Ever wondered how Barbe Baker Avenue got its name?

Barbe Baker Avenue is just off the A27 at West End. Nearby roads are named after trees such as chestnut, lime and redwood and these give a clue to the fascinating story of Richard St. Barbe Baker, OBE.

Richard was born on October 9, 1889 at West End just outside Southampton and was descended from a line of farmers, parsons and evangelists. His great grandfather had been the Rector at Botley for 52 years. Richard lived with his family at the Firs, Beacon Road, West End where his father constructed a mission hall next to their home.

Richard was a visionary silviculturist, ecologist and founder of the Men of the Trees organisation in 1922. This is now known as the International Tree Foundation with headquarters in Oxford. St. Barbe Baker was ahead of his time in recognising the importance of trees and forests in sustaining life on Earth.

He became Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya and Nigeria and was concerned for the rapidly decreasing fertility of the land. He believed it was necessary to plant more trees to combat the effects of agriculture. He initiated the idea of voluntary tree planting by the Kikuyu people who live in East Africa.

Richard with Michaela Denis and Chief Josiah Njonjo in Kenya. Picture from Richard Barbe Bakers book My Life My Trees.

Richard with Michaela Denis and Chief Josiah Njonjo in Kenya. Picture from Richard Barbe Baker's book My Life My Trees.

Returning to the UK in 1924, he helped the Men of the Trees network to develop in many countries around the world. St. Barbe Baker travelled extensively, lecturing and writing to convey his message about the importance of trees. In America, he was a sought after writer and lecturer. He was involved in a campaign to save the giant redwoods in California and worked with President Roosevelt to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps.

During the Second World War, Men of the Trees established a summer school in Dorset. By 1949 it had become a week-long event at Exeter University embracing ideas of organic farming. Its manifesto said:

“We believe that forests and woodlands are intimately linked with biological, social and spiritual well-being”.

These ideas were compatible with the Baha'i Faith which St. Barbe Baker followed. He was also a leading advocate for a plant-based diet. In the early 1950s St. Barbe Baker launched his idea of an international Green Front. Its aim was to promote reforestation worldwide.

In the late 1950s, St. Barbe Baker toured many schools in England to give talks to pupils. In 1959, he edited his last issue of Trees before emigrating to New Zealand.

In 1992 Men of the Trees became the International Tree Foundation (ITF). The ITF was instrumental in establishing National Tree Week in 1975. It has been organised every year since by The Tree Council. The 2021 event is due to run from November 27 to December 5.

He was awarded an OBE by the Queen in 1978. The West End Free Church (Baptist) was a green “tin tabernacle” which existed until 2016 and had a Barbe Baker Hall. A bronze bas-relief memorial of Richard St. Barbe Baker on a Portland stone column was made by sculptor Jill Tweed in 2003. It is now in the memorial garden by the entrance to Hatch Grange. This is Jill Tweed's third local work. Her first was "The Railwayman" statue in Eastleigh's Leigh Road shopping precinct. Her second, in 2001, was the bronze "Angel of Mons" on the town's War Memorial.

Bronze bas-relief by Jill Tweed

Bronze bas-relief by Jill Tweed

In November 2014, the “The Man of the Trees” by Jon Mills was unveiled in West End High Street, funded by Eastleigh Borough Council as part of a Heritage and Art Trail.

Richard St. Barbe Baker was a “man of the trees” who was ahead of his time. Today there is increasing realisation of the link between destruction of our natural environment and climate change. Barbe Baker wrote over 30 books and once said “Planting and growing increasing quantities of trees is the scientific solution to Earth's environmental dilemma.”

He planted his last tree in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada on 5th June 1982 in a ceremony celebrating World Environment Day, and died four days later in his ninety-third year.

Martin Brisland is a tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .