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The Oldest Tree In The East End

April 24, 2015
by the gentle author

Thanks to an invitation from one of the readers, I had the opportunity of making the acquaintance of the oldest tree in the East End yesterday, a dignified tottering specimen known as the Bethnal Green Mulberry. Imported from Persia by James I in the sixteenth century, it is more than five hundred years old and once served to feed the silkworms cultivated by local weavers.

The Mulberry originally grew in the grounds of Bishop Bonner’s Palace that stood on this site and an inkwell in the museum of the Royal London Hospital, made in 1915 from a bough, has a brass plate engraved with the sardonic yarn that the Bishop sat beneath it to enjoy shelter in the cool of the evening while deciding which heretics to execute.

Yesterday’s visit was a poignant occasion since the Mulberry stands today in the grounds of the London Chest Hospital which opened in 1855 and closed forever last week prior to being handed over by the National Health Service today, in advance of redevelopment. My only previous visit to the Hospital was as a patient struggling with pneumonia, when I was grateful to come here for treatment and feel reassured by its gracious architecture surrounded by trees. Of palatial design, the London Chest Hospital is a magnificent Victorian philanthropic institution where the successful campaign to rid the East End of tuberculosis in the last century was masterminded.

It was a sombre spectacle to see workmen carrying out desks and stripping the Hospital of its furniture, and when a security guard informed me that building had been sold for twenty-five million and would be demolished since “it’s not listed,” I was shocked at the potential loss of this beloved structure and the threat to the historic tree too. Yet as far as I am aware, no formal decision has been made about the future of the Hospital’s fabric and, thankfully, the Mulberry is subject to a Tree Preservation Order.

Gainly supported by struts that have become absorbed into the fibre of the tree over the years, it was heartening to see this ancient organism coming into leaf once more and renewing itself again after five centuries. The Bethnal Green Mulberry has seen palaces and hospitals come and go, but it continues to bear fruit every summer regardless.

The Mulberry narrowly escaped destruction in World War II and charring from a bomb is still visible

The London Chest Hospital opened in 1855 and closed forever last week

Ancient Mulberry in Victoria Park which may be a contemporary of the Bethnal Green Mulberry

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26 Responses leave one →
  1. Phyllis permalink
    April 24, 2015

    Magnificent.

  2. David Tarrant permalink
    April 24, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author,

    I have only recenty discovered Spitalfields Life as a result of a purchase from Andrew Coram, antique dealer. Your postings are a delight to read.

    I feel an affinity to your fascinating articles as my maternal grandmother was of Huguenot descent and in the early 1960s I was a student at Queen Mary College in Mile End.

    With best regards,

    David Tarrant
    Dorset

  3. April 24, 2015

    The tree is wonderful. We have an ancient mulberry tree here in Kaiserswerth, too, also propped up, and a reminder of the silk weavers who lived here in centuries past. So sorry they will be demolishing the Chest hospital, what a wanton destruction of a historical building. Valerie

  4. April 24, 2015

    Tree Preservation orders are open to abuse, mistakes can be made by contractors etc that then make the tree unsafe and an excuse is made to get rid of it , needs to be kept an eye on it to ensure it safely survives what ever will happen as the building is either demolished or developed

  5. Sharon Carr permalink
    April 24, 2015

    The tree has survived against all odds. What a wonderful story but I am so sorry to hear of the Hospital’s intended fate. What a magnificent building. I thank you for your gentle observations but despair why these historical buildings cannot be retained and put to community use. Why, again, are publically owned lands and buildings being sold off to private developer? I love London but despair at this unnecessary, wanton destruction. The same applies to other cities in the UK. Birmingham has magnificent Victorian, Art Deco, etc buildings but, as a city, does not value its architectural heritage except for the chosen few. Why do those in political power think they know better? The land and buildings are technically owned by us, the tax payer, yet we are not consulted. Please continue with your gently told writings. I will continue to enjoy reading your work. Very best wishes

  6. Susan Hoyle permalink
    April 24, 2015

    Another wonderful post, thank you: I start my day with your blog. One query: you say this lovely tree was imported by James I in the sixteenth century — which is either the wrong monarch or the wrong century, and does not compute with the stated age of the tree.

  7. Liz Philipson permalink
    April 24, 2015

    We live near Haggerston Station and have an extremely old mulberry tree in our garden in about the same state as that in the blog. It was also planted for the Huguenot weavers silkworms and is the last remaining tree of an avenue. Our very elderly neighbours remember there being more but people took them down ‘because the birds dropped red berries and juice over your washing’

  8. April 24, 2015

    May I introduce? MY TREE, a more than 500 years old Oak Tree at the Sensenstein near Kassel, a natural monument:
    http://www.fotocommunity.de/pc/pc/mypics/1954591/display/35991760

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  9. Vicky permalink
    April 24, 2015

    A fabulous tree! But I too worry that the developers will happily accept being fined for destroying the tree in order to gain a clear site. And what a magnificent building. Oh dear.

  10. Neville Turner permalink
    April 24, 2015

    The ancient Mulberry tree and The London Chest Hospital are relatives the hospital which deat with respiratory chest and cardiac problems was situated to be near the clean air and open space of Victoria Park which has many plants and trees,the ancient Mulberry being the elder patron of park and hospital.Park,hospital and Mulberry tree
    are a Menage a trois,long may they be together.

