John Evelyn’s Sylva in New Zealand

Michael Roche


Four hundred years after John Evelyn’s birth it is worth posing the question about the impact, if any, of Sylva on the forestry scene in New Zealand (NZ). The following preliminary assessment identifies the provenance of volumes of Sylva held in selected NZ libraries. A second section considers the fashion in which local newspapers drew on Sylva as a source of detail an inspiration. Finally, the more distant fashion in which professionally qualified foresters in the 1930s NZ engaged with Sylva is discussed. This though does not represent a severing of Sylva from the professional foresters’ consciousness, for it continues to be referenced in a range of contexts

Sylva 1664

When the first edition of Sylva was published in 1664 only part of the western coastline of New Zealand had been captured on European maps through the efforts of Abel Tasman who had sailed along that portion of the country in 1642. Four of Tasman’s crew died in his only encounter with Māori at Golden Bay. Limited European settlement took place from the early 1800s and only increased after NZ became incorporated into the British Empire in 1840. Around 53 percent of the land was forested at this time, by 1900 this had been reduced to around 25 percent, primarily through felling and burning off land for pastoral farming. A timber industry, initially in the form of a spar and sawn timber trade developed and by the turn of the twentieth century and fears of a timber famine were expressed by various officials. Efforts to establish scientific state forestry foundered in the 1870s and the 1880s, limited official afforestation efforts began in 1897, and a State Forest Service was not finally established until 1921. In 1925 the State Forest Service announced a 300,000 acre [121,405 ha] planting target which was met within a decade, with private companies planting a similar area.

It is against this backdrop that Sylva as a material artifact can be first considered. While the exact number of copies and editions of Sylva in NZ are impossible to determine, the provenance of the copies in some of the main research libraries can to some extent be established. The Hocken Library at the University of Otago in Dunedin has a 1664 edition. This was donated to the library by Esmond de Beer (1895-1990) in 1983. A Dunedin born scholar of independent means, UK based for much of his life, de Beer was invited in 1931 by Clarendon Press to edit for publication Evelyn’s diary, a six-volume task that was not competed until 1955. His significant collection of books ‘by and about Evelyn’ was donated to the Hocken Library. Dunedin thus surfaces as perhaps the southern-most outpost for studying Evelyn.

Figure 1. Charles and Lesley Brasch with Esmond and Dora de Beer (1930s). He is shown here sitting in front of his cousin, the poet Charles Brasch. Photo: Charles Brasch papers, MS-0996-012/064, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

The Macmillan Brown library at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch holds four later editions of Sylva – 1679, 1776, 1786, and 1815. The first of these was donated at some time after 1957 by Mr J. L. Nelson. The 1776 edition was presented by Mr L. B. J. [Leonard Bancroft James] Chapple (1893-1980) and has an 1849 inscription (i.e. pre-Christchurch) to ‘Elwin Brodie Dickson from F. J. Hull’. Dickson was a public servant and notable amateur botanist who had graduated from Durham University in 1848 and emigrated to NZ in 1853. Chapple, a former schoolteacher, published several volumes of local history and a bibliography of NZ writing from the 1930s to 1950s. The University library book plate dates the 1776 edition to after 1933 and there is also a Forestry Department library stamp. Forestry was taught at Canterbury from 1925 to 1934. This volume would seem to have come into the forestry library at some unspecified date and then passed into the main collection when the department closed in 1934. The 1786 edition was once part of the Canterbury Museum collection. Most of the book transfers from the museum took place on the foundation of the Canterbury College (now, University) in 1873-74.

The 1812 edition of Sylva has two bookplates (Figure 2). The most recent one belonged to Rhoda Leslie McWhannell (1898-1996). With her husband Frederick McWhannell, she farmed and ran a nursery at ‘Rozel’ at Ohaupo in the Waikato. Both were interested in trees for farm and garden. Frederick published a book on Eucalypts for use on farms and gardens. Rhoda published articles on the trees of Rozel in Garden History and Arborcultural Journal. In her will Rhoda bequeathed her copy of Sylva to the Forestry School at the University of Canterbury. The other earlier bookplate belonged to William Frederic Lawrence (1844-1935) a Conservative MP for Liverpool Abercromby 1885-1906. Lawrence attended Eton and Oxford and practiced law before entering politics. Lawrence inherited Cowesfield House in Wiltshire from an uncle in 1861. His bookplate likely dates from sometime between 1862 and 1884. The chain of possession between William Lawrence and Rhoda McWhannell is at this point unknown. 

