The Black Poplars of the Wilstone Area

near Tring


If you visit the village of Wilstone, near Tring, and wander through the low-lying fields of the area you will notice that the hedgerows are dominated by a distinctive species of tree which you might not immediately recognise. It is the black poplar.

Outside the parish hall there is a notice giving details of the Black Poplar Trail - and there is an excellent leaflet available online (pdf).

So what is special about these trees and what does it tell us about the local history of the area?


Wilstone Great Farm with lambs and black poplars. Larger images on Geograph

Black Poplar on Wilstone Great Farm

The first thing to note is that they only grow in very damp areas and in many cases the hedgerows are adjacent to a water-filled ditch. Travel only a mile onto the better drained edge of the Chiltern Hills and the trees vanish entirely. A recent survey suggested that there were about 2,500 of the trees in the Vale of Aylesbury, representing a third of the total UK population. So while they are common in the area they are nationally a conservation priority.

There is another important feature. The black poplar trees are either male (red catkins) or female (clouds of white fluffy windborne seeds) and all the trees in the Wilstone area are male. The absence of any female trees suggests that the trees were deliberately planted in the hedgerows as cuttings, in large numbers, almost certainly as a cash crop, the oldest ones possibly being 200 years old, with many of the older trees showing evidence of being pollarded.

In the past they clearly had significant commercial uses as the Small Woodland Owner's Group web site reports:

It played an important role in local economies and was planted out as a boundary marker on grazing land which flooded, and was usually pollarded to provide a crop of wood for bean sticks, scaffolding poles, thatching spars and fruit baskets.

The wood was used commercially due to its diverse natural qualities. Black poplar wood is relatively fire resistant and so was popular as flooring when paraffin lamps were still in use. It is also naturally springy and so was often used to make cart wheels and clogs. Because the branches of mature trees grow in a natural curve, the timber could also be used to make the arched supports of timber framed buildings. Later on it was discovered that the wood absorbed paraffin and it was then used to make matches.

 This subspecies of the Black poplar is also resistant to bacterial canker. The wood turns well and is still used today to make bowls and other receptacles. Young shoots do not split easily and so were used in Victorian times as clothes pegs.

So far there seems to be very little contemporary historical evidence, as to how they were used in the Wilstone area but I am just being to put William Brown's 1850s account book online and have so far identified some entries which may through a little light on the commercial use of poplar trees at Wilstone.


James Grout rented Tring Park and he also had control of a farm in Wilstone which was leased to William Greening. Payments to Drayton Beauchamps suggest some holding in that parish and the farm may have straddled the county boundary. The following entries in the account book appear to relate to timber grown on this farm.


James Grout's Account - Folio 41 - expenditure


James Grout's Account - Folio 41 - receipts


Executors of James Grout's Account - Folio 276 - expenditure


Executors of James Grout's Account - Folio 276 - receipts

What is an "Arbele Tree"

The word is omitted from most printed dictionaries, but the online Oxford Dictionary provides a brief  definition., with notes on the etymology and examples of its use.

The white poplar tree, Populus alba. Formerly also: the grey poplar, Populus X canescens (obs.)

But is this correct in the context described above, where arbele are being sold from a farm where black poplar  is a cash crop.  I suspect that historically the name arbele was the name for any poplar tree. The starting point is to consider the biology of poplar trees and the likely etymology.

Black Poplar Seed Heads   Black Poplar fluff carpeting the ground
Black Poplar Seed Heads   Black Poplar fluff carpeting the ground
Pictures from Light Colour Shade - click on pictures for bigger images0

ß The ground covered with poplar fluff (this time from the Aspen)

Picture from Breaking Chains and Taking Lanes 


The etymology in the Oxford Dictionary refers to the old French and links that to the classical Latin albus (meaning white). It also refers to other forms such as Middle Dutch. One only has to look as these pictures to understand why poplar trees (any species) might be given the name "white tree." When the female tree sets seeds the effect on the area is rather like a snowstorm! It is worth saying that botanically the white poplar had pale undersides to the leaves, while the black poplar is so called because of black stains that occur in the wood.

