The Great Oak of Winwick

{This article was first published in Warrington History Society’s Autumn 2002 newsletter}


The Great Oak of Winwick.

There once stood at Winwick an old oak tree of unusual size that its branches once served as a canopy for a dinner party of 124 persons, a company “never exceeded in any public occasion in the County of Lancaster”.

The dinner was given for Captain Phipps Hornby, the third son of the reverend Geoffrey Hornby a former rector of Winwick. Captain Horby commanded the ship named the VOLAGE at the Battle of LISSA, and captured a French flag. The young captain (he was only 26) returned to the village of Winwick early in August 1811 after five years away from home. The villagers arranged a princely banquet for him on the 26th August 1811 to honour his victory.

The interior of the great tree was covered with fine white cloth, giving it the appearance of a huge tent, the tables arranged in a semicircle round the trunk as shown in the picture.

The Winwick Oak stood in a field a little distance to the south of the church (near Rectory Close). It covered an area of ground 100 yards in circumference, the lower branches extended 90 feet north to south, and 87 feet from east to west, the diameter of the trunk at the base was 14 feet; and 11 feet at a height of 5 feet. The first branch was 7 feet 6 inches from the ground.

Loyal toasts were drunk, two songs were sung, specially written for the occasion one by Mr Fitchett the other by Mr Green and some Latin verses, by a local bard of which the following is a translation.

Renowned for generous shade, behold in me
A monarch oak of thrice a century;
Ye kindred trees, let memory cease to dwell
On those sad days, when struck by fate ye fell;
And turn to when, beneath my verdant shade,
A social throng the votive banquet made;
And hail’d him safe who war’s dire perils o’er,
The laurels earned in fight at Lissa wore.
Vain! if they hoped by union with my name
To add more lasting honours to his fame.
Since I must yield to time’s relentless sway,
Resign my bark and cast my leaves away;
While Hornby’s name unhurt by chance or fate,
Unchanging still, shall be forever great.

On the 4 February 1850, while Captain Hornby was living and had been knighted and made an admiral, the broad oak, a beautiful time honoured ornament of Winwick, was blown down by the wind, to the great grief of the neighbourhood; and the Latin bard’s prophecy that the hero’s name should survive it was thus part fulfilled.

A picture of the dinner under the tree is in St. Oswald’s Church, Winwick, together with the French flag captured at the Battle of Lissa, some wooden benches made from the timber of the broad oak after it was blown down and a memorial tablet to the memory of John Fitchett who wrote one of the songs for the banquet.

When this article was originally published Ray commented that its contents were based on information obtained from ‘A History of Winwick’ by William Beamont and St. Oswald’s Church.