The area around Chalfont St Giles was once rich in elm trees and a description of the village written in 1893 by the rector, Pownell Phipps, told of the magnificent elm trees lining the approach to the village and 'arching overhead' down what is now Pheasant Hill. Now, no trace is left of these beautiful trees but one remains in the memories of older inhabitants of the village and it can be seen in many old pictures of the village centre. This was the Chalfont Elm, known by some as Milton's Elm. In the postcard to the right, dating from 1904, it can be seen standing proudly at the far end of the High Street, drawing the visitor's eye into the heart of the village.
The name Milton's Elm is said to come from the famous seventeenth century poet, author of Paradise Lost. The story is that Milton, who moved to Chalfont St Giles in 1665 to escape the Great Plague, sat under the elm to write some of his poetry. However, locals rarely used this name, calling it instead the old elm, and the curator of Milton's Cottage says there is no record of Milton writing there. Records suggest the tree was over 300 years old when it was felled so, certainly, it may well have been there at the time and Milton probably walked by it many times.
Poetic or not, the Elm was regarded by many as the heart of the village. Pownell Phipps described it, situated in front of the old Rectory Cottage, now the Reading Room, as 'an old elm tree whose gnarled roots have made seats for children and old men for many generations'. Opposite was the Elm Tree public house, with its own brewery, whose customers sat on the roots of the tree to drink their pints. Older residents of Chalfont St Giles can remember playing around the elm and hiding in its hollow trunk when they were children. John Keep, for many years the village milkman, recalls playing around the tree trunk. Another villager, Ralph Higgs remembers that about five boys could hide in it at once, but he once got stuck inside it because he had grown too fat and, although he could get in, he found it harder to get out! Clarice Shaw served in the Elm Tree bakery opposite and her boyfriend would sit on its roots while waiting for her to finish work.
Despite this, the tree was not popular with everyone. In November 1930, the Parish Council agreed that it should be lopped and later photographs show that all that remained was a stump. A newspaper article from 1940 recalls that, when the tree was lopped, Mrs MacRow, whose husband was then minister of the Methodist church, 'used her artistic talents in modelling some of the wood and offered it for sale at a bazaar organized to benefit the church funds'.
This was not the end of the Elm's troubles. In February 1934, when tree preservation orders were being decided in the village, it was excluded from the list of protected trees, by a vote of 6 to 4. Although some, such as General Gordon, argued that it provided a safety benefit, by slowing cars driving through the village, others like Mr Horsewell, retorted that it was dead, and as such, should be buried. Following on from this, in 1937 a vote was taken by the Parish Council on whether to remove the tree to make room for the road to be widened. The council voted to remove the tree, by 6 votes to 3.
However, although past its heyday, the tree was certainly not friendless and the decision to remove it caused outrage in the village. In September, the Ramblers' Association requested information about the status of the tree from the Parish Council but were told that the matter was being looked into carefully and further information would be given under instructions from the County Council. It seems that several meetings were held during the next few weeks and local people protested strongly. A petition organised by Mrs Stacey obtained over 1,700 signatures, but to no avail. It was agreed that the scheme should go ahead.
Fortunately, even the best-laid plans don't always come to fruition and, for a while, another reprieve seemed possible. In July 1939, the County Surveyor wrote to the Parish Council saying that the road-widening scheme was postponed due to a 'drastic limitation of expenditure' and it seemed the tree would continue as before.
However, the reprieve was short-lived. In November 1939, Mr Cropley Kemp of the local Ratepayers Association suggested that the Parish Council should insure the elm tree against third party risks in case it should fall and injure someone. The Parish Council wrote for advice from the Clerk of the County Council about whether they, or the Lord of the Manor would be liable if it fell; however, by their December meeting, no reply had been forth-coming and the matter was left to 'lie on the table'. The local newspaper (The Advertiser and Gazette, 2 April 1940) reports that the premium was modest - just half-a-guinea, but the council refused. Maybe this was a sign of the tree's imminent end.
Soon after, on 16th January 1940, the Parish Council discussed the tree again. Liability for the tree was still not clear but Mr Hearne felt it was likely to fall at any time. Mr Lofty agreed but said he was unwilling to spend public money on insurance. Mr Horne then suggested selling the tree but it was agreed that it was rotten and nobody would want it. Mr Lofty proposed asking the County Council to remove the tree, Mr Williams seconded and the motion was carried with only one dissent, from Mr Reed. The Chairman, Mr Hancock, said 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but whatever glory the tree had has now departed'. A letter was sent on 22nd and the end came quickly. The tree was felled less than a week later.
Early in the morning on Saturday 27th January 1940, Frank Honour arrived to remove the tree. Mr Honour had a well-established business in tree-felling and timber haulage and he had been contracted by Chalfont St Giles Parish Council to remove this much-loved local landmark. He was accompanied by his seven-year old son, Neil.
Neil recalls the scene well. He remembers that the tree, which he always knew as Milton's Elm, still had some leaves but the centre was completely rotten. Just one steam engine was needed to pull the tree down and, as it fell, it shattered into about a hundred pieces. His father had taken along a timber tractor to haul away the trunk but this was not needed; instead they had to sweep the bits onto flat-bed lorries.
No warning had been given of the tree's fate so there were few onlookers, although a group of people gathered as they realised what was happening and they had to be kept at a safe distance. A newspaper report in The Advertiser and Gazette the following week included comments from a local shopkeeper who watched what he described as 'the tree's inglorious end'. He continued: 'Many people will be glad it has gone, but others, like myself, who regarded it as one of the objects of interest in the village, will be sorry. There is little sentiment today for these ancient landmarks.'
If that shopkeeper were alive today, maybe he would be glad to know that, nearly seventy years on, people remember that tree with much affection. Many people who were there when the Elm was felled took pieces of the tree as souvenirs and one piece was lovingly crafted into the item to the left, with a photograph of the elm tree inserted in the front. This is now owned by Matthew Wellings, the local butcher, whose shop stands opposite the site of the elm tree. Matthew recalls that his late uncle, Harry Warner, the previous owner of the shop, used to sit on the roots waiting for customers when trade was slow. On the back is a carved inscription, complete with spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. Maybe the care that Mr Taylor put into this is an indication of the affection people felt for this old tree; it had been so much a part of the local community.
Chalfont St Giles High Street
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