  11. Kate Hodgkin permalink
    April 24, 2015

    There was a mulberry tree in the playground of my school in Mile End in the 1970s – Central Foundation Girls’, when we moved there from the old Spitalfields site. I remember dark splotches on the ground every year, and girls used to throw the fruit at one another – I don’t think I realised at the time that we should have been picking and eating them, what a waste! I don’t know how old, but it was big. I wonder if it’s still there.

  12. Linda M permalink
    April 24, 2015

    I do so hope both the hospital building and the mulberry tree can be preserved. My ancestors were weavers in Spitalfields and in their memory I have decided to plant a mulberry tree in my own garden. Thanks so much for this post GA.

  13. John DLC permalink
    April 24, 2015

    The Mulberry tree is still found on the badge of Morpeth school (my alma mater) nearby.
    Knew the Chest Hospital was going but didn’t realise that time had come.
    It was also the last place I saw my Uncle Sam; where I went the day after my Mum died ( to take back her equipment) and where I picked up my father-in-law one Christmas morning.

  14. April 24, 2015

    We have a mulberry tree in the grounds of the building where we have just moved to with our secondhand bookshop in Colchester, and we have been told that there is a ‘legend’ that this tree is also one of those imported by James I in the 17th century. Our building was built circa 1450 so it predates even the mulberry tree and the history of the whole site is fascinating.

    I echo the warning about the preservation order, unscrupulous developers just ignore these orders.

  15. BPL permalink
    April 25, 2015

    Is there a petition going for the hospital (and tree)? I didn’t realise. My husband grew up across the road, and went to the boys’ school opposite. Utterly depraved – if this was West London it would be impossible to tear down such a building.

  16. Chris Dixon permalink
    April 25, 2015

    I was about to write and tell you about the mulberry tree that was situated in the playground of my old school, Coborn School For Girls, in Bow Road, when I read Kate Hodgkin’s comment above. Kate and I are, of course, remembering the same tree as Central Foundation Girls’ School took over the site when Coborn moved to Upminster.

    Like Kate, I’ve no idea how old the tree was but I do remember that it had quite a substantial girth. If it is still there in the school playground perhaps Central Foundation would allow you to photograph it!

  17. Gabrielle Dempsey permalink
    April 25, 2015

    Writing from the U.S. to say how much I enjoy your evocative, expressive prose and photographs; I discovered your newsletter because my brother was visiting London & staying in the East End in recent weeks, and I wanted to travel with him vicariously, so I was reading up on the old neighborhood… Now I wouldn’t miss your posts for anything!!
    I so hope you win your battle, wherever you can, against these heartless & witless developers who apparently cannot use their imaginations for anything except picturing further profits.
    I am enchanted by the story of these ancient trees. At a place I lived one summer while growing up there was a big old mulberry in a field full of wild rabbits; all the kids hung out there, eating berries, enjoying the shade, organizing games… It was our special zone, all the summer days. I have loved them ever since.
    Keep writing, Gentle Author!
    Gabrielle, now a forever fan

  18. Harry permalink
    April 25, 2015

    Kate and Chris – you may be pleased to know that the school which replaced it was in fact rebuilt around, and named after the tree. It’s now the ‘Mulberry School for Girls.’

  19. Juliet permalink
    April 25, 2015

    I live only yards from the chest hospital – and we have seen the hoardings go up this week around the hospital railings. I knew that the land on which the chest hospital (and our house) stands was once Bonners Fields, but I had no idea that a tree from the era of the Bishops Palace still survived.
    Thank you for the pictures!

  20. Chris Forbes permalink
    April 25, 2015

    So sorry to see the closure of The London Chest Hospital. I can`t believe this fine building is going to be demolished to make way for new housing. So glad to hear the Bethnal Green Mulberry has a preservation order on it though.
    As a point of interest, the London Chest Hospital School of Nursing Badge awarded to nurses who completed cardiothoracic training courses featured the Mulberry Tree.

  21. April 26, 2015

    I am extremely sad and down. And my weekend I wanted to spend at the “Earth Day” is gone… My first Digital-Camera, a CANON 950 IS, which a friend gave to me for try out, fell down last night and remained destroyed… What have I done to deserve this???

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  22. Tamara permalink
    April 27, 2015

    Of course you know this is, along with all the others James I had planted, a black mulberry and consequently inedible to silk worms? This is why the English silk industry never took off!

  23. April 27, 2015

    Is it really true that the main building isn’t listed? Or just what the security guard said? I’d be really suprised if it isn’t. There are a lot of other buildings in the hosptial grounds that are newer, quite horrible and some in pretty bad condition. No-one would be upset if they were knocked down. But the main 1855 building? They’d be insane to knock that down.

  24. the gentle author permalink*
    April 27, 2015

    I can confirm that although there are Tree Preservation Orders in place for several trees on this site, the London Chest Hospital is not listed either locally or nationally

  25. Mareck permalink
    June 10, 2015

    If they follow the plans in the sale document it looks like the area where this particular tree won’t be built on (but will be rather close!) For those who’ve never been the tree is situated near the left corner of hospital.
    If they don’t at least keep the facade they’re crackers…

    http://www.essentia.uk.com/assets/000/000/212/The_London_Chest_original.pdf?1422030910

  26. Emma Jacob permalink
    May 30, 2016

    I worked at the London Chest in the ICU. I loved that hospital and it always felt like ‘home’ to me. Can’t quite believe it has shut (although I knew it was going to happen).
    I also can’t understand why it isn’t listed!! I fear for the tree, like others have said, it is almost certain to be ‘accidentally damaged’ to the extent it has to be removed – the fine is much less than the potential profit that can be made here.
    End of an era!!

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