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Pullen’s Lane: Joe Pullen’s tree

Jewitt's engraving as printed
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive

Joe Pullen's tree

Above left is a drawing of Joe or Jo Pullen's Tree made by William Delamotte in 1821, and on the right is an engraving made from that drawing by Orlando Jewitt in the mid-1830s. There are some slight differences in the two images: there are fewer people and sheep in the engraving, and several objects, including a tall post, have been omitted. The two donnish figures on the left of the above would probably have taken the raised footpath up Headington Hill to reach the tree. The drawing was made before Davenport House, and the houses on Pullen's Lane were built, and it is hard to reconcile the scene with the stump of the tree shown below. The original Headington Hill Hall was completed in 1824, and its wall would probably not yet have been built: it certainly doesn't show in this drawing made by John Whessell in 1822 showing a view of Oxford from a seat on the “new path” to Pullen's Tree.

The elm tree known as “Joe Pullen’s Tree” was planted in about 1680 by the Revd Josiah Pullen, who from 1656 until his death in 1714 was Vice-President of Magdalen Hall (which was then still situated in the grounds of Magdalen College).

Nearly ten years after his death Thomas Hearne describes how Pullen loved the walk to the top of Headington Hill in the 57 years as head of that college (Hearne’s diary, 22 February 1723/4):

Upon the Top of Heddington Hill, by Oxford, on the left Hand as we go to Heddington, just at the Brow of the Branch of the Roman Way that falls down upon Marston Lane, is an Elm that is commonly call’d and known by the Name of Jo. Pullen’s Tree, it having been planted by the Care of the late Mr. Josiah Pullen of Magdalen Hall, who used to Walk to that place every day, sometimes twice a day, if tolerable Weather, from Magdalen Hall and back again in the Space of half an Hour. This Gent. was a great Walker, & some walks he would call a Mug of two Penny, & others a Mug of Three penny, &c, according to the Difference of the Air of each Place.

Pullen was also responsible for getting the University to create the raised footpath up Headington Hill around the same time, and this walk up to the tree because very popular with members of the University. The essayist Richard Steele (1672–1729) said that his regular walks as an undergraduate to the elm with Joe Pullen enabled him to reach a “florid old age”.

The London Road was not created until the 1770s, so everyone who ascended Headington Hill by the raised footpath on their way to Headington would have seen the tree when taking Cuckoo Lane to Old Headington village.

The elm soon became famous, and known to everyone in Oxford. The following couplet occurs in a poem published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 25 December 1773:

Till Bards and Booksellers agree
And Grapes grow ripe on Pullen’s Tree.

By 1789 it was already regarded as a monument, as this verse of the poem Headington Hill: A New Song indicates:

Joseph divine, great Pullen’s plant,
Through different ages still
Doth stand a rural Monument
On Headington’s fair Hill.

The tree was a popular trysting place. Robert Holmes, an eighteenth-century Canon of Christ Church, used to meet his servant (with gun and dog at the ready) at the tree, and remove his cassock and surplice to reveal his shooting clothes below.

In November 1795 there was a terrible storm that wrought havoc all over the country, and the fact that the Gentleman’s Magazine that month that “Joe Pullen, the famous elm, upon Headington hills, had one of its large branches torn off and carried to a great distance” shows how well known the tree had become.

The tree was also a meeting or turning point from the opposite direction: Miss Mary Latimer of Headington House (at the east end of Cuckoo Lane) writes in her diary on 22 December 1818:

We returned to an early dinner, after which John & Digby walked to Oxford, Edward & I went with them to Jos. Pullen’s Tree, when we returned home.

On7 April 1822 she writes:

Easter Sunday. I got up at six o’clock. At ten past seven, I left to go to Oxford because my brother John had promised me to meet me at half past seven at the tree called “Jo Pullen”; but I walked all by myself as far as the High Street where I met him.

After the Reform Act of 1832, Joe Pullen’s tree was named as the boundary of the Parliamentary Borough of Oxford.

