch almost ethereally echoes the curve of the lowest branches of the Wembley Elm.’

The book suggests that ‘people have been watching the beautiful game in Wembley’ for over 100 years, an error which may be based on the plaque’s claim that “the Wembley Elm” ‘has been a focal meeting point since 1900.’ As we now know, the tree was probably planted around 1930 (the stadium opened in 1923), so whoever nominated it in 1997 must have been exaggerating its historical significance.

The corner of Oakington Manor Drive, outside what was “The Greyhound” pub, where the tree still stands, may well have been a well-known meeting point for events at Wembley Stadium since 1929. This would have been more for the regular greyhound and speedway racing meetings (which were the lifeblood of the stadium in its early years), rather than the annual F.A. Cup finals.

Despite my reservations, I won’t begrudge “the Wembley Elm” its “great tree” status. It is a beautiful tree, and we can treat it as a chosen representative of all the trees that enhance the environment of our local streets, gardens, parks and open spaces. If you want to read some good news about local trees, and elms in particular, see the comment from KB@ [27 July at 18:01] below.