Dressing the tree

Dressing the Arbor Tree

 

Research Article

April, 2003, by John Box

 

Abstract

The custom of dressing the black poplar growing in Aston-on-Clun in south Shropshire - known as the Arbor Tree - with flags on flagpoles every 29 May is unique in Britain. New flags are attached to wooden flagpoles on the tree that remain throughout the year. Written records of the Arbor Tree only extend back to 1898, but the tradition of dressing the tree is reputed to date back to a local wedding in 1786. The article attempts to establish the history and context of the tradition and shows how the custom has developed and acquired new meanings, particularly since 1955 when a pageant was devised. The pageant and the celebrations associated with the tree dressing are evolving in response to those living in the local community as well as to the external recognition now accorded to this unique tradition.

 

The Event

The Arbor Tree is a black poplar growing beside a stream in the middle of Aston-on-Clun in the parish of Hopesay (Shropshire) at a place where four roads meet. Every year on 29 May, new flags are attached to wooden flagpoles that remain on the tree throughout the year (Figure 1). The tradition was allegedly maintained by the Marston family from the time of the wedding of John Marston and Mary Carter on 29 May 1786 until 1949. Thereafter, Hopesay Parish Council has maintained the tree dressing custom, which is unique in Britain. A pageant is held at the nearest weekend, together with a fete and associated events, and the wedding is re-enacted by children.

 

The Black Poplar

The black poplar (Populus nigra var. betulifolia) is a notable and unusual native tree in Britain (Mabey 1996, 133-8). Black poplars are associated with alluvial soils in river valleys and floodplains generally south of a line from the Mersey to the Humber, with particular concentrations across the Midlands from the Welsh Marches to East Anglia (Milne-Redhead 1990) and notably in the Vale of Aylesbury (Mabey 1996). A male clone was much planted in the suburbs of Manchester in the late eighteenth century as it grew well in the polluted atmosphere, and it became known as the "Manchester poplar" (Stace 1971). Growing to a height of some thirty metres, the bark is distinctively ridged and furrowed and has characteristic large burrs or bosses. When mature, the tree forms a huge dome of massive spreading branches that arch outwards. This spreading habit is dramatically different from the elongated shape of the Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra "Italica") that, surprisingly, is a cultivated variety of the black poplar that was imported to Essex from Turin in 1758 (Elwes and Henry 1913, 7:1705-1806) and widely planted because of its unusual shape. The black poplar is also a different species from the more widespread black Italian poplar (Populus x euramericana or Populus x canadensis), which is a hybrid between the black poplar and the North American eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides).

Poplars are unusual in that there are separate male and female trees rather than both types of flower being on the one tree or the flowers containing both male stamens (with the pollen) and female ovaries. Moreover, male black poplars are far more numerous than female trees in Britain and seedlings are, therefore, very rare (Milne-Redhead 1990). Regeneration occurs from the branches or the trunk of fallen trees that root into the underlying soil. Growing in river valleys and floodplains, the trees could be uprooted by floods and grow again once deposited in a new location.

The black poplar is recorded in medieval documents and there is evidence that the massive arching branches were used in cruck-framed buildings (Rackham 1986, 207-8). The black poplar grows well from cuttings and was widely planted as a timber tree. The wood of poplars in general is light and had similar uses to willows for making baskets and poles as well as for making packing cases; it is resistant to burning and was used for the floors of oasthouses where hops are dried; and, like willow, it will dent rather than splinter and was used for the bottoms of carts and wagons, especially in stone quarries, and for wooden brake blocks (Edlin 1949, 120; Aaron and Richards 1990, 162-3). Loudon comments on the use of black poplar by joiners, cabinet makers and turners and also for making clogs and the soles and heels of shoes (Loudon 1838, 3:1652-5).

 

The Arbor Tree

The Arbor Tree was a male black poplar [1] that was said to be at least three hundred years old when it collapsed in 1995 and had been repeatedly pollarded. There are reports of the tree being pollarded in 1908, 1955, 1962, 1963/4, 1968, 1970 and 1991 (Anonymous 1955; Hughes n.d., 40 [2]). The tree was hollow, and Gwen Hamilton, a local resident, can remember boys hiding in the tree as long ago as the late 1910s [3].

