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Traditional Woodland Management

This article, author Peter Austin, was first published in issue 51 of the periodical Hertfordshire's Past.

It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editors, Tom Doig and David Hillelson, and the author Peter Austin.

Extracts may be used for personal research. The complete article must not be reproduced for commercial purposes without the written permission of the publishers.

Hertfordshire's Past is no longer being issued (it has been replaced by a new title under the parentage of the Hertfordshire Association for Local History). Indexes to previous issues are available at the Hertfordshire Archive.

Hertfordshire's Past 51
Traditional Woodland Management
The woods of the Manor of Digswell 1776-1843
Peter Austin

Accounts and associated vouchers from the Panshanger Estate record the sales of underwood and timber from the woods of the ancient Manor of Digswell for the years 1776 to 1843. These enable us to see just how productive these woodlands once were, as well as giving an insight into the traditional ways in which the woods were managed.

The Digswell Woods in 1884
Figure 1: The Digswell Woods in 1884

What remains of the woodlands that once formed part of the lands of the ancient manor of Digswell are mostly to be found on high ground in the northwest corner of Welwyn Garden City. The manor had two landowners at the time of Domesday and together they were said to have woodland sufficient for 150 swine1. Mention is made of a wood called Scheregge in 1270 and in 1285 Laurence de St. Michael, lord of the manor of Digswell, obtained a licence to stop a path leading to Bishop's Hatfield through his "wood of Slirigge".  In 1287 a reference was made to "in bosco suo de Shirigge" and "Sheregge in Dycheneswel"2.

Sherrards Park Wood (Fig.1)3 has features that are characteristic of so ancient a woodland. Its soils are infertile, acid gravels and clays. It had an irregular outline and it sits upon a parish boundary right on what was the western edge of the manor. We can imagine that the wood was left here after more fertile soils had been cleared for cultivation.

This study is confined to those of the woods that were included on a map of 15994 which was almost certainly accompanied by a written survey of lands then possessed by Ralph Horsey5. He succeeded to the manor before 1591 but conveyed it to John Sedley and Nicholas Hyde in 15996. There can be little doubt that the map and survey were made for this sale. The survey tells us that there were then thought to be: "Coppice Woods 140 acres rated at 6s.8d. the acre per annum -  £46.13s.4d. valued at 20 years purchase} £933.6s.8d. which I take to be overrated at 20d. the acre."

Table 1. Woodland Areas in 1810
Wood Name A R P
Part of Sherrards Park Wood (Digswell)9 (TL230138) 135 2 7
Part of Sherrards Park Wood (Welwyn) 38 1 15
New Wood (TL232142) 8 0 4
Temple Wood (TL234142) 16 1 15
Part of Maams Wood (Digswell) (TL231147)
3 30
Part of Maams Wood (Welwyn) 6 1 36
Roundabout Wood (TL236141) 1 3 38

No mention is made of the names of the woods in this survey. However the map can be compared with one included in a survey of the Panshanger Estate which was made in 18107. Sherrards Park Wood then had an area of 173 acres 3 roods and 22 poles (Table 1). New Wood is what its name implies for it does not appear on the earlier map. In its place is a field of trees, suggesting that it could then have been a small wood pasture8. A dog-leg of trees on the map of 1599 is the same shape and in the right place for Temple Wood. Similarly a line of trees follows the later shape of Maams Wood. However there is no clear evidence for the existence of Roundabout Wood on the earlier map.

In 1810 the total area of Sherrards, Maams and Temple Wood was about 197 acres, but this was measured according to a statute pole of 16½ft. Traditionally, however, woods were measured according to a customary pole of 21ft.10. Therefore a wood of 197 statute acres would be about 155 customary acres which is closer to the 140 acres that the Digswell woods were said to contain in 159911.

Sherrards contains an interesting system of earthworks. Nearly all antique woods have a bank and external ditch round their edge. Those of medieval woods can be quite massive, but more recent ones are comparatively modest. Many woods also have internal earthworks which might tell us something of past compartments, divisions of ownership, or that they have grown up on land that was once clear of trees.

Interestingly the most massive of Sherrards earthworks can be the least obvious (Fig.2). It is a great bank and ditch that first follows its southern boundary. This is where the ecclesiastical parishes of Digswell and Bishop's Hatfield met. The bank then turns north into the wood, taking the line of a path that still cut through it in 1599, but which is now long gone. The system of radiating rides, that is called 'Five-ways', probably dates from the late eighteenth century.

