Britain’s Hitler Oak succumbs… but was it the last of its kind?

Matthew Chatfield
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Harold Whitlock was a British athlete who won the gold medal in the 50 kilometre walk at the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. Most famously, the 1936 Olympics were marked by the success of Jesse Owens, the black US sprinter who upstaged Hitler by winning four gold medals. A lesser-known fact is that along with their gold medals, the champions of the 1936 Olympics were each presented with an oak sapling on behalf of Adolf Hitler.

Lovelocks' Hitler Oak
Another Hitler Oak, won by Jack Lovelock of New Zealand

The whips, each in a terracotta pot, were awarded by the German Olympic Committee. Although the extent of Hitler’s personal involvement in the scheme is not recorded, the potency of his name has made the tag of ‘Hitler Oak’ the one which people tend to remember. Perhaps not surprisingly, of the 130 trees presented, only a few are known to have survived (one source suggests only 16): some unmarked, a few celebrated. Great Britain won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, so what happened to the British Hitler Oaks? The Observer runs a story which sheds some light on the fate of one, at least:

Harold Whitlock, the British long-distance walker… brought his sapling back to Britain, but decided against planting it in his garden in case he moved to a different address. So he donated it to his former school, the then Hendon Grammar School, where a ceremony marked the occasion. For 70 years it stood giving shade to generations of children and famed as a local landmark nicknamed the ‘Hitler Oak’. No more. Last month the magnificent 50ft tree was chopped down, severing a precious link with Britain’s sporting past. Hendon School explained that the tree had been diagnosed with a fungal disease and was in danger of falling down and injuring pupils.

A shame – but these things do happen. Mind you, the article goes on to quote Scott Sturgeon, head caretaker of Hendon School, saying:

The tree expert I work with said in 20 years he’d never seen such large spores

That doesn’t exactly give one confidence in his expertise – fungal spores are too small to see anyway, but perhaps he had particularly good eyesight. Interestingly, The Observer described Whitlock’s oak as “Britain’s only known [Hitler] oak“. Gilbert Addison, the Tree and Countryside Officer at Breckland Council commented on the story in the UK Tree Care Mailing List:

We’ve got a ‘Hitler oak’ in Norfolk awarded to a local broadsman along with a sailing medal in the ’36 Olympics. I worked on the tree back in the 80’s … The tree was still there in an inferior sort of way last winter.

And indeed Great Britain did win a gold medal in the 6m mixed sailing in 1936, so it looks as though another Hitler Oak still stands in England to preserve this curious quirk of history.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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