The Marston estate was auctioned in lots in November 1949 and the fate of the tree was discussed by Hopesay Parish Council [4]. Subsequently, it was agreed to write to the new owner to see if the tree could be conveyed on the same terms as the gift of the tennis courts to the Parish Council [5].

There was concern about the health of the tree, and both Percy Thrower (the Parks Superintendent at Shrewsbury) and Jim Carey (Chiltern Tree Surgeons) inspected the tree in 1954 (Shrewsbury Chronicle 4 June 1954, 12; Shrewsbury Chronicle 22 October 1954, 11; Anonymous 1954; 1955). The Parish Council formally agreed to commit the care of the tree to the Society of the Men of the Trees [6], with all tree management and surgery to be done in consultation with the Society [7]. This arm's-length arrangement does not seem to have worked. In 1963, the Parish Council agreed to write to the Society rescinding the 1955 minute [8] and took back responsibility for the tree and its pollarding [9].

The old tree dramatically collapsed early in the morning of 2 September 1995 (Shropshire Star 2 September 1995). The present black poplar grew from a rooted cutting taken from the old tree that was given to local resident Marina Harding, who played the "bride" in the pageant in May 1986 celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of the wedding of John Marston and Mary Carter. This tree was subsequently grown on land owned by Hopesay Parish Council at nearby Broome [10]. The young tree was dug up, moved from Broome to Aston-on-Clun, and replanted with much ceremony on 16 December 1995 [11].

 

The Name

The tree is called the Arbor Tree today. However, the first written reference to the tree is in relation to proposals for a fountain and a lamp to be erected at the "Arbour Tree" in memory of the late Revd R. G. Marsh [12]. This spelling was used in a guidebook for the area (Anonymous 1938) and was continued in the minutes of Hopesay Parish Council until 1954 when "Arbor Tree" was first used [13]. This coincided with the first two occasions when the Council was addressed by Tom Beardsley, who was to have a significant influence on the modern customs associated with the tree and who preferred "Arbor Tree" [14]. Nonetheless, "Arbour Tree" continued to be used in the parish council minutes until August 1959, since when "Arbor Tree" has been used. The name was spelt "Arbour Tree" in the Shrewsbury Chronicle in 1951 (Shrewsbury Chronicle 1 June 1951, 3) but had changed to "Arbor Tree" by 1954 (Shrewsbury Chronicle 4 June 1954, 12).

The English Dialect Dictionary (Wright 1898) cross-refers "Arbour-Tree" to the dialect words for the hornbeam ("Harber," "Harbur," "Arbour"), which is a very different tree to a black poplar; "Harbour" is also given as an old dialect word for a shelter or refuge, a likely use for a large tree in the middle of a village. The Shropshire Word-Book, a glossary of archaic and provincial words, has no references to "Arbor," "Arbour" or "Harbour" (Jackson 1879). Nevertheless, "Harbours" or "Arbours" were wooden buildings constructed in Shrewsbury from the seventeenth century onwards by the main guilds or trading corporations at Kingsland, then a large space to the south of the river but now developed for housing (Chambers 1869, 704-8; Burne 1973, 453-5). The arbours were wooden dining halls, surrounded by a hedge and ditch with an elaborate entrance, that were used as places of entertainment and feasting, particularly during the Shrewsbury Show on 30 May. Arbours survived until the late nineteenth century although some had become dilapidated, and the last one--the Bakers' Arbour--was demolished in 1885 (Burne 1973).

Interestingly, there used to be an Arbor Tree (a lime) in Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire, which is only some 10 km south of Aston-on-Clun. This tree, shown on a postcard dated c. 1906, was felled in the late 1940s and replaced by a sweet chestnut that had been planted in 1934 [15]. The tree is no longer called Arbor Tree, perhaps because both trees were present together for around a dozen or so years and the name did not transfer to the new tree.

 

Historical Evidence

The first written reference to the Arbor Tree is in the minutes of Hopesay Parish Council [16]. The first published reference to the custom of tree dressing was by J. E. Auden, the vicar of Tong and a prolific writer about the ecclesiastical history of Shropshire (Auden 1912, 134). In his guide to the most interesting archaeological and architectural objects and places in Shropshire, he remarks: "At Astonon-Clun, where five roads meet, stands a large poplar tree decorated with flags every 29th of May, which remain till the same day the next year, to commemorate the marriage, and a bequest to the poor, of a lady who once resided at Aston House."

