At The London Chest Hospital
Plans for the future of the former London Chest Hospital next to Victoria Park are revealed at an exhibition which opens 3-8pm today and 10-2pm on Saturday at the Methodist Church in Approach Rd, Bethnal Green. Circle Housing bought the site from the National Health Service for forty-seven million pounds and we wait to see what their scheme will offer to the 22,000 families on the housing list in the borough – and whether the ancient Mulberry which bears the distinction of being the oldest tree in the East End will survive the redevelopment.
Thanks to an invitation from a reader last year, 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, carved from a bough in 1915, 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 millions 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. So now we await the developers’ plans for this much-loved East End institution and, since the Mulberry is subject to a Tree Preservation Order, we hope this will be sufficient to save it.
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 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
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