Bookplates on the 1812 edition of Sylva held by the Macmillan Brown Library at the University of Canterbury. They belonged to an English politician, William Frederic Lawrence (1844-1935) and to Rhoda McWhannell (1898-1996) at Ohaupo in the Waikato. She bequeathed her copy of Sylva to the Forestry School at the University of Canterbury. Photo: Courtesy of Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury.

The ‘economics, history and development of forestry’ was one of the fourth-year papers in the Forestry School degree. It was taught by Charles Foweraker, a botanist by training, who took the Cambridge University forestry course in 1919 and was knowledgeable about the Britain’s forestry heritage including that of Evelyn and Sylva.

The Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington also has a 1664 edition. The bookplate is of Alfred Ashworth (1843-1910) of Horsley Hall in Gresford at Wrexham in Wales. Ashworth was a successful towelling manufacturer who had the gardens of Horsley Hall re-modelled in the Jacobean manner and extended. He was interested in local history. It is easy to place Sylva at this intersection of interests. In 1917 Ashworth’s son sold the hall and the library may have been dispersed then. There are no other marks indicating earlier ownership nor clues as to how and when the volume came to New Zealand. It was accessioned in 1974.

The Auckland Museum also has two copies of the original edition. One of these was bought at auction in NZ in 2009, having previously been part of the library of Edward Simpson (1894-1974). Simpson was well known as an art writer and Workers Educational Association lecturer who had donated various volumes to the Alexander Turnbull Library. The other copy was presented by Sacred Heart College, presumably during a routine cull of its library holdings. This volume has inscriptions from previous, presumably UK and to date untraceable owners, John Labers and Mr Crackes.

There are many gaps in the understanding of how the copies of first edition of Sylva came to New Zealand, but perhaps equally surprising is the late date in which the last of these has come into the library system. Equally it was accessioned as ‘rare book’, rather than as a manual for forestry.

Sylva as Guidebook

While personal copies of Sylva were brought to NZ at least by the early 1850s, in the press Sylva was not regularly referred to until the 1880s. The Otago Witness in an article on arboriculture in 1882, referenced it in describing timber trees suitable for the comparatively treeless Otago region. Avenues of lime trees in Britain were attributed to Evelyn’s advocacy (his favourite tree species it was claimed). His memory was then invoked as a source of inspiration for Dunedin:

I wish we had a John Evelyn to stir up our City Fathers to plant a few [Lime trees] through our city — say if we had only one or two in the Octagon, instead of those miserable things that do duty as ornamental trees there at present. Better a tree that would thrive in the city under the soot and dust, although bare of leaves half the year, than an evergreen tree to be ever covered by soot and dust, and never green or thriving.

In 1901 the Evening Post regarding the ‘menace of scarcity of timber’ traced eminent British writers on forestry observing that Sylva ‘gave a great impetus to intelligent tree-planting’. The idea of Sylva as a model for NZers was also reiterated in the Lyttelton Times. Sylva was, ‘a plea for the preservation of the forests and for additional planting, [that] created a great stir, and led to the planting of many millions of forest trees in England. There is room for a John Evelyn in NZ at the present day’. At other times, the Evening Star invoked Evelyn in support of Arbor day. A revised edition of Sylva with notes by John Nisbetappeared in 1908. Nisbet was Scottish forester with Indian Forest Service experience, who by 1908 was lecturing in forestry at the West of Scotland Agricultural College. Sylva was mined into the 1920s by the New Zealand Herald and Te Aroha News as an authoritative text for commentary on such diverse topics as apples and timber scents.