Prior to 1912, there are no historical records or references to the Arbor Tree in works dealing with British customs and places in general, or with the history and folklore of Shropshire in particular (Bourne 1725; Whatley 1751; Camden 1806; Brand 1810; Nightingale 1813; Blount 1815; Hardwicke 1833-8; Hulbert 1837a; 1837b; Hartshorne 1841; Eyton 1854-60, vol. 11; Chambers 1869; Dyer 1876; Ditchfield 1896; 1975; Timmins 1899; Defoe 1962; Strutt 1969; Hardwick 1973).

The authoritative account of folklore in Shropshire by Charlotte Burne (Burne 1973) does not mention the Arbor Tree, although there is a section devoted to Oak-Apple Day (29 May) and its customs. Some local customs omitted from Burne's book, including the Arbor Tree, have been described by Rix (1960).

More recent articles and books deal with the Arbor Tree as if it was a well-known custom (Hughes n.d., 40; Hole 1976, 22-3; Sykes 1977, 71; Shuel 1985, 39-40; Vickery 1995, 36-7; Mabey 1996, 137; Morton 1998, 117-18).

 

Sources and Traditions

There are five principal sources of information about the traditions involving the Arbor Tree and the origin of the tree dressing, all which have been compiled by local people.

* An article in Shropshire Magazine by Graham Thomas who was born and lived in Aston-on-Clun in the 1920s (Thomas 1982).

* The leaflet written by "T. C." for Hopesay Parish Council at some time prior to May 1955 [17]. The author was Tom Beardsley (or "Tom Clun" as he was also known) who lived at Clun and who took a major part in the tree dressing and associated events from 1954 onwards. The printed leaflet is still available from the Clerk to Hopesay Parish Council. A special souvenir version of the leaflet was produced for 29 May 1955 with the programme for the one hundred and sixty-ninth annual tree dressing printed on the reverse. The programme was based around "The Pageant of the Tree," which was written by Tom Beardsley and performed by the local schoolchildren.

* A scrapbook entitled The Arbor Tree and its Flags [18]. A collection of photographs, newspaper cuttings and original letters dating from the 1950s that includes a letter from the Clerk to Hopesay Parish Council to Tom Beardsley dated 13 May 1954, a letter from the Men of the Trees to Tom Beardsley dated 7 January 1955, and the programme for the Arbor Day celebrations on 1 June 1958.

* A signed but undated article by Tom Beardsley [19] that may well have been prepared in 1985 at the request of the Arbor Tree Committee as reported to the Parish Council [20].

* The Souvenir Booklet prepared for the two hundredth Arbor Day in 1986 [21]. This booklet contains short articles about the Arbor Tree, the tree dressing and the history of Aston-on-Clun. The main contributors were Lowenna Player, John Kirkpatrick, Geoffrey Messer and Tom Beardsley.

Graham Thomas notes that there were several reasons given for the tree dressing, but the one that was accepted when he was young was to commemorate the wedding day of John Marston and Mary Carter (Thomas 1982). The 1955 leaflet [22] includes this wedding story and sets out additional stories of fertility worship involving Brigit, sanctified as St Briget or St Bride, and the national holiday or Arbor Day proclaimed by Charles II on 29 May 1660 where trees were the focus of festivities. These stories were elaborated in the Beardsley article [23] and the 1986 booklet [24] and have been broadly repeated by modern authors (Hughes n.d.; Rix 1960; Hole 1976; Sykes 1977; Thackeray 1984; Shuel 1985; Kerridge 1988; Vickery 1995; Mabey 1996; Morton 1998).

There is also an interesting story that a large rice pudding was made and eaten in common at the tree dressing, but the custom died out over one hundred years ago [25].

 

The Tree Dressing with Flags

The most notable event associated by oral and written tradition with the Arbor Tree is the celebration of the marriage of the local squire, John Marston, to Mary Carter on 29 May 1786 in the adjacent parish of Sibdon Carwood. The wedding carriage is reputed to have stopped at Long Meadow End--the parish boundary between Sibdon and Hopesay--and was pulled by the locals to John Marston's house at Oaker, stopping at the tree in the middle of Aston-on-Clun. Here, the flag-bedecked tree so entranced Mary that she provided money--usually given as a guinea--to ensure that the tree was always decorated with flags annually on 29 May.

