Sorbus domestica, The Woodward Family Connection in Worcestershire
The True Service Tree of Worcestershire, also called the ‘Whitty Pear’ or ‘The Sorb Tree’.
The Woodward Family Connection, Upper Arley, Worcestershire.
Hermione Gerry née Woodward. October 2012
It is well-documented that the ‘Whitty Pear’ has been growing in the Wyre Forest, Worcestershire since 1678 when a single specimen was first mentioned as a native tree by Edmund Pitt. Since then various mentions of its existence there have been made. This specimen was known to be very old even from the time when it was discovered. As a child I was told that it was thought that it may have been introduced to this country by the Romans although this was not proven and is, I understand, doubted by some experts. What was certain was that it was very rare, with the only example growing in the wild being that in the Wyre Forest.
Its rarity was plainly known by a local vagrant who, it is said, had a grievance with the local land-owner and, presumably in a moment of pique, decided to set fire to and destroy this unique specimen. There is a suggestion that a local magistrate, who may or may not have been the Landlord, was very fond of the tree and used to hold his ‘court’ beside it. The vagrant had apparently been found guilty of poaching: and this is why he burnt the tree down. What the grievance was, I was never told, so the poaching story may or may not be true, however it seems clear that he did a ‘good’ job and the tree was destroyed. This was in 1862, 150 years ago. Now this could have been the end of the story, but fortunately it isn’t.
The Whitty Pear is not easy to propagate from cuttings, however it is possible to grow it from seeds (pips). To the best of my knowledge and from what I was told by my Father, the late Sir Chad Woodward, seed from the original specimen had luckily been grown at Arley Castle. My family had moved to Upper Arley in 1852, when my great Grandfather, Robert Woodward, bought the Arley Castle Estate from Lord Mountnorris. It is known that the Tree was alive in 1856, and only destroyed in 1862, ten years after the Woodwards moved to Arley and so it is very likely that the living descendants of the original specimen, had been germinated, or raised, by members of my family. This is what I was always led to believe. However, as Lord Mountnorris started the Arley Arboretum in circa 1820, it is also possible I imagine, that seeds had been germinated before my family moved to Arley.
My Father’s family had a great interest and love of trees and shrubs and took delight in continuing the development of the Arley Arboretum. His elder brother, Robert Woodward Jnr, who should have inherited the Estate from his Father had he not been killed in the First World War, had without doubt germinated Whitty Pear seeds from descendants of the original, including the one planted in the Wyre Forest by my Grandmother. Not only was he interested and most knowledgeable about trees and shrubs in general, but also meticulous in keeping a record of the trees in the grounds of Arley Castle. I am lucky enough to have this record which is entitled ‘Catalogue of trees in - Arboretum, Lawn, Naboth, Flower garden & Park at Arley Castle’.
There is an entry made in the Catalogue by my Uncle in December 1903 which reads, and I quote:
“A strike or seedling from the original tree in the Wyre Forest, which was described by Phil: Trans of 1678 by Mr Pitt. Then considered an old tree. Alive in 1856. Destroyed by fire in 1862, kindled by a vandal who knew that it was a tree of interest. He was afterwards Transported for setting fire to some farm buildings.
See (i) Lightfoots Flora Sestica page 257 (ii) Loudon’s Arboretum Brittanicum (iii) The Botany of Worcs. By Edwin Lees pub: 1867 (iv) Nash’s Worcestershire.
Sir Walter Blount and Sir Edward Winnington both tried to propagate it but apparently without success.”
After my Uncle was killed, in France on 9th May 1915 it was decided to plant a tree in his memory, and what better tree to plant than an offspring, raised by him, of the original Whitty Pear. The place selected to plant this sapling was the site of the original tree, in the Wyre Forest, and so on 30th March 1916 it was planted by my Grandmother, Mrs Robert Woodward (Mary Jane) on that site. It is still growing there, not far from the Forestry Commission Visitor Centre.
My Grandfather, Robert Woodward, died in 1919 after which my Father, being the second son, inherited the Arley Estate, but moved out of the Castle which was let out as a girl’s school, and into Arley Cottage. This is where I grew up. We have, in the Arley Cottage garden, a Whitty Pear, another direct descendant of the original Tree, planted by my Father in around 1930. This tree regularly flowers and bears fruit.
Since moving back into Arley Cottage in 2005, we have germinated several seedlings from ‘pips’ from this tree. We have not tried to take cuttings. Some of the seedlings have been given away but we still have three saplings. One of these has been planted out in our garden and has already reached around eight feet tall, but has not yet flowered. The other two are in pots, one of which, it is planned, will be planted back into the Wyre Forest in March 2013, almost exactly 97 years after my Grandmother planted the existing specimen. It is currently over a metre tall, and growing fast!
Information on the Whitty Pear has appeared in many natural history and other publications. In 2009 I wrote a summary ‘time-line’ of its history (Green 2009) and included a list of the most useful publication which is copied below. Following Hermione Gerry’s article we plan to write a more extended version in the (hopefully) not-to-distant future.
Green, H. 2009. The Old Sorb Tree, Whitty Pear or The True Service Tree, Sorbus domestica L, Previously Sorbus pyriformis. Wyre Forest Study Group Review, 10:69-73. Also see http://www.wyreforest.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/The-Old-Sorb-Tree.pdf
Claxton, Frances 1999 the Whitty Pear Sorbus domestica L. A Natural Pioneer Millennium Award Project – Work in Progress. Worcestershire Record 7:28-30.
Hampton, Marc 1996. Sorbus domestica L. – comparative morphology and habitats. BSBI News No 73 pages 32-37.
Hampton, M. & Kay, Q. O. N. 1995. Sorbus domestica L., new to Wales and the British Isles. Watsonia. 20:379-384.
Hastings, Charles. 1834. Illustrations of the Natural History of Worcestershire. London: published by Sherwood, Gilbert & Piper; Lees, Worcester, at the request of the Worcestershire Natural History Society.
Jeffrey, F. Ronald. 1916. The Wyre Forest Sorb Tree. Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club. Volume 6, part 3, pages 250-257. This article is a useful account of the history of the tree.
Jennings, Fred. 2005. The sorb tree of Wyre – the True Service or Whitty Pear (Sorbus domestica). Wyre Forest Study Group Review 6:53-56.
Jones, Mary M. 1980. The Lookers-out of Worcestershire. The Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club. Chapter 7: The fate of the old sorb tree and its descendants: Pages 69-80. The best modern summary of the history of the tree up to 1980.
Kausch-Blecken von Schmeling, W. 2000. Der Speierling Sorbus domestica L. In German. A book on history, distribution, cultivation, timber and use of the fruit.
Lees, Edwin 1867. The botany of Worcestershire. Worcestershire Naturalists Club
Tomkinson, K & Everett, E. 1984. Selections from Nash’s Worcestershire. . Kenneth Tomkinson Ltd. From Collections for the history of Worcestershire by Treadway Russell Nash written between 1781 -1782 in two large volumes.