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Digging Up the Oldest Tree In The East End

April 12, 2017
by the gentle author

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. 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

Click here to read about the Save The Chest Hospital campaign

You may like to read my other stories about Mulberry trees

TheĀ Haggerston Mulberry

The Dalston Mulberry

The Whitechapel Mulberry

The Mile End Mulberry

The Stoke Newington Mulberry

The Spitalfields Mulberry

The Oldest Mulberry in Britain

Three Ancient Mulberry Trees

A Brief History of London Mulberries

37 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Gray permalink
    April 12, 2017

    I find myself hardly able to see to type this comment through the tears I’m shedding over the fate of this grand old sentinel of the East End. I doubt that it will survive it’s “transplant”. And so another part of history is consigned to the dustbin. I wish a curse on “developers” who seldom improve anything but their own bank balance.

  2. gabrielle permalink
    April 12, 2017

    How can this be allowed to happen?! What chance a last minute reprieve?

  3. Bethea Jenner permalink
    April 12, 2017

    What a sad blog to read this morning. It seems that nothing these frightful developers choose to do can be stopped only postponed. I am a born Londoner but left London a few years ago for various reasons one of which was financial. I visit often but find every time I do some familiar landmark or area is either covered in plastic & scaffolding or replaced by some hideous phallic manspreading atrocity. I love reading your posts but sometimes they make me cry.

  4. Robin permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Sadly, moving this ancient treasure will probably kill it. especially if they try to move it during it’s active period. Much better odds for survival during it’s dormancy, but even then, given it’s great age,it will probably be it’s demise. Very sad. When will the City planners get it???? London is fast becoming a foreign city. A place that it’s citizens of 50-100 yrs ago would not recognize. This is your own history being buried and rebuilt with steel and glass.They must be stopped. Even those old dirty doss houses could have been cleaned up and fortified as landmarks of how things were…now they are all gone…everything is almost gone.

  5. David Bishop permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Thank you Gentle Author for this story which touches my heart. My wife was an inpatient at the London Chest Hospital in 2011. When I took our children (then aged 6 and 4) to
    visit her, making a den out of fallen tree branches in the hospital gardens was a great distraction for them. Thank you for raising awareness of the significant history of this place.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 12, 2017

    “People who know the price of everything & the value of nothing”

  7. Eddie Johnson permalink
    April 12, 2017

    When I read this magnificent article I cried. As a boy I walked past the hospital through the park countless times and used to wave at the men on the balcony, they were wrapped in hospital red blankets and fresh air was part of the treatment.

    Is there no end to what we have to put up with, the sheer greed, not only the developers but the councils who seem to lie down willingly to be raped and stripped of all dignity for a pot of money, dare I say it but I smell a few, a lot of back- handers here. The tree must stay and so should the lovely building that has graced Victoria Park for so long….rise up, don’t let the developers near.

  8. April 12, 2017

    Marvellous piece as always. So hope this piece of living history can be saved.

  9. Anne permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Shame on tower hamlets for allowing this to happen .
    The murder of a tree .

  10. April 12, 2017

    We’re lucky enough to have a very old mulberry tree in our garden. These are quite special trees: both characterful and productive. Is the Bethnal Green Mulberry tree really on its way out, despite its many friends? I hope to read better news soon.

  11. April 12, 2017

    Sad news today.

    Who cares about an old, gnarled tree? Only gentle romantics. And what of history? Naught it would seem.

  12. Malcolm permalink
    April 12, 2017

    The murder and rape of London by the darkness of developers.
    A sad post and perhaps this is end of all that was great about this City.

  13. April 12, 2017

    A tree preservation order is sacred and rightly so. You see, trees cannot cry for help or tell us when they are sad. They have to rely on Ministerial directives, to help and protect our National treasures. Old trees like us resent change their roots go deep into history. Spitalfields L has a good track record for documenting old trees and is a great friend of the Mulberry. I hope we hear from the London tree huggers and tree people. !Remember the 500 year old Brimmon Oak in Wales it was saved in 2016, here a new bypass was built further away to save this old oak its still in situ for the public to enjoy, lots of people power helped. Poet John

  14. Zoe Mason permalink
    April 12, 2017

    This is terrible, surely this cannot happen? :0(

  15. Leana Pooley permalink
    April 12, 2017

    This is heart-breaking news. These ancient trees should be accorded the same status as Grade 1 listed buildings – they are so important as landmarks, as history and for giving our surroundings status and beauty.