The meaning of the name Sherrard is given as "bright ridge". This may refer to an outcrop of chalk within the wood12. The 'Park' element is somewhat enigmatic. It can often indicate that the wood, or part of it, was once a deer park. In 1274 Laurence de St. Michael had free warren13 on one side of the Mimram and claimed it on the other side. William de Melksop received a new grant in his lands in Digswell in 1301/214. Interestingly the adjoining Brocks Wood might relate to a brocket which is a young deer, for this was sometimes called a brock, but broc the badger is another possible candidate for the name. However the 'Park' element might simply be an affectation for the wood is simply referred to as 'Sherrards' in all but the most recent documents.

Maams or Malms probably relates to its sandy and chalky soils15. Roundabout can occasionally be associated with pieces of land which had isolated groups of trees growing on them16.

Land with Temple in the name is commonly connected with the Knight Templars17. One possible association with Digswell is through the notorious Geoffrey de Mandeville, founder of its church. He lay dying on a battlefield, unshriven, and members of this order covered him with their garb so that he might die beneath a cross, and then carried his body to their "Old Temple" at Holborn18.

Hornbeam coppice growing on the woodbank in Sherrards Park
Figure 2: Hornbeam coppice growing on the woodbank in Sherrards Park

There is, in fact, little documentary evidence relating to these woods. By far the most detailed are two sets of account books that record the sale of wood and timber from these Digswell woodlands. The first set of 'Wood Books'19 were kept by William Smith and included the years 1776 to 1799. They therefore incorporated 1786, the year in which Henry Cowper, guardian to the young Earl Cowper of Panshanger (TL290134), bought the manor of Digswell for his ward20. The second set, which covered the years 1799 to 1843, formed part of the accounts kept by land agent Thomas Pallet21.

Sherrards, along with the other Digswell woods were managed as coppice-with-standards. Coppiced tress were periodically cut close to the ground at fairly short intervals, usually from 5 to 20 years, largely depending on the use to which the wood was to be put. The cut stumps of the trees were known as stools, and the regeneration was by shoots that were known as spring. These gave rise to useful woody poles that were harvested after a period of time. The stools then obligingly produces new spring that was grown on to form the next crop of poles. This cycle of cropping and re-growth of the coppice, which was normally called underwood, could go on almost indefinitely.

A scattering of maiden trees, the standards, were allowed to grow up amongst the coppiced trees. These had to be thinly foliaged species such as oak (Quercus) or ash (Fraxinus excelsior), or they would too greatly suppress the growth of the coppiced underwood. These standards were grown mostly for their timber and the coppiced trees for their wood22.

The magic of this system was that it all relied upon natural regeneration. The regular opening of the woodland floor each time the coppice was cut allowed self-sown saplings to make rapid growth. The best of these, which were called stores, were protected and allowed to grow up to replace the timber trees that had been felled. Therefore in skilled hands the cycle of felling and re-growth of both coppiced and standard trees could continue for generations without actually destroying the wood.

This traditional way of managing woods was much in evidence from Smith's and Pallett's accounts through the regular sales of underwood and timber from the Digswell woods. However only part of the total woodland area was felled each year. It was usual to divide large woods, such as Sherrards, into as many compartments as there were years in the cycle of cropping23. There was therefore always a compartment of mature underwood that was ready to be felled in each of they years of the coppice cycle. This was sold at so much per acre. In 1786, for instance, £90.1s.0d. was paid "By Several for Underwood from Digswell 13a[cres]:2r[oods]:0p[oles]", and so this underwood would have been prices at about £6.13s. per acre.

Between 1786 and 1843 mostly between ten and fifteen acres of underwood was sold each year from "Sherrards" or the "Digswell woods" (Fig.3a), while the annual income from its sale varied quite considerably (Fig.3b). Interestingly, however, fluctuations in the calculated price per acre showed a remarkably cyclic series of peaks and troughs (Fig.3c). The lowest prices were experienced in 1795, 1809, 1823 and 1836, the intervals between these being 14, 14, and 13 years respectively, which corresponds remarkably well with the length of coppice cycle being operated on the Panshanger estate at this time.

These fluctuations in the prices of this underwood can only be explained by the cycle of cropping rotating four times through the same areas of increasingly poor and then increasingly good coppice growth. The quality and density of the coppice wood varied from place to place, probably mostly influenced by edaphic factors. These variations were then reflected in the price that people were willing to pay for the wood24.