The Marston estate was involved with the tree dressing for a long time. Thomas (1982) records that George Thomas, an estate carpenter, was responsible for dressing the Arbor Tree in the 1920s and 1930s. Later on, Charlie Lloyd helped Sam Ball, the gamekeeper to the Marston estate, to put out the flags that were paid for by the estate until the estate was sold and the Parish Council took over [26]. There is a photograph of Sam Ball and Dr Frank Marston standing by the tree, which is in leaf, and clearly predates the letter dated 9 January 1957 that accompanies the photograph [27].

The annual dressing of the Arbor Tree on 29 May is often linked to Restoration Day or Royal Oak Day or Oak-Apple Day, which commemorated the restoration of Charles II. In 1660, Parliament passed "An Act for a Perpetual Anniversary Thanksgiving on the Nine and Twentieth Day of May" to commemorate the restoration of the Stuart dynasty and, specifically, the formal entry of Charles II into London on 29 May 1660, which was also his birthday (Browning 1953, 8:61-2). This Act required everyone to go to their usual church, chapel or place of public thanksgiving to participate in "hearty public praises and thanksgivings unto Almighty God." Ministers had to give notice of this public thanksgiving at morning prayers on the previous Sunday and to read the Act out loud. This important national anniversary was associated with Charles II hiding in an oak tree at Boscobel after the rout of his army at Worcester in September 1651 and became known as Royal Oak Day or Oak-Apple Day.

The celebrations were marked by special prayers, bell-ringing, bonfires, and the wearing of sprigs of oak (Wright 1938, 254-70; Cressy 1989, 64-5; Hutton 1996, 288-94). Maypoles were once again allowed following their ban in 1644 and were part of the celebrations on 29 May in villages in south Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire (Wright 1938, 200 and 268-9). David Cressy and Ronald Hutton have undertaken research into the traditional customs and anniversaries of the Stuart period, but neither makes any mention of tree dressing (Cressy 1989; Hutton 1996). Nevertheless, it is clear that local communities made their own local celebrations even if the direction for such a day came through local establishment figures and involved sermons and proclamations (Cressy 1989). The statute of 1660 was repealed in 1859, and the scale of the celebrations declined in the absence of a national holiday (Hutton 1996, 291-2).

 

The Wedding

John Marston married Mary Carter on 29 May 1786 by special licence in St Michael's, Sibdon Carwood, which is adjacent to Sibdon Castle. The Register-Book for Banns and Marriages for Sibdon Carwood for the period 1754-1871 is held in the Parish and contains the entry:

John Marston and Mary Carter both of this parish were married in this Church by Licence this twentyninth day of May 1786 by Wm.

Jones. In presence of R Smallman and Ann Carter.

Robert Smallman witnessed a number of marriages around 1786 and could be the Clerk to the Church; Ann Carter is likely to have been the bride's mother. A special marriage licence was issued by the Bishop of Hereford at a cost of one hundred pounds and dated 15 May 1786 (held at Herefordshire Record Office); a special licence is required when neither bride nor groom live in the parish (in this case, both gave Sibdon Carwood as their place of residence), or if less than three weeks notice is given of the marriage. Marriage by licence ran in the family at this time as John Marston's father and two older brothers were all married by licence (Martin 1920-21).

The Marstons were local landowners and the family can be traced back to Lincolnshire (Hardwicke, 1833-38; Grazebrook and Rylands 1889, Part 2; Martin 1920-21; 1923-24; 1925-26). On the death of his father, Francis Marston of Cheney Longville, John Marston inherited all his land in the parish of Hopesay, including the farmhouse at Oaker where John and Mary lived.

There is very little published information on the Carter family at this period and no evidence of where Mary Carter (and her parents Nathaniel and Ann) lived prior to her marriage. There is some evidence that the Carters were local landholders of some stature. Nathaniel Carter, and on occasion his father John Carter, is party to a number of leases in the eighteenth century involving land in Sibdon Carwood [28]. The tombstone of Nathaniel and Ann Carter that leans against the wall of the church at Sibdon Carwood is a good-quality tombstone. However, the reputed direct link between the Carters and Sibdon Castle [29] is erroneous as the owner from 1774 was Sarah Fleming who married John Baxter of Rock (Rowan 1967a; 1967b).