Around the beginning of 1847 John Davenport, who owned the plantation on the corner of London Road and Pullen’s Lane, bought the land on which the tree stood from the new Lord of the Manor, William Peppercorn in order to chop the tree down. The picture below was drawn by Mrs Wright on Wednesday 24 February 1847, when the work on felling the tree had just started:

Jo Pullen’s tree by Mrs Wright

But the tree was saved, as E. C. Alden described 52 years later (Oxford Journal Illustrated, 27 October 1909):

In the days of my boyhood the fiat had gone forth for the felling of this fine old landmark; indeed, the axe had already been set to work on its limbs, when an indignant outburst of popular feeling stayed the woodman’s hand and the tree was spared.

Exactly a fortnight after Mrs Wright drew her picture, on Wednesday 10 March 1847, the following verse was found fixed on to the tree, showing that it had not only been reprieved, but that the ground had been cleared and a seat provided around it.

“Ah! world, thy slippery turns,” so late was I
By counsel cast, condemned, and doom’d to die;
And, sad to tell, I many a wound received
Before ’twas herald forth I was reprieved,
When straight the keen uplifted axe was stay’d,
And o’er my naked roots the earth was laid.
And since my respite, I am honoured more
Than ever mortals paid me heretofore!
Around my station all is made so neat
Besides all this I’m honoured with a seat;
A son and heir is planted by my side,
At length to inherit all my princely pride,
Adopted to perpetuate my name,
To brave the breeze and rise to future fame,
So may he thrive and flourish as I fade,
And be to man a shelter and a shade;
High, unmolested, soar and spread around,
For Sol’s meridian rays defend the ground;
Where age may sit and view the distant dales,
And whispering lovers breathe their flattering tales.
Let none in him a single right contest,
But be for all a refuge and a rest;
So shall he rise to honour and renown,
When I am called to lay these honours down.

The following letter was published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 6 February 1847:

1847 letter about Pullen's Tree

James Collier of St Ebbe’s was moved to write the following poem, published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 1 May 1847:

Poem about Pullen's Tree

Four years later, however, the tree suffered natural damage. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 26 July 1851 reports:

Joe Pullen’s Tree.—This venerable tree, which is regarded with so much interest, has suffered very severely by the late violent wind; some of the principal branches have fallen this week, and have greatly detracted from its imposing appearance.

In 1857 Philip Bliss, the editor of Thomas Hearne’s Reliquiae, noted that the tree was “in every sense to be deemed University property”, explaining why Davenport halted its destruction ten years earlier:

First, from the associations belonging to it, and the numerous visitants of early days, as well as of modern times, who have made it their almost daily boundary of exercise: next, because the late Mr Whorwood [Lord of the manor] of Headington gave it, although informally, to the University authorities, which, to the credit of the present owner of the property, Mr Davenport, was no sooner made known to him than he declared nothing should induce him to destroy it (it had been doomed to the axe), and there it remains still an illustration to these remains.

In 1887, the tree suffered further damage, as this extract from Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 22 January describes:

Damage to tree in 1887

The photograph below, taken by Henry Taunt on 17 August 1892 on the occasion of the Mayor’s riding of the franchise, shows the tree in old age. It was then about 200 years old and still a historic landmark. The wall of Davenport House (built c.1849, and believed by Henry Taunt to have caused damage to its roots) is on the right.

Beating of the bounds

Just two years later, in 1894, the elm was cut down to a stump because rot had set in:

Tree stump

Soon after this, the base was protected by a brick coating.

In the early morning of 13 October 1909, vandals set fire to the stump, and Henry Taunt took the following photograph on the same day (wall of Davenport House on the left):

Tree burnt

Mrs Emily Alicia Morrell of Headington Hill Hall paid to have a plaque (shown below) installed on the side wall of Davenport House in Cuckoo Lane, marking the spot where the tree had stood. It reads:

ON 13 OCTOBER 1909

Pullen plaque

Articles about Joe Pullen’s Tree:

  • Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, ii. 962
  • Guardian, i. 13
  • Terræ Filius, 1726, i. 149
  • Henry Taunt folder 37 (Joe Pullen’s Tree) at the Oxfordshire History Centre in Cowley
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 20 October 1909, front page
  • Sonnet composed under shadow of Joe Pullen, a tree on Headington Hill, 1806 Bodleian MS e.364 fol.120, p.114

See also The Revd Josiah Pullen

© Stephanie Jenkins

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