Digswell - Coppicewood sales
Figure 3a: Digswell - Coppicewood sales

In calculating the value of the underwood consideration has to be given to the length of the coppice cycle. Therefore while £6.13s. was the price for an acre of underwood in 1786 this had been growing for about 14 years and so would have a value of around 9s.6d. per acre per year. In 1599 Digswell's underwood was said to have been worth 6s.8d. per acre per year25.

The Digswell underwood was bought by local people. They paid for it at the annual Wood Feast which was held in October. Meat and drink were provided by Lord Cowper, which in 1794 cost him 15s. The Woodward then carried the purchasers money to Panshanger. However on one occasion the accountant had to:

"Deduct from the receipts the money which Hale the Woodward was robbed in the night between the 7th & 8th Oct 1813 in returning with it from the Digswell wood feast at Eleston's at Digswell Water [TL250148] where he had received it from the Purchasers: £130".

Some of the timber trees were generally felled each time the underwood was cut. For instance, a voucher records that in 1791 Hale, the woodward, was paid 15s., "for falling 30 Oaks in Shurgwood at 6d. per tree". Some of this timber could then have been taken to Cole Green, as in 1793 when one Waller was paid £2.10s., "for carting timber &c. from Digswell to Cole Green Park". In 1791 a man named Draper was paid £4., "for sawing at Cole Green", and in 1795 £1.0s.9d. was paid to, "Wackett for thatching Cole Green sawpit". However there was also a sawpit at Digswell26 and in 1796 Waller was paid 15s., "for drawing timber to Digswell pit", while £4.11s.5d. was paid to, "Field, for sawing &c at Digswell for several uses".

Digswell - Income from Coppicewood
Figure 3b: Digswell - Income from Coppicewood

We are fortunate that most of the individual vouchers detailing the payments which appear in Smith's account books have survived, if only to illustrate just how much detail is lost from the accountants rather dry entries. For example an account book entry dated 13th June 1797 records a payment to woodward, "Hale for faggoting &c. for the use of Digswell House". However the respective voucher tells us that the £1.9s.7d. was from:

"The Earl Cowper to J Hale for work on Digswell Estate 1797, March 27th, two men one day work splitting block wood for Digswell House 3s. One man one day hedge making in the fields 1s.6d. For making 5 load & 40 faggots27 for Digswell House at 3s per load 15s.9d. For cutting out pea sticks & stakes & Roundwood 2s.0d. For getting underwood, faggots &c to Digswell House 6s. Paid for beer for the wood carter 1s.4d.".

This hints at the great variety of produce that was traditionally gained from trees, for little was wasted when they were cut down. The coppice poles, which were usually referred to as roundwood, mostly went for fuel. Twigs and other small stuff, from both coppiced and standard trees, were tied in bundles called faggots, also for fuel. The side branches and tops of the standards were reduced to billets, or split to make block wood. There were also pea sticks, stakes and other miscellaneous produce. A major source of income came from the sale of bark (mostly oak) for the tanning of leather28. This was bought by local tanners, such as Thomas Crawley of Welwyn or Daniel Green of Buntingford.

Digswell - Price of Coppicewood
Figure 3c: Digswell - Price of Coppicewood

One of the major costs in managing the woodlands was the maintenance of their boundary hedges, for there was usually one growing on the top of the bank that encircled the woods. It was particularly important that this was stock-proof for the new growth of coppice was especially vulnerable to damage by livestock29, and so the accounts were scattered with payments for hedge mending:

"The Earl Cowper to Wm Hale for Work 1791.

For falling 1 rood & half of tithe wood in the Temple Wood 5s.3d. For making the hedge at the top of Temple Wood 22 poles at 7d. per pole 12s.10d. For making the hedge at the bottom of Temple Wood 20 poles at 7d. per pole 11s.8d. For making the hedge in Shurgwood Park next Brick Wall 17 poles at 7d. per pole 9s.11d. For making the wood hedge next the Wood Lane 18 poles at 7d. per pole 10s.6d. Recd the contents Feb. 21st 1791. Wm Hale X his mark. £2.10s.2d."