There are no written sources for the suggestion that the bridal coach stopped at the parish boundary at Long Meadow End and was pulled by hand to John Marston's house at Oaker with a stop at the Arbor Tree, nor for the oft retold story that Mary was so taken with the decorations that she ensured that the ancient custom was preserved. The earliest written account of the story (Auden 1912) merely notes that the decorations commemorate the marriage and bequest to the poor of a lady who once resided at Aston House (there seems to have been some confusion between Mary Carter and John Marston who lived at Oaker, and Carters who may have lived at Aston House, which is now Aston Farm).

 

The Arbor Tree and Fertility

The decoration of the Arbor Tree with flags has been reputed to be a relic of the prayer flags used in the worship of Brigit (or Brigid or Breede), a Celtic goddess of fertility, by the local people whose hill forts are still evident in the local area [30]. However, there is no evidence at all for a link between Brigit and the black poplar in Aston-on-Clun. As a Celtic goddess, Brigit would have been taken into the Christian church as it evolved and she became a major figure in the early Irish church with a festival on 1 February (Hutton 1996, 134-8). However, in Britain her cult was weak, although there were strongholds on the Isle of Man and in the Hebrides.

An old name for the Arbor Tree is claimed to be the Bride's Tree because of the link with the bride, Mary Carter, and because one of the sanctified names for Brigit is St Bride [31].

Because of these presumed associations, brides from Aston were given cuttings from the tree for a few years from the mid-1950s. Nancy Pearce from Aston-on-Clun and Ronald Wilding of Ludlow were presented with a shoot in October 1954 (Shrewsbury Chronicle 22 October 1954, 11) [32]. The souvenir programme for Arbor Day in 1955 includes a note on the presentation of scions (cuttings) of the tree, and there is a report that four newly-wed brides from Aston-on-Clun received them [33]. A report of the Arbor Tree ceremony in 1956 refers to the presentation of a "small black poplar tree" to three brides and one bridegroom who came from Aston-on-Clun (Shrewsbury Chronicle 8 June 1956, 9). "Sprigs from the tree" were presented to village brides of the year in 1959 (Shrewsbury Chronicle 5 June 1959, 6).

The linking of fertility rites to the Arbor Day celebrations led to problems in 1959. Extensive publicity of the visit to Shropshire by Princess Margaret in April made erroneous reference to a cutting from the tree being given to the Princess (Shrewsbury Chronicle 28 August 1959, 1). Subsequently, requests for cuttings from the tree began to arrive from other parts of the country as well as from the USA and Italy. The minutes of the Parish Council record that a letter from Norfolk, Virginia, USA, had been received that contained one dollar for a cutting [34]. The Rector, the Revd T. S. D. Barrett, who was also Chair of the Parish Council, felt strongly that the ceremony had become pagan and that it interfered with the Church. The Parish Council agreed to stop the practice of giving rooted cuttings to brides married during the year and the Clerk to the Council was asked to write to Percy Thrower, who had inspected the tree in 1954 (Anonymous 1954), to request that no new cuttings be taken by him from the tree [35].

Gwen Hamilton and May Price, local residents with good memories of life in Aston-on-Clun before the 1950s, maintain that the giving of cuttings of the Arbor Tree to newly-weds did not occur prior to the mid-1950s, nor was the tree called the Bride's Tree [36]. Indeed, the tradition of giving cuttings appears to have only had a very short history from 1954 when Tom Beardsley became involved until 1959 when the Parish Council ended the practice.

 

Modern Tree Dressing and Celebrations

After the sale of the Marston estate, the Parish Council agreed to take responsibility for the decoration of the tree early on in 1950 and there was an unanimous decision to create the "Arbour Tree Fund" to administer the funds collected for the decorations [37]. The decoration of the tree with flags was undertaken by the Parish Council from 1950 onwards, and events were organised to provide the necessary funds.

