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The Oldest Tree in Bethnal Green

August 27, 2015
by the gentle author

(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

You might also  like to read about

The Haggerston Mulberry

The Dalston Mulberry

The Whitechapel Mulberry

The Stoke Newington Mulberry

The Oldest Mulberry in Britain

Three Ancient Mulberry Trees

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Shawdian permalink
    August 27, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos. What an honour to see such a fabulous aged tree in all its centuries of beauty. I wish I could cuddle this Mulbury tree :) it has seen and lived through so many changes of human kind. The only other Mulbury I have kissed and cuddled is when I was Custodian of and lived at the home of playwright ‘George Bernard Shaw’ (1856-1950) who was very proud of his Mulberry tree he planted in his garden at Shaw’s Corner. My husband made home made wine from the succulant huge Mulberries it luxurianlty produced. Not many of these trees exist now in comparison. We should treasure them.

  2. BPL permalink
    August 27, 2015

    It’s a frustrating situation. My husband and his brothers all grew up and went to school around Approach Road. My mother-in-law was a headmistress nearby. I went to school here too. And we own a flat overlooking the Chest Hospital today. If you ask Tower Hamlets for information they wash their hands, and point at St. Barts. When you get in touch with St. Barts their PR machine very politely stonewalls. I had hoped to drum up support via Friends of Victoria Park but they also declined, saying it was beyond their remit.
    I love the Chest Hospital. It’s a stunning building, lost in time. And if it is torn down, it will be a case of everyone feeling remorse afterwards.

  3. Sharon Carr-Wu permalink
    August 27, 2015

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for writing of this fabulously ancient tree once more. The tree is safe, subject to a preservation order but, unfortunately, not so for the former London Chest Hospital; a most elegant building. There seems to be an “epidemic” in London (and elsewhere in the UK) to redevelop sites formerly in public ownership in such a way that is detrimental to the locality and to the community. The redevelopment of Dalston Lane in Hackney and the London Wool and Fruit Exchange in Spitalfields being two examples where the views of the local communities (plus others) have been totally overridden by local politicians and the business interests involved. The plans proposed for both sites are anodyne, functional and from anaesthetic sense do not sit well within the local areas i.e. having that sense of structurally “belonging” to the area. Modern architectural designs can sit amazingly well with the old and blend together, forming a empathetic relationship that grows with time. What’s proposed for both sites does not have that empathetic blend. Thank you for your gentle observations of London’s East End. I will continue to read these with great pleasure and at times, with a gentle sense of regret as well as joy.

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