Hedge making and mending went on year after year, alongside the felling of the woods and was a major cost in the maintenance of these productive woodlands:

"The Earl Cowper to Wm Hale for work on Digswell Estate 1792

For felling 1 rood of tithe wood in Shards Park 3s.6d. For making the wood hedge next Brick Wall 30 poles at 7d. per pole 17s.6d. For making the wood hedge next the Wood Lane 24 poles & half at 7d. per pole 14s.3d. For cutting down 2 elm trees at 1s. per tree 2s. For making 1 load & 3 score & 10 faggots at 3s.6d. per load 5s.0¼d. For cutting out 2 stacks & quarter of wood at 4s. per stack 9s. Settled in account March 31st 1792. Wm Hale X his mark. £2.11s.3¼."

Bushes for hedging were commonly taken from the wood itself, or brought to it from elsewhere as in 1786 when a payment of 8s. was made to, "Waller, for carting bushes to Digswell woods". These would mostly be hawthorns (Crataegus), commonly called Quickthorn or "Quicks" because of the speed with which they established themselves after planting, the hedges often being referred to as Quicksets30:

"The Earl Cowper to Wm Hale For work on Digswell Estate 1793.

March 24th. For one day work trimming trees Mill Lane 13s. For cutting down 26 trees in the woods as 6d. per tree 13s. For cutting down 1 tree Mill Field [TL248157] at 1s. per tree 1s. For making 3 load & 5 score faggots at 3s.6d. per load 12s.8d. 1 day work setting Quick in the woods 1s.2d. Recd July 4th 1793 by the hands of Mr Wm Smith. Wm Hale X his mark."

Another of the regular costs was that of tithes. However they were payable on wood but not timber31, which was one of the reasons why it was important to be able to distinguish between the two. So the felling of trees and the mending of hedges as well as the paying of tithes went on year after year:

"The Earl Cowper to Wm Hale for work on Digswell Estate 1794.

For felling 1 acre 2 roods & 35 poles of underwood in Shards Park tithe at 14s. per acre £1.4s. For making the wood hedge in Shards Park next Brox Wood 20 poles & 1/2 at 7d per pole 11s.11½d. For making 71 poles next the Wood Lane in Shards Park £2.1.5d. £3.17s.4½d.

It was usual to mark the timber trees that were to be felled and then make up the stackwood and faggots within the wood once the trees had been cut up:

"The Earl Cowper to Wm Hale. The work 1791 on Digswell Estate. Sept. 10th. To 1 day for thinning the Chestnut trees at Digswell 1s.2d. Nov. 23rd. To 1 day for marking ash and oak 1s.2d. For falling down 8 ash trees at 1s. per tree 8s. For falling down 3 oak trees at 1s. per tree 3s. For making 3 loads of faggots at 3s.6d. per load 10s.6d. For cutting out 3 stacks and quarter & half quarter of Wood at 4s. per Stack 13s.6d. Recd the contents Wm Hale X his mark. £1.17s.4d."

It was mostly oak and ash timber trees that were mentioned in those of Smith's vouchers that related to these Digswell woods. However Pallett's accounts mostly record not only the type of timber sold, but the numbers of trees and their total volume of timber. However the woods from which they came are rarely mentioned. There was an exception in 1835 when 223 oaks, which amounted to 3,126 feet of timber32, were said to have come from Sherrards. They were sold to Mr. Ayres, a timber merchant. Oak amounted for about 85% of the timber volume sold between1802 and 1843 followed by 9% ash then 4% elm (Ulmus)33. It is not unreasonable to assume that those were the most numerous timber trees within these Digswell woodlands at this time.

In 1918 it was found that the durmast or sessile oak (Quercus petraea) was the predominant timber tree in Sherrards Park Wood (TL228138) with coppiced hornbeam (Carpinus betulas) as the main understorey species34. W. R. Hughes added some detail to this in 193635. However in 1919 Lord Desborough had put his Panshanger Estate up for sale and Ebenezer Howard bought 1,687 acres in and around Digswell for a future Garden City36. His purchase of Digswell House included Temple Wood and New Wood37, while Howard paid an additional £15 an acre for Sherrards Wood, excluding the timber38. Maams or Malms Wood was sold separately.

Sherrards Wood remained "a haven of unspoilt beauty" until 1935 when speculation arose about its future, for the building of houses within the woods had been part of the scheme for developing Welwyn Garden City since the early days. A spirited 'Save the Woods' campaign resulted in the preservation of 100 of the 165 acres of woodland39. This nationally important sessile oak/hornbeam wood is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Statutory Local Nature Reserve.