Events took a dramatic turn in March 1954 when the Council agreed unanimously "that the decorations be left in abeyance" [38]. This was the catalyst that resulted in Tom Beardsley addressing the Council for the first time at their next meeting [39]. Various actions were agreed by the Council, including asking the Society of the Men of the Trees to be responsible for the safety of the tree as well as the need for the proper organisation, funding and insurance of the tree dressing. These actions were confirmed by a letter to Tom Beardsley from the Clerk to the Council [40]. Both this letter and the minutes record that the safety of the tree was the prime consideration in the decision not to dress the tree. The minutes do not record more of the discussions, and there must be a suspicion that the cost of the decorations and liability insurance in case of accidents were important issues behind the decision. Tom Beardsley raised money for the decorations in 1954 and donations were solicited from organisations such as the Society of the Men of the Trees [41]. Subsequently, the outstanding account (5 [pounds sterling] 15s 1d) was presented to the Council, who agreed to pay [42].

The annual tree dressing used to take place without much ceremony, but 1955 was different and involved a prayer, hymns, the twenty-third psalm and a new pageant [43]. The Pageant of the Tree was devised by Tom Beardsley and included a bride and groom (representing Mary Carter and John Marston) as well as other characters presumed to be associated with the past history of the Arbor Tree, including the Goddess of Nature and Fertility, a Pastoral Shepherd with his Bride, a Roman Soldier, St George of England and St George of Abyssinia, St Brigit (or St Bride) c. 500 AD, the Puritan and Charles II. Scions (cuttings) of the tree were presented (presumably to brides in Aston-on-Clun). There was maypole dancing and morris dancing provided by the Jockey Mens Morris Team. This pageant and associated celebrations continued to be held on the nearest Sunday to 29 May until 1959 [44].

Following the world-wide publicity linking the Arbor Tree with fertility in 1959, there was a general feeling in the Parish Council that the tree ceremony was getting too big and notorious, and that a simpler ceremony would be better [45]. Subsequently, it was recorded that this was a local tree and a local ceremony [46], and the pageant (but not the tree dressing) was stopped [47].

The Jubilee Year celebrations in 1977, however, involved a revival of the pageant [48]. A procession involving local children re-creating the 1786 wedding was planned and dressed in period costumes by Pam Booth and Lowenna Player (the Head of Hopesay school, which was in Aston-on-Clun). There was morris dancing by "The Bedlams" and "Martha Roden's Tuppeny Dish," and maypole dancing. The pageant has now become a successful annual event held on the nearest Sunday to 29 May and has expanded to include a fete and associated celebrations.

The flags used to dress the Arbor tree have included the Union Jack, flags of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, flags of saints, flags of the armed forces (including the King's Shropshire Light Infantry and the Shropshire Yeomanry) and flags donated by Commonwealth and other countries [49]. The flags were hung on flagpoles set firmly into the tree among the branches. There is a reference in the minutes of the Parish Council for 1975 that a dozen new poles some twelve to fifteen feet long were required to decorate the tree in the forthcoming year [50]. There are good photographs of the tree with its flags in the Shropshire Magazine (June 1978, cover) (Figure 2), Shuel (1985, 40), and Mabey (1996, 136).

The new Arbor tree is too young to support the flagpoles that instead are attached at an angle to four posts set around the tree. The flags used in May 2001 were those of the United Kingdom, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, St George, St Andrew, St Patrick and St David (gold cross on a black field).

 

Discussion

The custom of dressing a black poplar known as the Arbor Tree with flags on flagpoles every 29 May is unique in Britain. Black poplar is an extremely unusual tree to be associated with notable events or traditions, which are more likely to involve oak or yew or hawthorn (Vickery 1995; Mabey 1996; Morton 1998). However, there are black poplars in the Clun valley and this particular poplar was the village tree in Aston-on-Clun.

The dressing of the Arbor Tree prior to the mid-twentieth century was a very local custom that neither attracted crowds of spectators nor was widely known outside the immediate environs of the Clun valley. The countryside of this part of the Marches maintains an agricultural way of life based on villages and hamlets with towns offering markets (such as Ludlow and Craven Arms), and the Clun valley was not a main route between major towns. Those recording the details of Shropshire and its customs in the nineteenth century did not record the Arbor Tree and its flags (Nightingale 1813; Hardwicke 1833-8; Hulbert 1837a; 1837b; Hartshorne 1841; Eyton 1864-60, vol 11; Timmins 1899; Burne 1973).