  16. April 12, 2017

    Again Tower Hamlets Councillors put developers before the environment.

  17. Sue permalink
    April 12, 2017

    What on earth is the value of a TPO if it can just be overturned?
    It is criminal.

  18. Sparks permalink
    April 12, 2017

    It leaves me speechless … companies nowadays get away with things like this. Money really does talk loudest in the world.

    I can only hope that, if the tree is moved, they use the most expert and experienced people to do the job so, hopefully, it will survive.

  19. Barbara Hague permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Unbelievable that somebody has permission to wreck an ancient tree to build yet more LUXURY FLATS (that locals cannot buy or rent, and so pointless to Londoners), before planning permission is granted. I guess planning permission is more likely to be granted if the tree isn’t in the way!
    Don’t the local council care about our history?! Probably not around in the war.

  20. Peter Coles permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Thanks for this. I hope the tree can be saved where it is. Unfortunately there are loopholes in a tree preservation order for example if the trees can’t be seen easily by the general public. Capability Brown moved hundreds of mature trees but not this old. He even invented a carriage for the purpose. I think an old heritage tree was moved successfully in Oxford so there may be hope. If Bishop Bonner sat under it it must have been 20 years old at least in about 1550. That would make it as old or older than the Syon House mulberries. But 200 or 400 it deserves to be preserved.

  21. April 12, 2017

    Please do not mourn the loss of something precious while there is still a chance to protect it: what is needed is urgent legal advice and immediate action to challenge the decision. Surely there are lawyers who can advise how best to proceed here – or others who can organise this, and help to arrange crowdfunding if necessary?

  22. JeanM permalink
    April 12, 2017

    It was with great sadness I read about the demise of the London Chest Hospital and the
    fate of the wonderful Mulberry Tree. What is the point of giving buildings and grand old
    trees a listed status if they can be ultimatey destroyed and replaced by some anonymous
    structure that is just hideous. London is becoming just like any other major city, filled with
    these badly designed monstrous structures. Our history and the many priceless treasures
    we once had used to be envied by other countries now they have mostly been destroyed and
    now London is becoming as bland as other non-descript Capital cities. The poor tree will
    not survive being moved, probably the developers know this and do not care about it.
    I am just pleased that I remember a London that did still have wonderful buildings and
    something of historical interest around every corner. These developers and planners have no soul and curses upon them.

  23. Ann Meacher permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Can nothing be done if the tree has a protection order on it? As always finance has a greater significance than history, environment, people. Its appalling when the develops do not even have planning permission.

  24. Robert Redford permalink
    April 12, 2017

    A beautifully crafted article, as usual, but a sad subject. I was born in London and had a very happy childhood there. Alas I cannot afford to live there now and it’s sad to see that the developers are now achieving what the Luftwaffe failed to do in the Second World War ! What point is there in a tree preservation order if a developer can literally drive a coach and horses, or in this case a JCB, right through it. The only hope is that the tree is treated with the respect that it’s age and history deserve and that the specialist that moves it is up to the job.
    Might be interesting to make a formal request to Tower Hamlets about who is being selected to perform this important task.

  25. April 12, 2017

    Councils everywhere have a disgraceful disregard for heritage and an obsession with raising money through new council tax payers. This is another shocking example of their single-issue thinking. One of the problems is that those who write the proposals are often extremely young, often from another country with not much history (I’m thinking of Australia, as an example) and no understanding of the difference between that and a country with a long history. All they see is potential footprint. In Barnet, there’s a TfL proposal which means demolishing and reconstructing the Grade II listed Clock Tower War Memorial, installed shortly after WWI – so TfL can build a few flats above a new bus station. Let’s not build nice flats in nice areas; let’s stick them in polluted, noisy, unpleasant surroundings – and trash everything in our way to do it. It’s for the money! Here, this handsome building and an historically important and area-enhancing tree are to be massacred in favour of 350 new flats. Greed and lack of integrity drive local politics these days. Section 106 money is the greedy developer’s way of effecting to have a conscience. Pay back – after destruction. It’s the same as a fine for a crime – but made to look acceptable. I’m not fooled. What can we do to stop this absurdly selfish scheme?

