“WE regret to announce the death of Mr John Clayton, for many years town clerk of Newcastle, and well known over the whole country as an eminent antiquary,” said The Northern Echo of July 15, 1890. “The melancholy event took place at two o’clock yesterday afternoon at the residence of the venerable gentleman, The Chesters, near Hexham.”

Mr Clayton, 98 when he died, is now believed to be the man who planted the famous sycamore tree at Sycamore Gap, the one so cruelly felled on September 28.

The Northern Echo: How the Echo reported the death of John Clayton in 1890John Clayton's obituary in The Northern Echo in 1890

Initial reports of the tree’s destruction said that it was up to 300 years old, which mystified many people, not least Billy Mollon who discovered newspaper reports from 1989 when the National Trust feared the tree was dying and so planted a sapling alongside it. Those 1989 reports said the tree was “well over 60 years old” and that it “probably seeded itself 100 years ago”.


However, now the Trust says: “ This iconic sycamore tree was planted in the late 1800s by the previous landowner, John Clayton, to be a feature in the landscape. The land and the tree came into our care in the 1940s.”

This makes sense for, as the Echo’s obituary says, Mr Clayton was an “eminent antiquary” – so eminent, in fact, that he is regarded as the man who saved Hadrian’s Wall.

The Northern Echo: Hanging on the wall is a portrait of John Clayton, the person behind much of the excavations at the fort. Picture: English HeritageThe Clayton Collection on display in Chesters' fort on Hadrian's Wall. Hanging on the wall is a portrait of John Clayton. Picture: English Heritage

The obituary says: “The deceased gentleman found considerable time to give to antiquarian studies, his first stimulus in this direction being probably furnished by his connection with the estate of Walwick Chesters, which contains a part of the Roman Wall, the foundations of the Roman bridge across the North Tyne, on the site of a Roman station.”

His father, Nathaniel, bought this fabulous estate when John was four, and the Chesters mansion had a Roman fort, Cilurnum, in its front garden, which was full of ancient treasures.

The Northern Echo: "The ruined Roman fort at Chesters, Hadrian's Wall, NorthumberlandThe ruined Roman fort at Chesters on Hadrian's Wall which John Clayton was the first to excavate

Nathaniel was a solicitor and the town clerk of Newcastle – effectively the council’s legal brains. John entered his practice, the largest in the North East, in 1815 and followed him as town clerk in 1822, a position he held until 1867. He was very involved in the 1830s in the creation of Grainger Town, the neo-classical streets in the centre of Newcastle. They were built by Richard Grainger, a client of Mr Clayton, and one of the streets is named Clayton Street.

The Northern Echo: File photo dated 31/07/13 of Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. One of the UK's most photographed trees has come down overnight after being "deliberately felled," the Northumberland National Park Authority has said. IssueThe Sycamore Gap tree which the National Trust says Mr Clayton planted shortly before his death in 1890. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

John became phenomenally wealthy – he left an estate worth £76m in today’s values – and he bought up about 20 miles of wall, including the forts of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, Vindolanda and Carrovan. He forbade quarrying next to the wall, banned the pilfering of Roman stone, performed the first archaeological explorations, and consolidated the remains.


The visible remains of Chesters Roman cavalry fort, where 500 troops were stationed for 300 years, are largely due to his excavations, and the fort’s museum contains his collection of 11,000 finds and 12,000 coins and is watched over by a large portrait of him.

The Northern Echo: Forensic investigators from Northumbria Police examine the felled Sycamore Gap tree, on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. A 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage in connection with the cutting down of one of theThe sad stump

Tragically, the tree that he planted more than 135 years ago is no more, although there are hopes that it will sprout once more from its sad stump.

The Northern Echo: The Clayton Collection at Chesters fort. Picture: English HeritageThe Clayton Collection in Chesters fort. Picture: English Heritage