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Henry Girling

Author:  Paul Ackers & Dr Duncan Slater
  11/08/2021
Last Updated:  11/08/2021
Henry Girling

Henry Girling

We are saddened to record the death of Henry Girling on 28th March, close to his 85th birthday.

Brought up in Sidcup, Henry’s general education involved attending the local secondary modern school – Blackfen – where, as he always had his nose in a book, his schoolmates nicknamed him ‘Professor Peanut’. Leaving at the age of 15, he spent the following three years at the Kent Horticultural Institute at Swanley, working mainly on commercial crops with some attendance at day release.

At the age of 18, Henry voluntarily enrolled for three years with the Royal Engineers, serving in Cyprus and Suez during a most unstable period. On one occasion in the army, an event was organised for which Frankie Howerd visited specially to entertain the troops. The men all took their positions at the back with seats waiting empty at the front. In walked all the senior officers and their wives, straight to the front. Seeing this, Frankie gave them an earful and refused to start until they left, saying he was there to entertain the soldiers. Apparently, Henry loved this memory and would become very animated in the retelling.

On leaving the army in 1957, Henry held a variety of positions with either private tree companies or highly specialist organisations such as Alice Holt where he worked under J.D. Matthews and the legendary Alan Mitchell, from whom he must have learnt a great deal. He worked in the Genetics Department and became involved with seed collection, grafting, establishing seed orchards and maintaining the trial ground. Alan introduced Henry to the Hon. Maynard Greville, son of the 5th Earl of Warwick. Maynard wished to establish an arboretum at Great Dunmow, Essex, and Henry became very involved with the project but sadly the death of Maynard prevented further progress being made with the planting.

Henry spent another spell with private tree companies including the Gloucestershire branch of Southern Tree Surgeons. This was extremely convenient for Henry to pursue one of the love affairs in his life, namely to take visitors on guided tours of Westonbirt Arboretum. Whilst there he took and passed the Royal Forestry Society’s National Diploma in Arboriculture. Henry recalled an incident during the practical sessions when an almighty roar emanated from the wood. ‘What on earth was that?’ asked one of the examiners, who later discovered that the tree Henry was felling was about to fall, and this was his warning cry.

At the beginning of the 1970s the door to local government opened when Henry took up a position as Arboricultural Officer at the London Borough of Ealing. He was responsible for 30 staff, established a tree bank over 18 acres, planted about 2000 trees per annum and provided considerable input into the Local Government Training Scheme. And if this wasn’t enough, he found time in 1972 to marry his wife Janet who, at the time, was also employed by Ealing Parks Department.

Henry working on the Great Oak of Eardisley in Herefordshire in 1968.

Henry working on the Great Oak of Eardisley in Herefordshire in 1968.

On a fishing trip, c. 2010.

On a fishing trip, c. 2010.

In 1975 Henry’s desire to move into a more rural setting resulted in his moving to Welwyn and Hatfield Council, again as Arboricultural Officer. Amongst his responsibilities was the management of the 121 hectares of Northaw Great Wood and the implementation of the plan designed by the Nature Conservancy Council specifically for the creation of a habitat for nightingales. During his 12 years in this post he achieved many successes, one of which resulted in saving a fine row of mature plane trees that a statutory undertaker wished to fell, for perhaps obvious reasons. On Henry’s insistence their tunnel was positioned directly beneath the planes’ trunks thereby avoiding the need for extensive root cutting.

Henry planted literally thousands of trees throughout his career, but a scheme he was particularly pleased with was the creation of an avenue in Hatfield of Ulmus ‘Lobel’ and Ulmus ‘Dodoens’. The trees were heavily vandalised in the traditional way, so Henry left the truncated stumps in situ to regrow and they now form one of the finest, if not the finest, street tree plantings of post-1970 elms in Britain. An article about these trees, written by Henry just before he passed away, featured in the last ARB Magazine alongside the text of the letter he received about them from The Tree Register.

In 1987 Henry set up his highly respected consultancy practice handling a wide range of issues for a number of prestigious clients who were probably relieved to have someone with Henry’s broad knowledge acting on their behalf. He became an Association Registered Consultant and was very well known throughout the arboricultural profession. One thing is certain: when Henry spoke, people listened. He possessed a quality which cannot be properly defined.

As many engaged in the profession will recall, Henry was a lifelong supporter of the Association, which he joined in 1967, and his presence at conference will be missed for on those occasions he would engage the services of the local mayor or vice chancellor to plant a tree he had grown in his back garden, thus marking the commencement of proceedings. Appropriately, he was appointed as one of the AA’s vice presidents at its conference in 2014, a role that he accomplished with due diligence.

Henry was involved in country pursuits from boyhood, and became a proficient gundog trainer, particularly with German pointers, Labradors and spaniels; he was also a trout fly-fisherman who could tie his own flies!

Henry is survived by his wife, Janet, and two children, neither of whom has followed in Henry’s footsteps.

Paul Akers

A training session, probably at Gunnersbury, with Henry on the left.

A training session, probably at Gunnersbury, with Henry on the left.

Henry and Tony Kirkham at the planting of three wild service (Sorbus torminalis) trees at Kew

Henry and Tony Kirkham, Head of Arboretum, at the planting of three wild service (Sorbus torminalis) trees at Kew, a gift from the Association to mark the Royal Botanic Gardens’ 250th anniversary in 2009. Henry grew the trees from seed.

After Henry

I was going to write in to the ARB Magazine just to support Henry Girling’s article about the non-native status of sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), as I have, over time, developed a similar set of arguments for the same purpose. It was saddening to read about Henry’s passing, as it is AA members like Henry that make it worthwhile being in the Arboricultural Association.

I had only a few short interactions with Henry Girling, but they were all very pleasant and informative: it was clear from the offset that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of tree species and cultivars. More recently, I replied to a letter that Henry wrote in about one of our recently published papers. Criticism is an important aspect of improving and fully understanding scientific publications and their value, and it is good when someone is questioning, enquiring and has an open mind.

Although our students might start by thinking that by studying arboriculture what is most important is to accumulate technical knowledge, there is much value in ‘soft learning’ from role-models, like Henry, for the next generation. Henry generously and courteously supplied insight, independent thinking and common sense in his discussions and writings. Henry leaves a great legacy of positive contributions: something we should all aspire to, as AA members.

Dr Duncan Slater


This article was taken from Issue 194 Autumn 2021 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.