Friday, 20 March 2015

The Naval Timber Controversies: poor Billington

[Update 31.03.2015: On Matthew and Billington]

In 1825, William Billington published a report on his experiments in Royal tree plantations with a long title that I nevertheless give in full, because it lists all the issues that later became topical in the Naval Timber 'Wars:'

A series of facts, hints, observations and experiments on the different modes of raising young plantations of oaks, "for future navies," from the acorn, seedling, and larger plants, shewing the difficulties and objections that have occurred in the practical part; with remarks upon the fencing, draining, pruning, and training young trees; a clear and copious statement of the early and great profits and advantages which may be derived from plantations of mixed and various trees, by care and attention, and the contrary effects from negligence. Also how trees are retarded or accelerated in growth by the management of young plantations. With hints and experimental remarks upon fruit trees. The whole derived from actual experience on a most extended scale. (London: Baldwin, Cradock & Joy)

William Withers, an attorney at Holt in Norfolk, seems to have misconstrued the very first sentences of Billington's report in his letters to Sir Walter Scott (1828) and Sir Henry Steuart (1829)— letters that fuelled the Naval Timber Controversies (see here). I therefore also give the first sentence of the introduction and of the main text of Billington (1825) here, because they contain the hint at the hierarchy and whom Billington blamed for the failures at Dean Forest plantations.

>>Having been appointed, by the late Lord Glenbervie, surveyor-general of his majesty's woods and forests, to superintend the enclosing, fencing, draining and planting of Dean Forest, [...]<< (Billington 1825, Introduction)

>>The Planting of Dean-Forest, in the county of Gloucester, commenced in the year 1809; the work was contracted for by Messrs Drivers, land and timber surveyors, Kent-road, near London, and executed by their agent, Mr Amos Sleed.<< (Billington 1825, p. 1)
Withers since called Billington the surveyor-general, although it should have been clear enough that this has been 1st Baron Sylvester Douglas Glenbervie and Billington only a labourer subordinate to Mr Amos Sleed, who had been contracted by the land surveyors Driver, who in turn had been hired by Glenbervie. Moreover, Withers's misrepresentations amounted to such an extent that Billington felt forced to publish another book called:

Facts, observations, &c. being an Exposure of the Misrepresentations of the author's treatise on planting, contained in Mr. Withers's letters to Sir Walter Scott, Baronet, and to Sir Henry Steuart, Baronet,; with remarks on Sir Walter Scott's essay on planting, and on certain parts of Sir Henry Steuart's Planter's Guide. (Billington 1830)