 I am most grateful to the staff of the Hertfordshire Record Office for their help and guidance during the researching of the material upon which this article has been based. I am particularly indebted to Sue Flood for her patient advice and help.

  1. John Morris, Domesday Book: Hertfordshire, 1976, Chichester.
  2. Victoria County History of Hertfordshire, iii, 1912, p.82, London; Allen Mawer & F. M. Stenton, The Place Names of Hertfordshire, 1938, Cambridge; Dora Ward, Digswell from Domesday to Garden City, 1953, p.43, Welwyn Garden City.
  3. Ordnance Survey 1884 Sheet XXVIII.
  4. Hertfordshire Record Office D/EP P1; Ward, Digswell, p. 72; Valerie G. Scott & Tony Rook, County Maps & Histories: Hertfordshire, 1989,, London.
  5. Ward, Digswell, pp.164-5.
  6. Ward, Digswell, p.75; VCH Herts, iii, p.83.
  7. HRO D/EP P38.
  8. A wood pasture combined the growing of wood and timber with the pasturing of animals. Most of the trees were pollards which allowed wood to be grown well out of the reach of grazing livestock: Peter Austin, "Hatfield Great Wood and its inclosure", Hertfordshire's Past 38, 1995, p.3.
  9. The boundary between the parishes of Digswell and Welwyn ran through the Sherrard's and Maams Wood.
  10. Peter Austin, "The leasing of Lord Burghley's Hoddesdon woodlands in 1595", Hertfordshire's Past 41, 1996, p.21.
  11. Sherrards and Temple Wood contained the equivalent of 149½ customary acres in 1810 which is almost the same as the 1599 acreage.
  12. W. R. Hughes, A Hertfordshire Wood: Sherrards Park Wood, 1936, p.10, Welwyn Garden City; Allen Mawer & F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938, p.125, Cambridge.
  13. Free warren was a franchise granted by the Crown allowing the right to kill or keep beasts of game.
  14. VCH Herts, iii, p.83.
  15. A. H. Smith (ed.), English Place-Name Elements II, 1956, p.35, Cambridge.
  16. John Field, English Field Names, 1972, p.186, Newton Abbot.
  17. Eilert Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, 4th edition, 1959, p.463, Oxford; Field, Field Names, p.226.
  18. Ward, Digswell, pp. 24-6.
  19. HRO D/EP AW1-4 and "Wood Book".
  20. VCH Herts, iii, p.83.
  21. HRO D/EP A18-20
  22. The Cowper Estate recognised wood as being anything with a girth of less than 2 feet, which was a fairly universal definition; Edward Hoppus, Practical Measuring Made Easy to the Meanest Capacity, 1759, pp.39-40, London.
  23. Sometimes several woods were combined so that the required amount of underwood could be felled each year, 'Lord Burghley's woodlands', p.12.
  24. 'Lord Burghley's woodlands', pp. 16-17.
  25. Ward, Digswell, p.165.
  26. There was a 'Sawpit Field' just south (TL248147) of Digswell Water.
  27. There were 160 faggots to a load.
  28. L. A. Clarkson. 'The English bark trade, 1660-1830', The Agricultural History Review, 1974, 22, pp.136-152.
  29. 'Lord Burghley's woodlands', p.18.
  30. Evelyn, Silva, ii, pp.101-3.
  31. Oliver Rackham, Trees & Woodlands in the British Landscape, revised edition, 1990, p.10, London.
  32. Timber was measured in what came to be called Hoppus feet after Edward Hoppus who published a method for calculating the volume of timber on the quarter-girth system; Hoppus, Practical Measuring, pp.36-8; H. L. Edlin, Forestry and Woodland Life, 2nd.edition, 1948, pp. 144-5, London.
  33. Altogether 216,664¼ Hoppus feet of timber were recorded as being sold between 1802 and 1843.
  34. E J Salisbury, "The oak-hornbeam woods of Hertfordshire III and IV", Journal of Ecology, pp.14-52.
  35. Hughes, Hertfordshire Wood, pp.17-20.
  36. Roger Filler, A History of Welwyn Garden City, 1986, p12, Chichester.
  37. Sale Catalogue for The outlying portions of the Panshanger Estate, p.21; HRO Box 30.
  38. Welwyn Garden City, p.12.
  39. Welwyn Garden City, p.57.
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