  26. s.n. permalink
    April 12, 2017

    they paved paradise
    Put up a parking lot
    With a pink hotel, a boutique
    And a swinging hot spot
    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    ’til it’s gone?

  27. April 12, 2017

    Oh, this is just *heartbreaking*

  28. April 12, 2017

    This was a difficult and important post to read today.
    Sadness, regret, incredulity, disgust — and the unsettling feeling that common sense
    most certainly does NOT drive decisions and policies anymore.

  29. Melanie Gadsdon permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Words fail me. I am too angry. Surely where there a will there’s a way?

  30. Emma Hutchinson permalink
    April 12, 2017

    So what is the point of a tree preservation order then? Come to that, what is the point of listed building status? I have often been a patient at the London Chest Hospital and I am saddened by these reports.

  31. gary arber permalink
    April 12, 2017

    A possible compromise would be to design the new block with a central courtyard around the tree

  32. curvywitch permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Ah yes! Central government strips funding from local councils meaning they can no longer afford to retain the ecologists and archaeologists who previously commented on the environmental and built heritage issues that developers ignore in their planning applications and then they rewrite planning guidance in of a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ which basically means saying yes to developers. Enjoy more luxury flats and small gardened rabbit hutches being built on our green spaces and losing more of our vital natural habitats- welcome to New Britain: a place where the politicians don’t give a fuck.

  33. Sarah Johnson permalink
    April 12, 2017

    This tree is protected. Protection means they cannot cut it down or remove it. This is outrageous.

  34. Cathy permalink
    April 12, 2017

    Tower Hamlets Council are just the utterly morally bankrupt. I honestly feel like their corporate strategy is to destroy anything left of London so foreign developers can build their glass shit all over it. Is there any way to do a Vote Of No Confidence in a Council? Is there any emergency order that can protect this tree?

    I don’t go to London any more as I can’t bear what’s happened to it. There will be NOTHING left of the London that is depicted in film, book and theatre that spans over 500 years. Of course a City changes, it doesn’t look like ti did in Shakespeare’s time but the buildings we have that represent what most people think of as ‘London’ are still useful, serviceable and beautiful. To destroy it is just murder in my eyes.


  35. Lori permalink
    April 13, 2017

    Like everyone else who has commented on this post I am shocked, saddened and disgusted to read about what is proposed for this lovely old building and Mulberry tree. How greedy developers are being permitted to destroy buildings of such quality and replace them with hideous monstrosities is a question that dominates my thoughts now when I am in London, of course I do know the answer and that is money,money money! Greed greed,greed! I cannot help but feel ashamed to be British when I see the wanton destruction of historic buildings and landmarks and the shocking levels of inequality and poverty that exists, its all wrong, very wrong .

  36. Carolyn Badcock permalink
    April 14, 2017

    “Imported from Persia by James I in the sixteenth century”…. These words scream so loudly to me and leave me thinking… What a disgusting act it would be if this tree is moved.

    Could it not be possible for the unit which is built nearest to this tree and the unit looking down onto it, to be priced so the new owners pay at least one MILLION pounds more, just to have this treasure outside their window?!!!! Surely, that’s possible.

    This treasure must stay!


  37. Pauline Poyntz permalink
    April 14, 2017

    This is really disheartening news. I am appalled that there is such little regard for a piece of living history. And one that has a so called protection order!
    What Philstines these ‘developers’ must be’. Could the dear old tree not have become a focal point of any new planning for a site to be used by, and I imagine for, ‘PEOPLE’?
    It cannot be too late surely?
    Trees like this evoke feelings of peace and serenity and create an atmosphere of wellbeing around themselves .
    Let’s hope someone can see ‘ A Bigger Picture’ and leave this old Mulberry exactly where it Stands today.

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