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The history of professional arboriculture in Britain

Author:  Mark Johnston
  05/06/2019
Last Updated:  23/08/2019
The City of Paris safety belt, used by City of London in the 1920s, was a significant advance in tree care equipment.

The City of Paris safety belt, used by City of London in the 1920s, was a significant advance in tree care equipment.

My interest in the history of arboriculture began in the early 1980s when working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It was an inspiring experience, spending every day in an historic landscape shaped by great names in horticulture and arboriculture, and working on trees with their own fascinating history. But I also found something equally inspiring just outside the gardens on Kew Green.

In my lunch hour I would often wander over to the Lloyds of Kew bookshop and browse the old and rare books on trees, arboriculture and landscape. I became friendly with Dan Lloyd and he introduced me to some of the great writers, such as Switzer, Loudon, Repton, Robinson, and Elwes and Henry. I made my first purchases of old books with Dan and it was the beginning of my own remarkable library.

After spending many years as a tree officer, consultant and academic immersed in the challenges of modern urban tree management, I decided recently to make real use of my library and focus my writing of the historical aspects of arboriculture and urban forestry. My first book, Trees in Towns and Cities: A History of British Urban Arboriculture, looked at how trees and woodlands have featured in our urban areas since earliest times. However, this wasn’t just presented as something of ‘historical interest’; it’s vital we understand how our treed landscapes have developed over the centuries if we are to manage them appropriately today. That theme was taken up even more vigorously in my next book, Street Trees in Britain: A History. This was published in 2017, when concern about the felling of street trees in cities such as Sheffield was attracting national media attention. The response to the book has been tremendous, not only from relevant professionals and landscape historians, but also from the wider public. While people are increasingly aware of the environmental value of street trees, they have also become much more conscious of their social and cultural significance as ‘living history’ in the midst of our modern streetscapes. The success of the book owes much to the research contributions I received from many tree officers, consultants, local historians, academics and others.

I’m now quite advanced in the research for my next book which will be a detailed history of professional arboriculture in Britain, from the Romans to the present day. This time I’m focusing on the people who were employed to do the actual work of planting and caring for our amenity trees. In some respects it’s a massive expansion of the first chapter of my Trees in Towns and Cities. The research has been ongoing for nearly two years, and as I work towards the present era, a huge amount of relevant material has already been gathered. Updates on the progress of this are available on my pages at ResearchGate (www.researchgate.net).

Steam-powered tree felling in 1878, watched by leading politician William Gladstone.

Steam-powered tree felling in 1878, watched by leading politician William Gladstone.

Call for contributions on 20th-century British arboriculture

Contributions from others played a crucial role in my previous research and I’m hoping for the same with this history of professional arboriculture in Britain. My thanks go to the Arboricultural Association for publishing this call to the industry for contributions of relevant archive material, personal observations and comment, particularly in relation to the development of professional arboriculture in the 20th century. I’m also planning to have telephone discussions over the summer with some prominent individuals in arboriculture and related fields to get their more detailed perspectives.

I’m conscious that as we approach more recent times in 20th-century British arboriculture, views on the relative significance of different events, technical developments and ideas can become quite diverse and occasionally divisive. I want to give everyone an opportunity to express their views, taking into account a range of perspectives, to end up with a reasonably balanced and authentic account. Furthermore, with any book there is always a limited amount of space available and not everything of significance can be included; therefore, it’s necessary to consider the priority to give different aspects of our history. In general, I’m looking for contributions or views that could include the following:

  • Photographs, prints, documents, etc. that chart the development of British arboriculture or important milestones.
  • Major advances in tools, equipment, products and techniques.
  • The scope of ‘arboriculture’ and how this may have changed over the years.
  • The impact of overseas ideas and practice.
  • The representation of professional arboriculture by various organisations and the major achievements and challenges in this.
  • National events and trends, including those of a social, political and economic nature, which have impacted on professional arboriculture.

This list is not definitive and I welcome contributions on anything you consider relevant. However, I should add that this research will not focus much on the history of tree introductions, or the science behind advances in tree biology, physiology and pathology. The emphasis will be on what has influenced standards in professional arboriculture, the impact of the industry and the status of arborists/arboriculturists.

All individuals or organisations whose contributions are included will be gratefully acknowledged in the forthcoming book.


Mark Johnston
Mark Johnston

Please email me at: mark.johnston@ntlworld.com. Mark Johnston is an independent researcher and author focusing on arboriculture, landscape, urban forestry and urban greening.

Although now officially retired, he continues to be involved in various projects on a voluntary basis.


This article was taken form Issue 185 Summer 2019 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the wesbite and viewing your profile area.