Digging Up the Oldest Tree In The East End
On Friday, Tower Hamlets Council granted Crest Nicholson, the developers of the former London Chest Hospital, permission to dig up the oldest Mulberry in the East End, which is subject to a Tree Protection Order, and move it out of the way for their proposed development of the site, even though they do not yet have planning permission for construction.
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 two years ago, a dignified tottering specimen known as the Bethnal Green Mulberry. Imported from Persia by James I in the sixteenth century, it is more than four hundred years old and its leaves were intended to feed silkworms cultivated by weavers.
The Black Mulberry originally grew within 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. Once upon a time, the Mulberry stood next to a chapel that was destroyed by a bomb in World War II, leaving the tree’s bark with charred scars to remind us of its history.
My visit was a poignant occasion since the Mulberry stands today in the grounds of the former London Chest Hospital which opened in 1855 and closed forever the week I visited, prior to being handed over 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 was 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.
Subsequently, the Chest Hospital has been listed by Historic England. Yet this appears not to be sufficient protection against proposed destructive alteration to the main building, as part of a gross over-development of luxury flats priced far beyond the pockets of local people. In their haste, without even having planning permission for this development, the developers intend to dig up the ancient Mulberry, even though it is subject to a Tree Preservation Order, and move it out of their way.
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 in spring, coming into leaf once more and renewing itself again after four 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 the bomb is still visible
This pre-war fund-raising leaflet for the Chest Hospital shows the Mulberry tree standing next to the chapel which was destroyed by a bomb during World War II when the Mulberry itself just escaped destruction by a few feet
The London Chest Hospital opened in 1855 and closed in 2015
The proposed redevelopment
You may like to read my other stories about Mulberry trees