Many of the early references to arbele show that the word was in use, but it is far from clear (as quoted) whether a distinction was being made between different species of poplar, and in some cases the tree referred to is clearly not a white poplar. The Hertfordshire references here strongly suggest that the term was being applied to black poplars or that the word was being used for any species of poplar in the 19th century. I review the evidence below.

Harcourt Estate, Tring, Sale of timber by William BrownSo what was happening in the Tring area. In the 1851/2 entry William Brown had started to write "Poplar" and then crossed it out and wrote "Arbele". In the later entry he does not distinguish which species of poplar was being felled. What we do know is that the accounts refer to the felling of poplar trees in an area where a large number of black poplars had been planted in the hedgerows, apparently as a commercial crop. In both cases William Brown travelled to Wilstone to check which trees were being felled and in each case there appears to have been a timber crop worth about £10 and "firewood" (presumably "lop and top") worth between £1 and £2.

A search of adverts in the Bucks Herald in the 19th century (such as this example from January 1850) shows that "arbele" trees were advertised (but never "poplar" or "black poplar" trees) even when the sales involved timber from areas where black poplar was common. 

Sales in other parts of England mentioned black poplar, but I could find no examples when a sale involved the sale of both black poplar and arbele. It therefore seems very likely that the term "arbele" was used in the Vale of Aylesbury either for any kind of poplar, or specifically for the black poplar.

Provisional identification of the people mentioned,

Amsden: By this date John Amsden had moved to Park Street, Tring, and become a coal merchant. While he could have purchased the trees for use as logs, the use of the word "timber" suggests a more serious use, where he perhaps sold the timber on.

Brown: Presumably William Brown, having arranged the sale of the timber, kept the lop and top for firewood, and made an appropriate payment into the account.

Greening: In 1851 William Greening was a farmer of 150 acres in Wilstone, and was James Grout's tenant.

Grout: James Grout was the tenant of Tring Park and was William Greening's landlord.

Harris: Could be Joseph Harris, a builder employing 14 men on the High Street, Berkhamsted. As black poplar wood is said to be good for flooring in houses where paraffin lamps are used, a house builder in the 1850s could well want to use arbele wood for the floors. The pollarded poles could also be used for scaffolding.

Osborn: A family of carpenters living in Drayton Beauchamp - they could have felled the trees

Newman: Master wheelwright living at Wilstone. The wood has properties he could find valuable.

While these account entries do not reveal exactly what the black poplar was being used for it seems that the trees in the area were being considered as a cash crop in the 1850s. For this reason I will be looking to see if there are any other references in William Brown's Account Book, or elsewhere, which  refer to the harvesting of poplars or arbele in the Vale of Aylesbury. If you know of any other references please let me know.

Anthony reported that Turner had a sketch showing Arbele Trees.

Three Arbele Trees at Laleham, Turner, c1807  

Three Arbele Trees at Laleham


Joseph Mallord William Turner


"The white poplar (populus alba) was brought to England from Holland together with its vernacular name ‘abele’."

According to OxfordDictionaries the White Poplar was introduced to England from the Netherlands in the late 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary gives several 14th and 15th century references - apparently before the White Poplar was introduced - so if these references were to native trees it must be some other species of Poplar. One quote from 1597 clearly links the name White Poplar to Arbele - but a 1830 quote lists Arbele as a East Anglian dialect word for the Asp (Aspen). What I am suggesting is that in 1850 Arbele was a Vale of Aylesbury word for Black Poplar, or was used in the area for any species of Poplar tree.

One has to be careful about the evidence from Turner's sketch. The trees shown may well be White Poplar and Turner called the Arbele - but can we be sure he meant the specific species - or was using it in a wider sense. I did a google search for other works by Turner for other pictures with any kind of poplars shown - and found none apart from the example above. He may have only been using the word Arbele as a synonym for Poplar. However in 1827 H. W. Burgess, below, clearly knew the difference between Arbele, Aspen, Black Poplar and Lombardy Poplar.

Black Poplar


In 1827 H. W. Burgess published Eidodendron – Views of the general Character and Appearance of Trees Foreign & Indigenous as connected with picturesque Scenery which includes this picture of Black Poplar (left) and Arbele trees (above). It also includes picture of Aspen (another species of poplar tree) and Poplar (the picture shows the Lombardy Poplar)

August 2013   Page Created
August 2013   Drawing by Turner, engravings by Burgess