The Tree Stump
This postcard was mailed in Eastbourne to Headingley in 1903. It is titled The Oak, Headingley and features a long dead tree. This was the shire oak which stood in Headingly, now a suburb of the city of Leeds, England. The tree may date from the time of the Danelaw in 9th century England, and it was a shire oak for it was used as a meeting point for local assemblies.
The wapentake (Danish local assembly) in this area was known as the Skyrack wapentake after the tree. The oak was felled by winds in 1941, but there is a plaque to mark its location.
I thought it interesting that a tree stood for a thousand years, but my curiosity was aroused on reading that it was felled by winds in 1941. Looking at the image I would never think the profile the dead tree presented would have been sufficient for the wind to have caught it and blown it down.
Also, if the old tree was such a celebrity why was it not re-erected? It’s not as if a dead tree, standing on its own merits, is any better than having a re-erected tree propped up with iron supports, so I turned to the newspapers, and I think I found an answer.
From the Bradford Observer of April 23, 1941, “TRAFFIC AND WAR THREAT TO THE SHIRE OAK. Efforts are being made by Leeds Improvement Committee to save the well-known Shire Oak at Headingley, a giant tree reputed to be 1,000 years old and supposed to have been a district meeting place in olden days. The tree is protected by an iron railing which juts from the footpath into the road, with some danger to traffic, and there has been suggestions that the tree be felled, and the railings used for war purposes. Other opinions are that the giant be given a cement filling and a girder to help to support it, and this course is advocated by the Improvement Committee.”
I think that the gentleman of the Improvement Committee will find that I suggested such protection in the last paragraph although the article does suggest that the railings still stood in 1941 and had not gone off with everyone’s pots and pans to support the misguided belief that the metal was to be used for war purposes.
An online source mentions the 1941 winds and expanded on this by referring to the gale on May 26, 1941. Knowing this exact date, I returned to the newspaper archive, and found that the Bradford Observer of May 27, 1941, reported as follows in a section referred to as Yorkshire Gossip: Shire Oak Plaque. LAST night I rang up Mr. Godfrey Pick, chairman of the Leeds Corporation Improvement Committee, official guardians of the Shire Oak, Headingley, reputed to be 1,000 years old, which collapsed within its railed enclosure yesterday. I asked Mr. Pick if he would care to pronounce any funeral oration over the venerated corpse. This is what he said: “The old oak is gone, much to our sorrow. I shall propose at the next meeting of the Improvement Committee that a tablet be placed in the wall near the site, recording briefly its history and its passing. Everything possible had been done to save the oak. A concrete slab was inserted some years ago, and latterly we had considered putting in a steel girder, but steel is required for much more important purposes nowadays. In any case the rot had gone so far, the old oak had become so frail, that even a steel girder would not have made her last for more than another twelve months. There is, of course, a brighter side. The Shire Oak was undoubtedly an obstruction. A memorial plaque will not be anything like so much in the way.”
The use of quotation marks within this report suggests that it was Mr. Pick of the Corporation Improvement Committee who referred to ‘the brighter side’ although I have my suspicions that it may have been the comments of a mischievous newspaper editor.
Interestingly there is no reference to any gale or storm in any newspaper article and the demise of the Shire Tree is blamed on rot and old age.
Now I am not one to promote conspiracy theories, although this may be one of those stories shrouded in mystery in wartime. For 1,000 years we had a tree which stood in Headingley, and it was revered to the extent that iron railings were placed around it. As the surrounding area was developed it was noted that the railings and tree jutted ‘from the footpath into the road, with some danger to traffic.’ I think it had become a nuisance to the local authorities from the viewpoint of ongoing maintenance costs and traffic management and a dastardly plan was hatched to remove it. I suspect that on the night of May 27, 1941, under the cover of darkness (it would have been extremely dark in Headingley due to war time blackout precautions), a small and covert group of council workmen approached the tree and pushed it to the ground. If this is true, these brave men may have solved the traffic problem and freed up iron railings for the war effort, but their names are lost to history.
OK, the above is tongue and cheek and perhaps a little dramatic. I do think that the tree simply rotted to the extent that it could no longer hold its weight. It toppled, and by so doing solved a problem for local traffic planners. It must have been difficult to propose repairing and re-erecting the tree, particularly as “there has been suggestions that the tree be felled, and the railings used for war purposes.” At a time when the public was gathering metal for the war effort it would have been difficult to use steel to support an old tree, particularly when ‘steel is required for much more important purposes.’
So, what happened to the tree?
The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer of May 29, 1941, let it be known: [The] Fate of the Shire Oak. WHAT is to become of the Shire Oak at Headingley?
This is the tree which, as my readers learned on Tuesday, has braved the breeze in those parts probably since the days of the Saxons, until this week it suddenly fell forward on the rails which protected it. Councilor Godfrey Pick, chairman of the Corporation Improvement Committee, told me yesterday of his intention … to suggest that it shall be cut up and pieces sold for the Lord Mayor’s Red Cross Fund. This follows a suggestion made in the Yorkshire Evening Post Diary of a few weeks ago when the future the tree was being discussed before its sudden collapse. It is also proposed to erect a plaque on a wall near the spot recording the fact that the tree stood for many centuries at the famous Headingley corner and that it died of old age. Both ideas, to my mind, are excellent.
Later that year the Yorkshire Evening Post of November 6, 1941, reported … WITHEY’S SHIRE OAK CHARITY EFFORT. Tomorrow night the Lord Mayor of Leeds (Alderman W. Withey) will tour licensed houses in the Headingley district, his object being to dispose of about 50 remaining pieces of the famous Headingley Shire Oak in aid of his War Charities Fund. With each piece goes a certificate of authenticity, adorned with pictures of the oak – as it looked just before its fall last May and as it appeared 200 years ago.
Starting at the Hyde Park Hotel at 6:45, the Lord Mayor, accompanied by Mr. H. Harden, hon. treasurer, and Mr. Edgar Home, hon. Secretary of the Leeds Publicity Club, will visit in turn, the Oak, Sky Rack, New Inn, Woodman, and Three Horse Shoes hotels. The Lord Mayor is a teetotaler.
The same online source mentioned above advises: The remains of the tree were removed, but one part was sculpted by Robert “Mouseman” Thomson (a well-known English furniture maker) into the likeness of the Madonna and child, which is now displayed in Saint Michael’s Church.
Whether this is fact or fiction is unknown, but I would love to see one of the pieces that sold for charity.