The Tale of the Apple Tree

Tales from End to End
The Tale of the Apple Tree

by Susan Haimes

Woolsthorpe Manor, the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, is home to the Flower of Kent apple tree connected with the myth of Newton’s discovery of the law of gravitation – a myth which Newton himself started.

After Newton’s death in 1727, many biographical materials were assembled, especially by John Conduitt, a Fellow of the Royal Society, amateur writer and natural philosopher, who was Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint, and later succeeded him as Master of the Mint. He was one of Newton’s closest friends and also married to Newton’s half-niece Catherine Barton (in 1717). Although he never seems to have got very far with his biography, its early drafts are of unique value, including a number of anecdotes that Conduitt had heard from Newton himself.

Conduitt described the apple tree event when he wrote about Newton’s life:

“he retired again from Cambridge on account of the plague to his mother in Lincolnshire & whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the same power of gravity (which made an apple fall from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but must extend much farther than was usually thought – Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition..”

A fuller memoir of Newton was composed for Conduitt by William Stukeley, an antiquarian and Fellow of the Royal Society who lived in Grantham, near Newton’s birthplace. His account is based principally on interviews with people he met locally who had themselves known Newton in his childhood or youth. He recorded in his 1752 Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life, a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726, in which he said:

“after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood: “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.”

The manor has been a place of pilgrimage for Newton aficionados since his time. The house still bears engravings on the wall including graffiti from a visiting St Andrew’s professor James Robison from 1779.

Stories about the tree went quiet for a little while, but in 1820 the tree blew down. If the tree was revered in 1820, it muse have been recognised well before that. As we have only 100 years to cover between Newton’s death and the tree’s unhappy day, the provenance is pretty continuous as myths go.

Sketches were made of it and the broken wood was purchased to make snuff boxes and small trinkets that are in a number of collections. Fortunately the tree remained rooted and re-grew strongly from the base – this is the tree we have now.

In the orchard at Woolsthorpe there are also several ‘Flower of Kent’ apple trees taken from this original, so that when the tree comes to the natural end of its life, there will be ‘descendants’ to carry on the story.

An 1820 sketch of the tree relate clearly to its unusual shape today, although many photos of the tree at Woolsthorpe show completely the wrong one (we have a much prettier, much younger candidate which is often mistaken for the real thing, as so often happens)!

The Apple Tree
The Apple Tree

Inevitably there are some details lost in the mists of time. The story was just that – a story and recollection by Newton – so in truth there may never have been a real tree.

The location and veracity of the tree has been disputed by some, but the Woolsthorpe Flower of Kent tree is recognised as one of the most important heritage trees of Britain. The Tree Council have researched the tree and confirmed that it is age-appropriate.

In 1998, work led by Dr Richard Keesing of York University has included studies of the tree, dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating, concluding that there is “considerable evidence to show that the apple tree presently growing at Woolsthorpe and known as ‘Newton’s apple tree’ is in fact the same specimen which was identified in the middle of the eighteenth century and which may now be 350 years old”.

Many institutions claim to have descendants of the tree but apple trees do not come true to variety from a pip – material has to be grafted to be genetically the same, and we are hoping to start a project to track down all these descendants and their claims, to see what we can verify. Genetic fingerprinting from Richard Keesing’s work will be our starting point.

Susan Haimes produced this article for the National Trust in 2008.

Ann Moynihan
Ann Moynihan

When we visited Woolsthorpe Manor, we were delighted to be shown around the garden by Ann Moynihan who told us about Susan’s story. Ann is a NT Support Officer at the Manor.