Friday, 22 July 2011

Congleton: Salix Babylonica, St Helena and Sir Thomas Reade

Homefield, Sir Thomas's House in Congleton (left, foreground), behind it is St Peter's church

"all around them the once-trodden ways have vanished, while those who thronged their ways, and even the memory of those who thronged those trodden ways, are dead" - Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

And so, in dreadful weather, at the end of our tour of the Napoleonic associations in the North West of England, we arrived in Congleton, birth place of Sir Thomas Reade, whose splendid memorial in Congleton Church (click to enlarge image) indicates how his widow wished him to be remembered.

Modern scholars might question whether Sir Thomas was quite as instrumental in ridding Tunisia of slavery as the memorial claims.

Sir Thomas's widow, Agnes Clogg (1804-1867) of Manchester.

The eighteenth century Anglican church of St Peter's, its internal layout and furnishing reminiscent of Congregational and Lutheran churches I have visited, contains a number of memorials to the Reade family, obviously of some importance in Congleton, and Sir Thomas's mother, who died in his childhood, is buried in a family vault beneath the church floor.

Sir Thomas Reade (1782- 1849).

The portrait, previously shown in black and white, is in the keeping of a descendant.

My thanks to Sue Dale for allowing me to copy her image of it.

Since our visit Albert has published a comprehensive and very fair account of the life of Sir Thomas which perhaps, taken in isolation, might suggest an importance in the annals of the British Empire that is I think not strictly merited!

Salix Babylonica

Willow tree, formerly within the boundary of Sir Thomas's garden, now in the grounds of Burns Garages in Congleton.

Sir Thomas's garden, now somehat reduced in size

Local legend has it that the willow was grown from a cutting brought back by Sir Thomas Reade from the site of Napoleon's grave on St Helena.

Since our visit a local expert has now confirmed that the tree is indeed a salix babylonica, very rare in the United Kingdom, taken presumably from Asia by the Honourable East India Company to St Helena, where it now no longer exists.

Albert has informed me that as well as in France other trees claiming to have been rooted from St Helena cuttings exist in New Zealand, and formerly even in the Duke of Wellington's garden at Grafton in Kent.

Plaque in New Zealand attesting to trees taken from St Helena cuttings brought by François Le Lievre who arrived in New Zealand in 1838 aboard a whaling ship

There was also such a tree in Kirkconnel Hall, Dumfries (close to Lockerbie), the house of Dr Arnott, with whom we began our tour of the northwest. This tree had to be destroyed to make way for a new road, but the owner of the house, now a hotel, took a cutting and has planted it in his garden.

KirkConnel Hall Hotel, formerly the home of Dr Arnott, somewhat extended since he lived there.

With all the cuttings taken from it, it is no wonder perhaps that the original tree on St Helena no longer exists.

All that remains to satisy the most sceptical is for a comparison of the DNA of all the trees claimed to have descended from cuttings of the one at Sane Valley on St Helena! For my part I am as satisfied as I need to be that local legend is correct, and that for whatever reason, the intrepid Sir Thomas, a Loyalist to the last, brought a cutting from Sane Valley, the site of the grave of Napoleon, that "miserable outlaw" whom he affected to despise.

My thanks again to Sue Dale and Albert Benhamou for providing so much information and for leading me to a place I might never have visited. Despite the weather it was a fascinating end to our tour.

1 comment:

John Grimshaw said...

Visiting Walmer Castle in Kent at the weekend a framed newspaper cutting caught my eye describing a willow tree, long since dead, planted by the Duke of Wellington from a cutting from the willow by the grave of Napoleon. In 1708 Walmer Castle took on the role as the residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a role initially carrying real power but by 1829 when Wellington was appointed Lord Warden had become an honorary position bestowed on those who had gives distinguished service to the state. Wellington died here in September 1852. There was no indication as to how the cutting was procured but your concern about the fate of the original trees was well founded, even in 1836.

From the Mirror of Literature and Amusement Vol. XXVIII London 1836 P. 264.
“During the first two miles we had to encounter a constant ascent, and soon afterwards descended the glen in which repose the remains of Napoleon. Here, beneath three willows, shorn of almost all their branches, and within an iron railing, is a slab of stone, placed upon the ground, without any inscription, and eight feet long by four wide, - such is the tomb of of the once mighty Emperor! On the willows, whose trunks bend nearly to the slab, that extraordinary man was wont to sit and converse with the few friends who accompanied him in his distant exile, nor could he have selected for the purpose a more sweetly sequestered spot. Previous to his death, the trees were in a flourishing state; but since that event so many persons have procured cuttings from them, that they are now almost destroyed.

The Augustus Earle Watercolour of the Tomb was painted in 1829 and shows at least four surviving trees.