The Oldest Tree in Bethnal Green
(Celebrating the sixth anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the last twelve months, before recommencing with new stories on 31st August)
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, 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.
My 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 April prior to being put up for sale by the National Health Service 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 this spring
Ancient Mulberry in Victoria Park which may be a contemporary of the Bethnal Green Mulberry