The Allerton Oak

Last updated 11th December 2014
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The Allerton Oak in summer ...
The Allerton Oak is a famous old tree in Calderstones Park that, of course, lends its name to this website. It is much-loved by visitors on account of its antiquity and delapidated appearance, and many who see it want to learn more about it. I hope that this article may go some way to help.
Local legends surround the tree, which has been said to be over 1000 years old for as long as I can remember. This would make it a sapling not long after the Norman Conquest (sometime in the second half of the 11th century) and have it presiding over much of the history of the English nation. It seems unlikely that it is that old. The circumference of the trunk suggests 500-600 years, which would place its origins in the late Plantagenet or early Tudor period. Old enough!
... and winter
The tree's survival in a district dominated for many centuries by farmland may have been facilitated by the special significance of the immediately surrounding area for local people going back to prehistoric times. 140 yards (130 m) to the north there once stood a significant Neolithic burial chamber. The remains, now known as the Calderstones, have been relocated within the park; the nearby Robin Hood Stone was quite likely part of the original structure. About 700 yards (640 m) to the south-west were to be found a large artificial mound called Pikelaw Hill (or something similar) with two adjacent standing stones and, between them and the tree, a 'great stone' known as the Rodgerstone. These were still in existence in the 16th century but have since disappeared.
The Neolithic people who constructed these monuments were farmers who would have been actively involved in woodland clearance. Stone axes and other artefacts found in the surrounding area confirm this. The particular social and religious significance of the area may have started a tradition of conserving the environment that lasted down the centuries. A map of 1568 (when the Allerton Oak would have been well established) shows that the entire area was still wooded at that time, with farmland further afield. It appears to have had legal status as a forest until the 17th century (it was adjacent to the Royal Park of Toxteth established by King John). After this progressive clearance for farmland took place. A freak storm hit the area in 1701, when hurricane force winds destroyed many old trees but spared ours.
In the Yates and Perry map of 1768, the area is shown laid out as farm fields and a good deal of woodland clearance must have taken place by that time. In Sherriff's map of 1823, the farm is identified as Grove House. The earliest document I can find that records the Allerton Oak is A History, Directory and Gazetteer of the County Palatine of Lancaster, Vol II, 1825, by Edward Baines, who writes:
  [..] close by the farm in which the famous Allerton Oak stands, and just at the point where four ways meet, are a quantity of remains called Calder Stones.
So it had been a celebrated tree at that time. The farm was tenanted on land then owned by Thomas Martin, a Liverpool merchant. Lead shot manufacturer Joseph Need Walker (1791-1865) acquired the estate in 1825 through debt settlement and demolished the old farm house. In its place the Georgian mansion Calderstone was completed in 1828. A few years later Samuel Lewis writes in his A Topographical Dictionary of England, Vol I, 1831:
  Adjoining the farm on which stands the famous Allerton Oak there is a supposed Druidical monument, called Calder Stones [..]
This watercolour of the view of the mansion house from the north is by Isaac Shaw and dates from 1847, about 20 years after its completion, and shows the Allerton Oak on the left and the open view from the house. The extent of the woodland clearance is evident. The owners subsequently replanted, especially Charles McIver (see below) whose involvement in transatlantic shipping lead to him developing an interest in the trees of the New World and planting a magnificent collection of fir trees, many of North American origin and surviving near the house.
The Ordnance Survey 1850 1:10560 map
A wartime Christmas card
The Allerton Oak appears on the 1850 Ordnance Survey 1:10560 map. It is seen more clearly on the 1893 1:2500 map, where you can see that the line of sight to the house has been preserved. The house and estate were acquired by Charles McIver (1813-1885) in 1875. He was a Liverpool shipping magnate, who had joined Samuel Cunard in establishing the British and North American Royal Steam Packet Company, later known as the Cunard Line. His son Charles (1851-1926) subsequently took over the estate. Note that by 1893 a ha-ha had been constructed around the north side of the tree. This was a trench to keep larger animals away without spoiling the view. It had been filled in by the 1930s.
The house and estate were sold to Liverpool Corporation in 1902 and became Calderstones Park. The Allerton Oak was at that time first fitted with the props to support its spreading lower branches that continue to provide a somewhat Daliesque appeal. The trunk may have been exhibiting some of the fracturing (see below) that is such a conspicuous feature these days. The tree went on to survive the bombing of the Second World War, during which Christmas Cards containing one of its leaves were sent to staff of Liverpool Corporation Parks and Gardens Department who were serving in the armed forces.
Firs planted by Charles McIver
The Ordnance Survey 1893 1:2500 map
The Allerton Oak in autumn showing the split trunk
A number of postcards were produced during the early years of the 20th century. They depict a much more substantial tree than the one we know today. In particular there was a huge extension to the central trunk along with many additional higher branches. The photos in this section are all taken from the south-east. The one on the top left clearly shows the state of the trunk 100 years or so ago. The one on the top right looks like the earliest, showing no evident tree surgery.
