Who was Wilfrid Fox?
Dr Wilfrid Fox (1875 - 1962) was a physician turned horticulturist whose best known legacy is Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey. However, his influence on Britain’s landscape is far wider through his involvement with the Roads Beautification Association and as a passionate advocate for tree planting.
Wilfrid Fox graduated as a physician from St George’s hospital on Hyde Park Corner in 1902. After spells working at the St Louis Hospital in Paris and the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital in Greenwich, Fox returned to St George’s in 1906 as a consultant. He rose to be Director of the clinic for venereal disease and in that role became one of the country’s leading dermatologists.
Throughout his life, Fox demonstrated a spirit of energy and enterprise in everything he did. During WW1, as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he converted his own car into an ambulance and drove to France to help the war effort.
At the age of 65 he led a company of the Red Cross & St John Ambulance into France with the British Expeditionary Force. Like thousands of others, he ended up at Dunkirk before returning to Britain on a rescue boat.
A love of trees
Like many wealthy individuals, Fox was able to pursue a non-professional interest; in his case in trees. He became a recognised authority in arboriculture and Winkworth Arboretum is his living legacy.
As well as being a practical tree planter, he was a passionate advocate for the potential of trees to enhance the built, and especially the roadside, environment. The 1920s was a time of ambitious road development and, in an effort to improve the appearance of these new roads, the Government passed the ‘Road Improvements Act’ to allow local authorities to acquire roadside land to plant for amenity.
The Roads Beautification Association
Fox was disappointed by the lack of progress and helped set up The Roads Beautification Association (RBA). As the association’s secretary, he recruited an impressive roll call of knowledgeable and influential advisors including W. J. Bean (Curator of Kew Gardens).
The RBA was largely self-funded but quickly set about promoting new tree planting. Between its inaugural meeting in July 1928 and 1936, more than 50,000 trees were planted along new stretches of roads including the Kingston bypass. In 1937 the responsibility for trunk roads was transferred from local authorities to the Ministry for Transport and the RBA became its official advisor.
Trees for a new age
Clearly, Wilfrid Fox’s experience of WW1 had a profound effect on him. He viewed the increasing likelihood of another war with dismay and became a proponent of a supra-national government based in Geneva with an internationalist agenda and a single currency and language among its goals.
Like others of his time, he saw tree planting as a way of mending a damaged world and improving lives.