An extract from Mark Hooper’s upcoming ‘Great British Tree Biography’, with illustration by Amy Grimes.
Oak, Calderstones Park, Allerton,
Believed to have been the site of a medieval ‘hundred’ court (which would meet twelve times a year), the Allerton Oak in Liverpool is aged at around 1,000 years old. (So there is a chance it was already growing at the time Allerton is mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.)
But the distinctive scar that nearly splits the tree in two is the result of a later incident in local history. On 15 January 1864, the Lottie Sleigh, a 220-tonne barque (or three-masted sailing ship) was at anchor on the River Mersey off Monk’s Ferry near Birkenhead. The ship, built on Prince Edward Island, Canada, was bound for the West Coast of Africa with a general cargo – including 940 quarter-kegs (around 11 tonnes) of gunpowder.
Shortly after 6pm, while he was trimming the wick of a paraffin lamp, the ship’s steward accidentally ignited a can of oil, which he dropped on the cabin floor, setting the curtains and bedclothes on fire. The flames spread quickly and, recognizing the gravity of the situation, the steward immediately raised the alarm. Thankfully, a Rock Ferry steamer named the Wasp was passing up the river at the time and, alerted by the shouts, its captain Joseph Hughes came up alongside the stricken ship. Thus all hands on board were able to swiftly abandon the Lottie Sleigh, with all accounted for (although a second steamer from Rock Ferry, the Nymph, reported hearing the barking of a lone dog which had been left on board).
At approximately 7.20pm, the flames finally reached the gunpowder and a huge explosion rent the air. An eyewitness account in the Liverpool Mercury the next day records how ‘The contents of the vessel blew up with a report hardly possible to describe… Its effects in every part of Liverpool were severely felt and created indescribable terror.’ The explosion was heard over 48km (30 miles) away, and the shockwave left a trail of destruction across Liverpool, as the Mercury report continues: ‘At the same time the most solid blocks of warehouses, offices and private dwellings were shaken to their base – doors locked and bolted were thrown wide open – hundreds, yea even thousands of squares of glass were smashed.’ Despite the severe damage and the number of bystanders stood on the shoreline watching the burning ship at the time, miraculously there was no loss of life.
Even though it was some 5km (3 miles) from the Lottie Sleigh, the magnificent Allerton Oak in what is now Calderstones Park was also hit by the shockwave from the explosion, causing a huge crack to appear in its trunk. Various attempts have been made to support and strengthen the weakened tree, dating back to 1907 when the first metal props were installed. Today, thanks to an £80,000 investment from Liverpool City Council and The Mersey Forest, a more sophisticated mechanism of adjustable supports has been developed and the tree continues to grow.
As a local landmark, leaves and acorns from the Allerton Oak were sent to soldiers from Liverpool by relatives and loved ones during the Second World War as tokens of good luck. Because of this, many seedlings of the original tree are believed to be growing around the world – not to mention Allerton Oak the Younger, which was planted in Calderstones Park in 2007 from one of the original’s acorns. In 2019 the Allerton Oak was voted England’s Tree of the Year in the annual Woodland Trust competition.
Extracted from ‘The Great British Tree Biography: 50 legendary trees and the tales behind them’, written by Mark Hooper, illustrated by Amy Grimes, and published by Pavilion Books. Out 2 September 2021 – pre-order a copy here (£16.99).