A jewel in the wilderness

Robert Marsham (1708-1797) was one of a family of 9-11 children (records are a little hazy). He was the only one of four boys to survive to raise a family of his own, despite suffering from malaria as a teenager, and a nasty dog bite a decade later. Illness and death were common, and feature prominently in eighteenth century life.

Robert MarshamDetails of Robert’s childhood are sketchy, but he acquired, and further developed a love of natural history from his father. At an early age he persuaded his father to establish a substantial tree nursery of several acres from which he transplanted trees over the next few decades. His powers of persuasion were further needed to convince his father to allow him to join his cousin at Clare Hall College, Cambridge.

Robert’s fascination – obsession even – with trees started young.

Stratton Strawless ChurchAt the age of 22 he undertook one of many journeys in the British Isles to admire the scenery, and especially the trees. As a Norfolk boy his first sight of the Cotswolds produced a description as, “mountains so high that we could see the top of one of them above the clouds”. In his mid-twenties he toured Europe, visiting interesting woodland and notable trees in Switzerland, Italy and France. He was rather disdainful of the English tourist abroad, apparently describing them, as doing “nothing but whoring, drinking and gaming”.

On his return to England he delayed his return home until the smallpox outbreak in Norwich, one of many that century, had abated.

Smallpox wasn’t the only danger facing eighteenth century people. The newspapers make frequent reference to highwaymen, smugglers, privateers and press gangs. Roads were passable on horseback, more slowly by carriage, particularly after bad weather. London was a two day journey from Norwich.

The weather was much harsher than it currently is. In the severe winter of 1739/40 Robert noted that not only did water and beer freeze indoors, but that “the urine in my chamber-pot froze to a cake under my bed four nights successfully.” (Urine freezes at approximately minus 5 degrees celsius).

River WensumHe busied himself in improving the estate whose principal outputs were wool and broom making. Robert saw woodland planting as a key way to enhance the profitability on the thin heathland soils of the estate. Thousands, possibly millions, of trees were planted. Measurements were carefully made of tree growth, and one of his most famous legacies, the Stratton Cedar, was planted as an 18 inch sapling in 1747. It was clear that Robert Marsham was planting for future generations. His efforts were once described as creating ‘A jewel made out of a wilderness’. (Stratton Strawless was poor heathland with sandy soil at the time).

He married and his heir, also named Robert, was born in 1749.

In the middle of the eighteenth century he suffered three losses in quick succession; the deaths of his mother in 1750, his father in 1751 and his wife in 1752. This triple traumatic encounter affected him immensely. He refocused his energy on experimenting to improve growth from his vast tree plantations.