Great Hollow Elm

The Great Hollow Elm stood at the top of Hampstead Heath.

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Article · Hampstead · NW3 · Contributed by The Underground Map
JANUARY
16
2014
Great Hollow Elm Tree of Hampstead
Credit: Wenceslaus Hollar

The Great Hollow Elm stood at the top of Hampstead Heath.

In 1653, the celebrated engraver Hollar depicted the “Great Hollow Elm Tree of Hampstead” and the engraving was depicted in Parke’s Hampstead which described the tree as “hollow from the ground to the summit
Towards the closing years of Charles I.’s reign (1647), the Great Hollow Elm at Hampstead (figured by Hollar in an engraving preserved amongst the pamphlets in the King’s Library in the British Museum) became an object of attraction to visitors. Remarkable for its size and supposed age, measuring 28 4eet immediately above the ground in girth, with widely-spreading branches, and of great height, a sagacious speculator about the year 1647 (as appears from some verses addressed to it by Robert Codrington, of Magdalen College, Oxford, 1653) constructed a staircase of forty-two steps within the hollow trunk, with sixteen openings lighting it, which led up to an octagon turret fixed amongst the branches of the tree 33 feet from the ground.

’ The seat above the steps six might sit upon, and round about room for fourteen more.’ At this altitude spectators enjoyed a most glorious view, or, rather, a succession of them, and found themselves above every object in Middlesex with the exception of the church spire of Harrow.

From the open tableland on which it appears in the engraving, the great tree probably stood on the summit of the Heath, where the road now runs past Jack Straw’s Castle. On the same broadside on which the engraving appears are certain descriptive verses. This broadside seems to have been given away to the visitors, and the circumstance of its having been folded for putting in the pocket, and so worn out, accounts for the few copies of it in existence.

’ The Great Hollow Elm. at Hampstead’ (as the broad sheet describes it) does not appear to have long survived its singular treatment. No subsequent records that I have met with mention it ; but that it must have been the object of many a summer’s day pilgrimage to the Heath is evident, even in Puritan times, when Robert Codrington addressed his verses to it. In them he mentions the ’ beauteous ladies that have been These twice three summers in its turret seen.’

In the same year (1647) a poetical stationer, commonly known as Michael Spark, but who, in moments of aspiration, fancifully called himself ’ Scintilla,’ tells us of a very curious use to which this sylvan upper chamber was put.

A foreigner, the fellow-countryman of Joannes a Commenius, as he pedantically styles John Amos Comenius, the Moravian grammarian and divine, had established a school at Hampstead for a ’ limited number of young gentlemen,’ the number being restricted to twelve, and these, Mr. Spark tells us, he spared no pains in training :

’ For he, on top of all (this tree) above the shade, His scholars taught : where they such verses made As spread his honours, and do blaze the fame Of Hampstead School I’ll trumpet up the same !’

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