This Exposure is a long lamentation about his envious former superior officer, the slandering Mr. William Withers, and the haughty Sir Henry Steuart. The part about the former boss trying to thwart him is rather obscure, but the first sentence of the main text seems to hold the hint at the identity of that boss:
>>It might not be amiss before I enter upon the main subjects, to state my reason for presuming to become an author. I had the misfortune, (if misfortune it may be called,) to be envied by a superior officer, because I happened to know more about my business than he did, and possess a little more zeal and anxiety for the real "benefit of the public." Consequently, through that hateful vice—envy, he thwarted me in every endeavour to promote the success and welfare of the plantations under my charge; and from that first cause, though not in his lifetime, I was finally requested (I could say something more,) to retire from my employment in the Royal Forests. Not satisfied with heaping every indignity and insult upon me, for anxiously exerting all my powers for the success of the plantations and the "public benefit," and it being very visible the plantations were making rapid progress under my management, as regards economy, profit, and quick growth; which in spite of all the obstacles thrown in my way could not but be acknowledged by his superiors.
When I found my representations and zealous endeavours for improvement should not be listened to, and that I should have no merit for bringing them into that promising state as described in my publication, but that those who thwarted me were to have the merit of my labour, discoveries, and real improvement. I had no other resource, in justice to myself, to prevent such a robbery, as I may justly term it, but to make it known to the Public, and to call the attention of the Commissioners by that means, (as all my other endeavours had failed,) to pursue the course I had so earnestly recommended, not only for the "benefit of the public," but their own true honour. For it has since been candidly and honourably acknowledged to me by a son of the person who was the cause of it, that he knew my system was right, and had no doubt the Commissioners would adopt it in a little time after I was removed, expressing his surprise at their conduct.<< Billington (1830, p. 2f)
From Billington's account of his superiors, the superior officer trying to thwart Billington should have been Amos Sleed. Billington was probably forced to plant trees by simply putting them into holes and leaving them to their fate, even where he thought otherwise. This method happened to be the main target of Withers's attacks (see previous post), and he referred to it as the Scotch system. Withers advocated, instead, the preparation of the ground by trenching, manuring, and weeding. While poor Billington agreed that this was the best method, he had not only been forced to employ the opposite (Scotch) method, but was now also fiercely attacked by Withers as the main culprit for huge losses in the Royal Dean Forest. In his Letter to Sir Walter Scott, Withers wrote:
>>I will not confine myself to Norfolk for illustrations fo your [Sir Scott's] favourite Scotch style of planting, but will give you a specimen of its effects in a distant part of the kingdom; exhibiting at the same time the injurious system which prevails in our public forests, and affording a specimen of that capacity of those under whose superintendence they are placed. I am enabled to do this from the publication of a Mr. Wm. Billington, which has just fallen into my hands, but which bears the date of 1825. It appears that he was appointed 'Surveyor-general of Dean Forest in the year 1810;'<< (see here, p. 41)
Here, Withers misattributed the position of Lord Glenbervie to Billington and in the following put all blame on Billington. Billington's introduction raised expectations in Withers to have found a comrade-in-arms, who would assist him in the "demolition of the Scotch system;" but found that exactly that system of expending no care whatsoever on tree saplings had been employed in Dean Forest for years. Thinking this was of Billington's design, Withers turned to attacking him:
>>although I cannot cite his authority in favour of good plating, I can hold him up as an example of that which is bad, and produce his 'facts and experiments' as evidence of the complete failure of your [Scott's] style of planting.<< (see here, p. 41)
This prompted Billington to defend himself by publishing the above mentioned Exposure of the Misrepresentations. Before that he records his disagreement with Sir Walter Scott, who thought Mr. Pontey's doctrines on pruning were indisputable (Billington 1830, p. 5). But then he goes into defence:
>>To ridicule and expose the above opinion of Sir Walter, Mr. Withers has taken the liberty to cull from my book, certain passages to prove, as he flatters himself, the fallacy of that opinion; at the same time holding me up to ridicule, and endeavouring to bring me into contempt for the conduct of others, over whom I had no control; but has scrupulously omitted to notice those parts that told against his system. A more ungentlemanly and unfair attack cannot be conceived, both as it regards myself, and that important national subject, but it is Attorney like! as it is too much the practice of his profession in their anxiety to gain the cause, (no matter whether right or wrong,) by tactic and distorting facts, and holding out their opponent to ridicule, and endeavouring by artifice to make the "worse appear the better reason."<< (Billington 1830, p. 6)
>>Mr. Withers makes another very ungentlemanly allusion to what I have said on the necessity of light to trees, not seeming to understand any thing himself of the nature of light, as respects its necessity to vegetation; he immediately puts his friends in requisition to help him, and he appears to have "many friends," and a very bungling job they have made of it; but in this case I will state his own words:—"The notion entertained by this gentleman, that trees derive their growth principally if not entirely from light, and not from soil, is really too absurd to deserve any thing in the shape of an argument to refute it. If this were so, trees having equal light would grow as fast upon ordinary land as upon that of the very best quality, and single trees would grow much faster than those in groves and woods, though the contrary in both cases is known to be the fact."<< (Billington 1830, p. 9)
Billington (1830, p. 75) ends his Exposure of Misrepresentations with a postscript headed "Great Feat at Allanton!" In it, he sarcastically writes about the wonderful exploits of Sir Henry in transplanting old trees. He ends by stating his doubts that the transplantation of old trees will be of any practical use except for the amusement of rich people, who would not want to wait for trees to slowly grow in their parks, but want them stocked with large trees immediately.

Matthew (1831. On naval Timber and Arboriculture) happens to take up and expand exactly that line of criticism against Steuart, but he fails to mention that it is from Billington. However, he clearly has read the Exposure of Misrepresentations (Billington 1830) for he wrote about the system of management of the Royal forests:
"It is the system that is naught; where, to the lowest labourer, none have individual interest in the success of their work; and where the efforts of the really honest, intelligent, and industrious are, by directions and trammels, rendered unavailing; or even through misrepresentation by those of a contrary character, (as would seem in the case of Mr Billington), are the cause of dismissal." Matthew (1831, p. 183f)
Conversely, Matthew adopts the criticisms of Withers and Steuart against Billington, but fails to mention their origin. The result is a merry-go-round of nit-picking and cherry-picking, in which Matthew regularly fails to mention the sources of the cherries, but expands with great zest on the authors providing the nits. The ignorant reader will come to think that the criticised authors were stupid and Matthew a seer.