The railings had appeared by 1970, in which year the Liverpool Echo reported that the tree was doomed to die by 2020 due to rot in the trunk. It does not look as though this is going to happen, but proper care and attention will be needed to preserve it.
In 2014 the Reader Organisation purchased a 125 year lease from Liverpool City Council for the house and outbuildings to undertake restoration work and develop an international reading, heritage and cultural centre. They actively promote local history and recently secured a 1.99 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance the centre and restore the mansion and the Calderstones.
The Mersey Forest Organisation has been tasked with writing a funding bid for a project to safeguard the Allerton Oak. They are currently considering approaching the Heritage Lottery Fund under the Our Heritage programme. Some of the work is to involve capital measures to preserve the physical structure of the tree and provide new fencing. They are also keen to tell the story of the tree and support local people to learn more about its history and that of its surroundings, as am I.
These views are all taken from the south-west, the ones at top left and top right (the oak is in the distance in the latter) dating from the first decade of the 20th century. The one on the lower left shows the results extensive tree surgery following the opening of the park. The one on the lower right is later, perhaps 1950s. The splitting of the trunk is much more developed and some of the higher branches have been removed, but the central trunk extends further than it does these days.
From the north-west
The view on the left is from the north-west and shows the ha-ha that was later filled in. The one on the right is from the north and may be compared with Isaac Shaw's depiction above.
From the north
These photos show the state of the trunk today (literally, at the time of writing) and the extensive splitting. The one on the left is from the south-east and the one on the right from the west. The higher part of the central trunk has disappeared - it seems to have broken off. The fracture pattern of the trunk gives the impression of being partly due to the strain caused by the massive sideways-spreading branches and partly to the effects of dying off and rot. In any event these photos make clear the urgent need for ongoing care and maintenance if the tree is to survive for the next 100 years.
A notice board under the Allerton Oak informs us that
  One thousand years ago Allerton did not possess a court house and it is believed that the sittings of the Hundred Court were held under the spreading branches of this tree.
A hundred was an administrative region between a village or parish and a county in size. It had its origins in Anglo-Saxon times and was probably named after the approximate number of homesteads, each with its plot of land, that it encompassed. Each hundred had its own local court, meeting once a month and generally held in the open air at a place known to everyone. They were used to convey the King's orders, collect taxes, settle criminal matters and private disputes, and allocate armed men for military service. They were only finally abolished in 1894.
The relevant hundred in this case would have been West Derby Hundred. This was a large area, one of six subdivisions of the ancient county of Lancashire. It covered the original parishes of Walton, Sefton, Childwall, Huyton, Halsall, Altcar, North Meols, Ormskirk, Aughton, Warrington, Prescot, Leigh, Liverpool, and Winwick.
It is unlikely that the Allerton Oak is more than about 600 years old, but the location must have been well-known for the historical reasons mentioned above. It was also near the junction of four lanes coming in from different directions. Perhaps the court was held nearer to the Calderstones, at that time located by the crossroads.
I am not aware of any original documentation about any of this. If anyone can advise, please get in touch via the home page. Until then, this will remain a legend!
Another legend concerning the Allerton Oak is that its delapidated state, in particuar the large split in the trunk, is due to the explosion of the ship Lotty Sleigh 4 miles (7 km) away on the River Mersey on January 15th 1864 (not 3 miles, as is usually stated). The Liverpool Mercury carried a detailed description of the incident the following day.
The barque was loaded with, among other things, 11 tons of gunpowder. A fire was started accidentally from an oil lamp. It spread quickly but the crew were all rescued by a passing ferry. The explosion took place at 7:20 p.m. The shock wave and flying debris caused extensive damage in central Liverpool and Birkenhead, discussed in detail in the Mercury article, which unfortunately sheds no light on the plight of our tree. There were apparently other reports of damage as far afield as St. Helens and Runcorn, where doors were blown open and windows shattered. The sound was heard 30 miles (48 km) away.
Local legend has it that the windows of Calderstone mansion were blown in and the trunk of the Allerton Oak was split. There are apparently reports (which I haven't seen) that flying debris tore into some of the branches, which subsequently had to be removed. The Edwardian photos above make it clear that there was no significant damage to the trunk 100 years ago, although there may have been some emerging hairline fractures at points of high stress. If so, it would not take much for the sheer force of the branches to begin the destructive work. I am keen to trace other documentary sources. If anyone can help, please get in touch via the home page. Whether the ultimate culprit was the Lotty Sleigh, storm damage or simply natural ageing is unlikely to be resolved. Another legend for now, I think!
An 1864 engraving of the Lotty Sleigh explosion
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
I am greatly indebted to Richard MacDonald of the Reader Organisation and Alan Dunn for sourcing the postcards and the Christmas card and for permission to use them. Also to Richard for Isaac Shaw's picture of Calderstone and the engraving of the Lotty Sleigh (originally published in the Illustrated London News). The Old Mersey Times provides the full Liverpool Mercury article on the explosion. For further reading see the books Secret Liverpool by Mark and Michel Rosney and The British Oak by Archie Miles.
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