A Brief History Of London’s Mulberries
Several readers who visited the exhibition of proposals for the site of the former London Chest Hospital by Crest Nicholson & Circle Homes contacted me in alarm when they discovered the developer planned to construct a new building which appears to be upon the site of the Oldest Mulberry in the East End, even though it is subject to a Tree Protection Order.
The London Chest Hospital developers’ website makes no mention of the historic Mulberry.
Outlining the cultural significance of this celebrated species, it is my pleasure to publish this metropolitan arboreal history by Peter Coles who is currently undertaking a Survey of Mulberries in the capital.
Jacobean Mulberry at the site of the former London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green
At the last count, a survey being carried out by the Conservation Foundation’s new Morus Londinium project has identified over one hundred and thirty-five sites with Mulberry trees in London – and there are likely to be many more, with new trees coming to light every week.
As The Gentle Author discovered, it is fairly straightforward to trace the history of some veteran Mulberries, like those at Syon House and Charlton House, back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But others, like those hiding anonymously in East End gardens or beside the recycle bins on a street corner in Belsize Park, might be described in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as “Lost angels of a ruined paradise.” Yet what was the nature of the horticultural paradise they have fallen from?
A common assumption is that these old Mulberry trees dotted around the city are left over from the failed attempt by James I to start a home-grown silk industry in the seventeenth century. His plan was to rival the lucrative monopolies of France and Italy in silk production and get rich, as they already had. Silkworms feed exclusively on Mulberry leaves – a secret the Chinese managed to keep for over two and a half thousand years – but these trees are not native to Britain.
In 1609, James wrote letters to all his Lord Lieutenants. Appealing to their patriotism, he offered them Mulberry saplings “at the rate of three farthings a plant, or at six shillings the hundred containing five score plants,” or more affordable packets of Mulberry seeds for the less well-off, so that they could establish plantations to feed thousands of silkworms. Around a hundred thousand saplings were imported for this project.
James created his own four-acre Mulberry Garden in the grounds of St James’ Palace – now the north-west corner of the garden behind Buckingham Palace – and an adjacent corner of Green Park. His consort, Queen Anne of Denmark, shared his enthusiasm and also established a Mulberry plantation, complete with silkworm nursery, at Greenwich Palace and another at the Royal Palace at Oatlands in Surrey. The Mulberry in the Queen’s Orchard in Greenwich Park is quite likely a Jacobean survivor, as is the tree at Charlton House.
The surviving Mulberries – and over ninety per cent of those in the Morus Londinium database – are black Mulberries (Morus nigra), a species that is native to what used to be the Persian Empire including present-day Iran, Turkey & Syria, where they are grown for their fruit not their leaves. Yet it was the white Mulberry (Morus alba) that underpinned China’s silk industry, a lesson the Italians and French also learned. Even though the black Mulberry was known to the Romans and grew around the Mediterranean, it was the white Mulberry that the Huguenot French king, Henry IV of France, had been planting in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris to encourage silk production.
Terraces of white Mulberries still survive in the Ardèche, Cevennes & Provence regions of France today, often next to disused or converted magnaneries (silkworm houses) where they supplied the silk industry around Lyons. And it was precisely from these regions that Huguenot weavers fled to England – notably Spitalfields - when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, unleashing persecution against Protestants.
So why did James I, apparently, import and plant thousands of black Mulberries? As silk historian John Feltwell, points out, mature white Mulberries in England can be counted on the fingers of one hand and none can be traced back to the silk industry. James’ advisers knew very well that silkworms thrive on the leaves of white Mulberries.
In 1607, Nicholas Gesse published his The Perfect Use of Silk-wormes, which was a translation of the definitive French textbook on silk & Mulberries, written by horticulturalist, D’Olivier de Serres. This and a book published in 1609 by William Stallenge (who became Keeper of the King’s Mulberry Gardens), entitled Instructions for the Increasing of Mulberrie Trees, clearly explain that, while both black and white Mulberries can be used to feed silkworms, the white should be chosen if possible. These texts also say that silkworms will eat the leaves of the black Mulberry but that the silk is coarser and the thread breaks more easily.
Despite efforts lasting into the reign of Charles II, England’s home-grown silk industry never took off. This is often blamed on the choice of the ‘wrong’ Mulberry but the truth is probably more complex. The English climate does not suit the white Mulberry, which is used to much warmer weather, so it may have been a deliberate choice to plant the black species. After all, this was the height of the ‘Little Ice Age’ in Britain, when the first Frost Fair was held on the Thames in 1607. Perhaps the climactic conditions made it harder to get the timing right to match the supply of Mulberry leaves – even those of the black Mulberry - with the hatching of silkworm larvae?
At the same time, James I was also trying to get a silk industry off the ground at Jamestown, in his North American colony of Virginia. Shiploads of white Mulberries were sent over, although the silkworm was found to be happy with the native red Mulberry (Morus rubra). Another theory is that this discovery may have led English silk producers to underestimate the silkworms’ dislike for leaves of the black Mulberry.