Accounts of other traditional customs on 29 May are usually linked to Royal Oak Day (Oak-Apple Day) and include the surviving customs of Grovely Rights at Great Wishford (Wiltshire) and Garland King Day at Castleton (Derbyshire). Oak-Apple Day at Great Wishford can be traced back to 1603 and was originally celebrated at Whitsun, while Garland King Day evolved from the much older traditional May custom of rush-bearing. In both cases, older customs became bound up with celebrations of the restoration of Charles II, as may well have been the case with the Arbor Tree.

Traditional wood-gathering rights in Grovely Forest are maintained annually on 29 May in Great Wishford (Ditchfield 1975, 121; Sykes 1977, 76; Hole 1976, 82-3; Shuel 1985, 39; Mabey 1996, 75-6). The custom was described in a record of the proceedings of a Court held on 15 March 1603 in Grovely Forest, which sets out the old customs enjoyed by the inhabitants of the manors of Wishford and Barford St Martin. The right to gather wood still remains and is exercised on 29 May by cutting oak boughs, wearing oak leaves or oak-apples, and shouting "Grovely, Grovely, and all Grovely" at the high altar in Salisbury Cathedral to retain the claim to the custom. This custom was traditionally observed at Whitsun but it has no link with the Restoration and was moved from its traditional Whitsun date as an expression of loyalty (Sykes 1977; Hole 1976).

Garland King Day is held on 29 May to celebrate the restoration of Charles II, but is likely to be much older in its origin (Sykes 1977, 74-5; Hole 1976, 78-9; Hutton 1996, 293-4). The Garland King leads a procession mounted on a horse, wearing a wooden frame covered in greenery and flowers, and followed by a queen who used to be a man dressed as a woman in keeping with old traditions but these days is a woman. In fact, it has been shown that this ceremony evolved out of the very different custom of rush-bearing in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century while incorporating a framework of flowers that can be linked to the medieval "Mays" carried in procession to celebrate the start of summer (Hutton 1996, 293-4)

Despite the local tradition that the dressing of the Arbor Tree can be traced back to the local celebrations of Royal Oak Day (Oak-Apple Day), it is possible that the custom of decorating the Arbor Tree is much older than Oak Apple Day. The tradition may be derived from the custom of tying pieces of cloth to trees (clutie trees) in the expectation of wishes being granted (Bord and Bord 1985; Shuel 1985). Or the flags and flagpoles may be the equivalent of the maypoles long associated with May celebrations--it is interesting that maypoles were involved in celebrations in south Shropshire and adjacent areas on 29 May rather than 1 May until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century (Wright 1938). Or perhaps some combination of these customs evolved into an Oak-Apple Day celebration that persisted because it was maintained by the Marston family from 1786 onwards to modern times, unlike so many local traditions that have long ceased.

The dressing of the Arbor Tree on 29 May is regarded by the local community as very much a local event with a long tradition. The custom was augmented in 1955 by the creation of a pageant (The Pageant of the Tree) that involved various local events presumed to be linked to the Arbor Tree, including the 1786 wedding. The pageant was performed at the nearest weekend to 29 May but was stopped in 1959 in response to local concerns and was not revived until 1977 (Jubilee Year). The involvement of local characters, notably Tom Beardsley, from the mid-1950s onwards ensured that the custom of dressing the Arbor Tree with flags survived the traumatic sale of the Marston Estate in 1949 and the transfer of responsibility for the Arbor Tree and its customs to the Parish Council. Tom Beardsley left Ilkeston in Derbyshire around 1920 (aged 18) and became the village policeman in Clun in 1935 [51]. It is interesting to speculate that elements of the Garland King Day at Castleton in Derbyshire, such as the procession with a king and queen, might have influenced his recreation of the wedding ceremony of John Marston and Mary Carter and The Pageant of the Tree in 1955.

The reputed link between the Arbor Tree and fertility materialised for a short time from 1954 to 1959 in the form of cuttings from the tree being given to newly-weds. However, this cannot be substantiated as a long-standing tradition associated with the Arbor Tree, despite the desire of modern writers to keep the "tradition" alive. Indeed, the greater prominence given to these aspects of the Arbor Tree customs clearly caused local resentment and embarrassment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The reputed links can be contextualised as a descendant of the Frazerian line of thinking about folk customs as relics of fertility cults of ancient origin.

