n October 2012 a member of the Historic Coventry Forum named 'Foxcote' discovered an intriguing newspaper article from a 1850 Coventry Herald (transcript on the right), describing how, on the 15th of October that year, an already mature beech tree was moved from its position next to Warwick Road (where the Quadrant now stands) to the London Road Cemetery, near to the Dissenter's Burial Chapel.
Within a few days another member, 'Robthu', picked up on this, as he has a special affinity with this cemetery. He responded; "I spend a lot of time on the trees in the cemetery and this could explain why one purple beech is different to all of the others, it is in the right place to be the one in the article."
And so began a new 21st century journey of discovery for this magnificent tree, to learn all the facts about its origin and its first great journey back in the middle of the 19th century.
Victorian antiquarian, Benjamin Poole, in his 1852 History of Coventry, adds the following to the Herald's article:
With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, we now happily say that the optimistic horticulturists were the correct ones!
For many decades the Purple Beech tree (sometimes referred to as a Copper Beech) had stood in a nursery (left) formerly known as Sheriff's Orchard, and belonging to former mayor, James Weare, who had served a rare three consecutive terms at the head of Coventry's Council from 1824 to 1826. Weare (a nurseryman known by many as "Seedy") died in 1833 at the age of 68.
By 1850, however, the part of the nursery containing the tree was entering its final decade, as plans were in place for the building of an imposing line of properties to be known as The Quadrant, which was erected in the early 1860s. One prominent tree was considered to be too good to leave behind, though, and so unprecedented efforts were made to uproot it and move it a mile or so to the then recently built cemetery on the London Road, a masterpiece designed by Sir Joseph Paxton.
Moving your cursor over the image on the right will bring you into the 21st century, so we can compare the two scenes from a similar viewpoint a century and a half apart.
The map below, although from 1870, has been used to show the probable route taken by the tree. The last part of the route across the northern edge of the cemetery must remain supposition until we learn otherwise, but studies of contemporary maps indicate that other paths were not likely to have been able to take such a large tree. Please also note that the "Green Lane" mentioned in the Coventry Herald article as running down the west side of the cemetery, was renamed in 1933 to Quarryfield Lane.
As explained in the original Coventry Herald article above, the tree was taken to the cemetery via Hertford Street, High Street, Earl Street and Much Park Street. Although the London Road was not specifically mentioned, the earlier Board of Health map shows the whole area in great detail, and once down Much Park Street the London Road would have been by far the only feasible route wide enough to accomodate such a grand cavalcade.
On the final leg of the journey, part of the cemetery's boundary wall required removal to enable access from Green Lane as the tree was brought to its resting place near the Dissenters' Burial Chapel. This 2012 photograph on the left shows the section of fence that can be removed, and the short piece of wall, which would have been rebuilt soon after the operation.
The street opposite nowadays is Gillquart Way, but back in 1850 that area was open fields boxed in by Mile Lane, the cemetery and the railway. Between the wars, however, the Armstrong Siddeley owned Burlington Carriage Works, and later Rolls-Royce, occupied much of the land now covered by this modern housing estate.
In a modern world when not all news is good, it's comforting to know that this story is a positive one. The "scientific and skillful management" of the 19th century indeed won the day, and the continued care and attention of the 21st century ensures that this magnificent example of a Copper Beech tree will stand proud to be admired for many years yet.
As with all research of this type, there is always more that we wish to learn. Mayor James Weare in particular appears to be a mysterious character about whom little is known. There is also a lack of contemporary press information about the moving of the tree, which is surprising given the enormity and unusualness of the task. If anyone can locate any further relevant information, please contact me to help us understand more about this rather novel event in Coventry's history.
For more information about the London Road Cemetery, you can visit their website to browse their galleries and learn more about the best kept cemetery in the country.