Sylva as metaphor

The press also used Sylva to discuss forest policy. A 1934 editorial entitled ‘Forestry’ in the Wairarapa Daily Times, a regional newspaper, began by quoting Evelyn to the effect that ‘We had better be without gold than without timber’ before segueing to ‘modern authorities’ Pinchot and Chapman and reiterating the importance of forestry ‘as a science’.

But what of forestry professionals themselves? In 1932 Frank Foster gave the Presidential Address to the Nelson Philosophical Society on the topic of ‘Forest Conservation’. Foster, after service in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI, had completed a forestry degree at the University of Edinburgh. From 1930 to 1944 he was Conservator of Forests in Nelson. He expounded a mainstream forestry argument and carefully laid out core forestry ideas around protection and production forestry, the effect of forests on climate, and the economic significance of forestry. He drew on examples from France, the USA, China, and NZ. In some detail he explained the meaning of forest conservation:

it is thought by many well-meaning, enthusiastic, and otherwise well-informed people, that conservation implies locking up the forests against economic use. Such action is not true forest conservation and is warranted solely in the cases of small scenic reserves where it is desired to preserve wild forest growth for recreational, artistic, and aesthetic reasons, and in national parks…. Wise forest conservation means the perpetuation of forests not by locking them up, but by using them. If this short paper will lead to a wider acceptance and a fuller understanding of this fundamental concept, it will have been worthwhile.

Evelyn and Sylva received an honourable mention in Foster’s account but no more than that, his vision was directed more towards forestry as sustained yield management of indigenous forests.

Sylva continued to be referenced in some NZ forestry writing. The omissions are of interest. C.M. Smith (1936), Foster’s contemporary at Edinburgh, and also a senior State Forest Service forester addressed the Wellington Philosophical Society on ‘Forestry down the Ages’, from classical times to the 1930s with a close focus on England. Mast shortages and Pepys and receive mention but neither Evelyn nor Sylva.

It would be tempting to conclude at this point by picturing Evelyn as an 17th century figure whose writing about tree planting was dispensed with by NZ foresters in the 1930s. This, however, is not actually the case as later articles by Richardson and McLean in the New Zealand Journal of Forestry reveal, where Evelyn in a metaphorical way remained a touchstone for forestry past and present.


Sylva has a surprisingly rich presence in NZ. There are several copies of the 1664 edition in NZ libraries and a strong local link to Evelyn through Esmond de Beer. Another copy came to NZ with migrant botanist Elwin Dickson in 1853. This volume was eventually available to forestry students at Canterbury College. Sylva was a source of inspiration in the press for advocates of tree planting and, its age not withstanding it was source of knowledge (probably accessed from the 1908 edition) about specific tree species. For the first cohort of professionally trained foresters in NZ, Sylva was acknowledged as part of the history of the profession, but most attention was focused on the canons of scientific state forestry based on ideas as developed and refined in 19th century France and Germany. While Sylva quite rapidly lost any value as a manual, hardly surprising for a book that first appeared in 1664 in the context of the Royal Navy’s timber problems, it retained some standing as a source of inspiration for forestry advocates. In recent decades, the volume has performed a similar role as an anchor point for discussion about contemporary or future related forestry issues.


Anthony Tedeschi (Alexander Turnbull Library), Paula (Auckland Museum Library), Damian Collins (Macmillan Brown Library), and Gareth West (University of Otago Library) for providing details of the provenance of the various editions of Sylva in their collections.

About the Author

Professor Michael Roche is an academic in the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University. His research interests include historical geography especially colonial forestry and landscape transformation, contemporary agrifood studies, and the history of geographic thought especially as it relates to NZ. He has contributed to the New Zealand Historical Atlas, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and the Te Ara and has edited or co-edited Engaging Geographies (2014), A Geographer by Declaration: Selected Writings of George Jobberns (2010), Past Matters; Heritage and Planning History (2007) and (Dis)Placing Empire: Renegotiating British Colonial Geographies (2005).


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“Arboriculture.” 1882. Otago Witness 11 November 1882.

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