A few decades later, the English Civil War took minds away from what was proving to be a marginal industry. Mulberry plantations were eventually grubbed out, although the Mulberry Garden at St James’ Palace did enjoy success as a Pleasure Garden late into the seventeenth century. John Evelyn & Samuel Pepys both mention visiting it. Today, Buckingham Palace garden houses part of the National Mulberry Collection but Gardens Manager, Mark Lane who started the collection in the nineties, confirms that none are James I’s plantings. When he showed me around, Mark could point out thirty-five named varieties held in the collection, mostly white Mulberries and just a few decades old. The oldest specimen is a cutting from Shakespeare’s Mulberry, taken long after the Bard’s death.
There was a last-ditch attempt to revive London’s silk industry around 1718, when the Raw Silk Company established a plantation of two thousand Mulberry trees and a silkworm nursery in Chelsea Park, between Fulham Rd and King’s Rd – which may have been upon the initiative of Huguenot weavers in Spitalfields. But this only lasted for a few years and, by 1724, the trees and the silkworm house were sold off. Interestingly, Chelsea still has several old Mulberry trees and one is in Mulberry Walk on the site of the original plantation.
It is a mystery why there should be black Mulberries in and around the East End today. While this was the heart of silk weaving, it was never a place where Mulberries were grown on a scale required to produce silk commercially. Around 50,000 cocoons are needed to produce 1 kg of silk thread. That is a lot of silkworms and a lot of leaves, even though silk is very light and 1 kg would make many yards of silk ribbons. Perhaps people planted Mulberries out of nostalgia? It would be interesting to discover if there is any evidence for raising silkworms in the East End. Yet, with their understanding of silk production, why would they have planted black Mulberries?
Although attempts to produce raw silk in England petered out, the country developed a thriving silk industry in the eighteenth century, based upon raw silk imported from Italy, Persia, Bengal & China. This was the heyday of weavers in Shoreditch & Bethnal Green, until the industrial revolution saw the processes of throwing and weaving silk thread mechanised.
Yet there is another strand of the capital’s Mulberry heritage which goes back much further than James I and has nothing to do with silk. Excavations of water-logged Roman sites in London in the seventies found well-preserved Mulberry pips, revealing that Mulberry trees were introduced and cultivated in London as early as the first century AD. They would have been grown for their fruit, which the Romans appreciated in their feasting and its medicinal properties – Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, writes of its value as a mouthwash.
These were also the reasons why black Mulberries were planted in medieval gardens of manor houses and monasteries – particularly the ‘physic gardens’ associated with infirmaries. John Gerard, in his Herball of 1597, writes - “The barke of the root is bitter, hot and drie, and hath a scouring faculty: the decoction hereof doth open the stoppings of the liver and spleen, it purgeth the belly and driveth forth worms.”
Like Spitalfields, much of Central London is built upon the ruins of medieval monasteries, razed after Henry VIII dissolved them. Part of Bartholomew Close, adjacent to the infirmary of the priory church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, was once a Mulberry garden. A very old Mulberry stump was found and grubbed out in the eighteen hundreds but there is a much more recent black Mulberry there today, next to the Lady Chapel of the church.
The Mulberry planted in 1548 at Syon House – formerly a Brigettine monastery founded in 1415 – pre-dates any interest in a silk industry. The Tudor Lambeth Palace has fine old black Mulberries and there is one next door, in what is now the home of the Garden Museum, near to the tomb of landscape gardener, John Tradescant. There is both a black and a white Mulberry in the grounds of the Tudor Fulham Palace, former home of the Bishops of London. And we must not forget the venerable – and threatened – black Mulberry on the site of the London Chest Hospital is on the site of Bishop Bonner’s manor house.
Finally, there was a fad for including black Mulberry trees when public parks were laid out at the end of the nineteenth century. Often these parks – like Brockwell Park – were created in the grounds of much earlier mansions. Vauxhall Park has a young Mulberry trunk sprouting from a much older bole, probably planted when it was laid out in the eighteen-eighties by Fanny Wilkinson, Britain’s first celebrated woman landscape gardener, who also designed Myatt’s Fields Park where there is an old black Mulberry tree to be discovered.
The Morus Londinium project sets out to record and research London’s mulberry trees to raise public awareness and protect them. If you know of a Mulberry or wish to find out more about London’s Mulberries, visit www.moruslondinium.org.
The Tower of London Mulberry
The Haggerston Mulberry
The Dalston Mulberry
The Whitechapel Mulberry
The Stoke Newington Mulberry
The Deptford Mulberry
The Charlton Mulberry
The Charterhouse Mulberry
The Middle Temple Mulberry
The King’s Bench Walk Mulberry
The Oldest Mulberry Tree in Britain at Syon Park
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