Any tradition will only continue if local people want it, and it is clear that this has been very much the case with the Arbor Tree. The actual dressing of the black poplar with flags on 29 May may have changed little over the years. It is the pageant created in 1955 and revived in 1977 that has evolved in response to changes in those living in the local community and the external recognition accorded to this unique tradition.

 

Acknowledgements

This article could not have been produced without the valuable assistance of all those who either assisted with documents or produced photographs or recalled memories: Pam Booth (Aston-on-Clun), Jill Clee (Aston-on-Clun), Fiona Cooper (Church Stretton), David Cox (Victoria County History, Shrewsbury), Kerry Dickins (Shropshire Records and Research Centre), Gina Douglas (Linnean Society), Nick Harding (Aston-on-Clun), Gwen Hamilton (Broome), Robert Holden (Sibdon Castle), Ann Kellow (International Tree Foundation), Liz Lewis (Clungunford), Dot Lloyd (Broome), Geoffrey Messer (Knighton), Andy Morton (Shrewsbury), Caroline Oates (The Folklore Society), David Pearce (Shrewsbury), Christine Penney (University of Birmingham Library), Lowenna Player (Aston-on-Clun), May Price (Aston-on-Clun), Eddie Smith (Clerk to Hopesay Parish Council), Paul Taylor (Birmingham Library), Alan Toop (Craven Arms), Chris Train (Clunbury), Jim Waterson (Severn Gorge Countryside Trust), Steve Wood (Birmingham Library) and the staff of Telford Library and the Shropshire Records and Research Centre who are always interested and extremely helpful. I am grateful to Marian Jones and John Beardsley for information about their father, Tom Beardsley.

 

Notes

[1] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2, Shropshire Records and Research Centre, Shrewsbury.

[2] Also see Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3; Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, April 1964.

[3] Gwen Hamilton, personal communication.

[4] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, November 1949.

[5] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, March 1950.

[6] The Society of the Men of the Trees is now the International Tree Foundation, Sandy Lane, Crawley Down, West Sussex RH10 4AS, UK.

[7] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, March 1955; Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/5. See also Anonymous (1955).

[8] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, March 1963.

[9] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, December 1963 and April 1964.

[10] Eddie Smith, personal communication.

[11] The Arbor Tree (1995); Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/4.

[12] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, April 1898.

[13] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, May and June 1954.

[14] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2; Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[15] Geoffrey Messer, personal communication.

[16] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, April 1898.

[17] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2.

[18] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/5.

[19] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2.

[20] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, May 1985.

[21] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[22] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2.

[23] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2.

[24] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[25] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2.

[26] Gwen Hamilton and Lowenna Player, personal communication.

[27] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/1.

[28] Robert Holden, personal communication.

[29] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[30] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2; Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[31] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2; Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[32] The photograph is reproduced in Anonymous (1955) and South Shropshire Journal (22 September 1995, 3).

[33] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2; Shrewsbury Chronicle (3 June 1955, 7).

[34] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, August 1959.

[35] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, August 1959.

[36] Gwen Hamilton and May Price, personal communication.

[37] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, March and June 1950.

[38] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, March 1954.

[39] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, May 1954.

[40] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/5.

[41] Anonymous (1954); Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/5.

[42] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, November 1954.

[43] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.32; Shrewsbury Chronicle (3 June 1955, 7).

[44] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/5.

[45] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, May 1959.

[46] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council, August 1959.

[47] Shrewsbury Chronicle (28 August 1959, 1); Daily Mail (29 August 1959), cited in Anonymous (1959); Birmingham Post (12 April 1960, 7).

[48] Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[49] Shropshire Records and Research Centre TK 17.2; Shropshire Records and Research Centre P137/R/10/3.

[50] Minutes of Hopesay Parish Council October 1975.

[51] Marian Jones, personal communication

 

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Biographical Note

John Box is an ecologist living in Shropshire who is interested in festive ecology--the relationships between folklore, traditions and natural history. His article "The Festive Ecology of Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe" was published in British Wildlife 7 (1995):69-74, and "Mistletoe Viscum album (Loranthaceae) on Oaks in Britain" was published in Watsonia 23 (2000):237-56). John can be contacted at john.box@btopenworld.com.

 

 

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