Below is a small selection of some of the uses elm trees have had in the capital. Click on the Ulmus londinium markers to find out more.
Water Pipes In the 17th century elm was used extensively for London’s first water pipes due to their natural durability in water.
Vast quanities of elm was grown in the Thames Basin to supply the demand. On a visit the Earl of Hattingdon noted how the trees were especially adapted for their purpose, having their branches cut so they were as “bare as May poles”, leaving just a small, bushy head, to create a knot-free, straight trunk to be used as a pipe. At this time, the sound of machines boring the trunks to create a pipe as in the image below was a common sound in the countryside in this area.
Elm pipe in London
Old London Bridge Built in 1136, elm was used as the base on which old London Bridge stood. Elm is far more durable in water than other wood, and remained for six centuries without decay. However as the traditional nursery rhyme suggests, the bridge was not without its problems, having numerous fires in its lifetime, but was never completely destroyed.
Seven Sisters The Seven Sisters area of Haringey was named after a clump of seven elm trees. The elms are no longer there, but at the Seven Sisters underground station you can see a mosaic of seven elms by Hans Unger, a Transport for London designer. Click here to see the mosaic.
The Great Exhibition The site of the Crystal Palace which housed the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park was also home to several elms. When it was heard they would need to be felled, the public outcry was so strong that several large elms were preserved and the roof modified to the structure to encompass them. However this was not without it's problems, as Sparrows nesting in the trees were now also enclosed and there was a worry that they might soil visitors and exhibits!
Ernest Trobridge's Houses With the post-First World War population expansion in the 1920s came a need for more housing. At this time the architect Ernest Trobridge experimented with using elm wood as it was cheap and plentiful, and stronger than many other woods. Many of his houses can still be found around London, particularly in Brent.
An Ernest Trobridge cottage mostly made of elm in 1921
River Structures Elm's resistance to decay in water ensured it was used extensively in infrastructure in the Thames and other London rivers. Lock gates, groins and water wheels were all made out of elm.
A wooden canal lock
The Tyburn Tree Elm trees have long had an association with death. Their branches had a tendency to drop off, reportedly killing many people which led Rudyard Kipling to remark:
Ellum she hateth mankind, and waiteth
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That anyway trusts her shade (A Tree Song, 1906)
They’ve also been used for coffins, including that of one of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Bolyn, who was buried under the Tower of London. However there was one elm that was associated with death more than others.
The Tyburn Tree was an elm at what is now Marble Arch which was chosen for hanging criminals. Hangings took place off the branches, and later wooden scaffolding was erected to replace it. It was a major landmark at the time, with its location near a major route into London showing travellers the power of the law.
Source of map background: Wikimedia
Braun & Hogenburg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, Vol.1 (1572)