Stonehouse History Group

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- promoting  interest in the History of Stonehouse & the locality.

A forgotten cricket bat willow plantation near Beard’s Mill

Gloucestershire has long been steeped in commerce and the manufacture of all sorts of things. One of the more unusual was the growing of willow trees for the manufacture of cricket bats.

The business was carried on by wealthy local businessman, Arthur Strachan Winterbotham, born in Dursley in 1864 and, from 1907, owner of Stonehouse Court. He clearly loved cricket, having played for several teams including Gloucestershire,Gloucestershire Colts, Rugby School and Marylebone Cricket Club. He played in a number of county matches, including several at Lord's cricket ground - mostly in the 1880s.

Growing willows for cricket bats was probably no more than an interesting sideline that resulted from Winterbotham’s love of cricket [photo shows willows at Stonehouse Court being cut for cricket bat production].

The willows were grown on a strip of land to the south of the Ocean, bordering one arm of the River Frome. The land was adjacent to Beard’s (former woollen) Mill and the nearby massive 19th century railway viaduct that looms over both. Growing willow needs regular watering, hence the land was reworked so that a network of small concrete water channels, in the form of a grid pattern and fed from the River Frome, was created.

As far as can be ascertained, the business operated in the 1920s and 1930s and, apart from Winterbotham, there were two men who seem to have been the mainstay of the operation. The first was Percy William Lea, born in 1885. He lived and worked at Stonehouse Court for more than half a century. As head gardener, he maintained 6 acres of gardens and greenhouses as well as the willow beds. It was reported that bats made from his trees were exported all over the World.

He died in 1969. The second individual was the man who became the foreman - Edgar Watts. In June 1936, Arthur Winterbotham died and this probably signaled the end of the willow business. It seems likely that the plantation was abandoned at this time. Watts subsequently moved to Bungay in Suffolk and carried on in the same line. Remarkably, the business he created still thrives today.

It appears that the plantation has not been used for any productive purpose for many years, possibly even since its abandonment in the 1930s. But, perhaps surprisingly, remains of the water channels etc. can still be found, buried in the dense undergrowth.

Stephen Mills