Trees during Britain’s industrial revolution

The presence of trees on UK urban streets is indicative not only of the state of the economy (a recession was oft marked by a decline in urban tree management and landscaping), but also of the spending priorities associated with maintaining street scenes. This was particularly the case during the early 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution was gaining serious momentum. Not only had a recession (which hit the growing lower class very significantly – the divide between rich and poor was growing ever-larger) in the 1830s struck harshly the horticultural sector, but there was little desire to plant and maintain urban street trees for multiple reasons (including a lack of space, and a lack of interest in ‘providing’ for the poor).

During the 1830s-1840s, the advancing industrial age had enticed many rural populations to migrate into cities and, for the first time ever, urban populations (54%) were greater than their rural counterparts (as marked by the 1851 census). This flooding of people into cities, compiled with Irish migrants following the famine in 1845, brought about problems, particularly as such a surge in population was not anticipated. Towns and cities were not ready and thus the infrastructure was not there. In-filling was rife, and any pockets of land in residential areas were used to build houses – such as was the case in Nottingham, where a population of 10,000 swiftly rose to 53,000 and, as a result, many gardens and cherry orchards were destroyed and used to construct homes (for factory workers). Once in-filling was completed, the towns and cities expanded from their perimeters, and were constructed in a similarly property-dense fashion.

This illustration by Gustave Dore in 1872 shows how densely packed the housing was in London. Source: British Library.

A further issue with such an influx of such people was that they were typically poor (particularly those from Ireland), and thus their presence lead to densely crowded ‘slums’ manifesting. Ironically, the poor, who left (in some cases absolute) poverty in rural areas, were now just as poverty-stricken but instead in an urban area. Unfortunately, these citizens, once surrounded by trees and green space, now lacked that entirely (no back gardens, no public parks, and so on). Additionally, whlst in rural areas they were spread apart over the country, in the cities they were densely crammed together in small back-to-back houses. Tensions between the rich and the poor thus began to rise.

As all of this was going on, the well-off (middle class and above) decided it was time to get out of the city and move into the suburbs, and instead commute into the city to work via horse and carriage. Not only were the suburbs cleaner, but they were safer (they may have been gated communities), and actually had space to accommodate trees in communal and private gardens and – perhaps at times – along streets. Such estates within the suburbs (and also the cities) thus began to form, and by 1875 around 150 of these estates existed.

This illustration, again by Gustave Dore from 1872, shows how an urban street may have looked, and how high population density was. Source: British Library.

The curious aspect of the middle class moving out of the city and moving into estates was that the very same middle class began to push for the city areas to have public parks for the working class to be able to utilise. Perhaps the more affluent, who would have had far more say in political matters at the time (particularly with being able to vote), realised that those stuck within the slums deserved a better standard of life (that may have been fuelled, at least partially, by the growing tensions between rich and poor), though even once such public parks were created they were rarely visited by the middle class – they still desired the segregation they achieved by living in the suburbs and gated estates.

Following the Industrial Revolution trees progressively, over the course of the remainder of the 1800s, and then over the early to mid 1900s, became more desired (and thus more frequently planted) within urban areas. This has culminated into what we see today – plenty of parks and, for the most part, plenty of urban trees. The author goes into great detail on the years after the Industrial Revolution, though I won’t spoil that as I’d rather you read the book!

Source: Johnston, M. (2015) Trees in Towns and Cities – A History of British Urban Arboriculture. UK: Windgather Press.

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Trees during Britain’s industrial revolution

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