Disraeli & Gladstone on Arboriculture.
Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were both politicians of extraordinary ability; today they are consistently ranked in lists of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers. They were possibly the greatest parliamentary rivals in history: their personalities clashed and they heartily loathed each other. The feuding politicians were celebrities of the day, with their battles in the House of Commons attracting as much public attention as the marriage of a film star today.
The ghosts of Disraeli and Gladstone loomed in the background recently. As the Scottish people voted on independence, this resonated with when questions over the British Empire were asked in the second half of the 19th century. While Disraeli couldn’t get enough of Empire, Gladstone was altogether more internationally minded – the protagonist of an ethical foreign policy that sometimes meant compromise over some of Britain’s interests.
Their bitterness arose not only out of differences of principle, but because the style of each man hugely irritated the other. Their style of debate was as different as their personalities – Gladstone eloquent and evangelical; Disraeli, witty and worldly, with a streak of cynicism.
As would be expected, the men shared few interests outside of politics, but the one thing that did grab their attention was trees…
Gladstone’s passion for tree work was well known at the time. During the long parliamentary recesses, he would venture into the woods on most afternoons with his son, to work up a sweat cutting down trees. It was an interest he would pursue well into his eighties, when (as he noted with characteristic precision in his diary) mere ‘axe-work’ replaced ‘tree-felling’. Gladstone perhaps had more enthusiasm than real skill. One Christmas, he almost blinded himself when a large splinter lodged in his eye. A few days later he almost killed another son, Harry, when ‘a tree we were cutting fell with [him] in it’.
Newspaper reports of the time detail how, in 1875, Gladstone was walking through The Park Estate, Nottingham’s exclusive residential area which he had helped to create. There, growing in the middle of a road-way was a large tree… “That tree is coming down,” a minion told Gladstone. “Right,” replied Gladstone, “then I will be the one to cut it down.” The following morning, before breakfast, Gladstone was ready for the task, armed with an axe that hardly looked up to the challenge. But, as a local reporter observed, that didn’t stop Gladstone. He removed his coat and waistcoat, tied his braces around his waist “like a girdle”, and set about the tree, which had a girth of more than five feet. Less than an hour later, the tree came crashing to the ground. Gladstone sat proudly on the fallen trunk to regain his breath… then picked up his coat and set off for his breakfast.
Disraeli was also fascinated by trees, yet his leaning was more that of the tree consultant than the tree surgeon; ‘I like to look at them’ Disraeli remarked in 1860. ‘When I come to Hughenden I pass the first week in sauntering about my park and examining all the trees’. On occasion he would lend a hand in the planting of a tree to mark a notable visit to the house, but at other times he was content to admire a master arborist at work… ‘To see Lovett, my head woodsman, fell a tree is a work of art,’ Disraeli wrote. ‘No bustle, no exertion, apparently not the slightest exercise of strength. He tickles it with the axe; and then it falls exactly where he desires it’. ‘I like very much the society of woodsmen. Their conversation is most interesting: quick and constant observation and perfect knowledge. I don’t know of any men who are so completely masters of their business, and of the secluded, but delicious, world in which they live… A forest is like the ocean, monotonous only to the ignorant. It is a life of ceaseless variety.’
It has been argued that Gladstone and Disraeli’s approaches to arboriculture is yet another example of their differences – while Gladstone was busy cutting down trees Disraeli was planting them – yet this glosses over their common ground and is over simplistic. Disraeli clearly appreciated the skill involved and the need for felling trees and the common characterisation of Gladstone as a ruthless tree killer may be unfair. In an account of his time on his estate, he shows good understanding of arboriculture and at the danger in being too sentimental when felling trees:
Sometimes the fate of a tree at Hawarden hung in the balance for years. The opinion of the family was consulted; visitors were asked to contribute advice. Mr. Ruskin once sealed the fate of an oak; Sir John Millais decided on the removal of an elm. Mr. Gladstone wielded the axe with the skill of an experienced woodman. “We are very proud of our trees,” he said one day to a party of tourists: “and we are therefore getting anxious, as this beech has already shown symptoms of decay. We set great store by our trees.” Why then do you cut ’em down as you do?” roared one of the lads. “We cut down that we may improve. We remove rottenness that we may restore health by letting in air and light. As a good Liberal, you ought to understand that.”