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Save The Bethnal Green Mulberry

September 9, 2017
by the gentle author

The East End Preservation Society has launched a petition to save the centuries-old Bethnal Green Mulberry and below is my account of the scandal in which developers Crest Nicholson were unlawfully granted permission to dig up the tree this spring. CLICK HERE TO SIGN THE PETITION

Design by Paul Bommer

Growing in the grounds of the former London Chest Hospital next to Victoria Park, the Bethnal Green Mulberry stands today in the middle of a development site for luxury flats. It is a gnarly old specimen which in local lore is understood to be more than four hundred years old and is believed to be the oldest tree in the East End. Centuries ago, these were the gardens of Bishop Bonner’s Palace and it is he who is credited with planting the Mulberry tree.

I find it a poignant spectacle to view this venerable Black Mulberry. Damaged by a bomb in the Second World War, it has charring still visible upon its trunk which has split to resemble a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. Yet, in spite of its scars and the props that are required to support its tottering structure, the elderly tree produces a luxuriant covering of green leaves each spring and bears a reliably generous crop of succulent fruit every summer.

Astonishingly, it seemed that all this history and a Tree Protection Order are insufficient to protect the venerable Mulberry. This spring, developer Crest Nicholson obtained a waiver from Tower Hamlets Senior Arboricultural Officer, Edward Buckton, permitting them to prune it, dig it up and move it to clear the way for their proposed development, even though this has not yet been approved by the council (headquarters at the appropriately named Mulberry Place).

The decision was made under delegated powers by Buckton on the basis of a report commissioned by the developer from planning consultants ‘Tree: Fabrik’ who conveniently dismissed any notion that this Mulberry is a veteran specimen, suggesting instead that it is a more recent planting which might easily survive having its roots and branches pruned, and being moved out of the way this spring. The first that was known of the decision by members of the public and local councillors was when an announcement was posted on a lamppost in Bethnal Green, precluding the possibility of any consultation.

Enter the heroic White Knight of East End conservation Tom Ridge, a former geography teacher and veteran local heritage campaigner, who issued Judicial Review proceedings at his own expense, claiming that the council had acted unlawfully in granting permission to dig up the tree and thus obtaining a stay of execution for the ancient Mulberry. As expert witness, Ridge employed Chartered Arboriculturist Julian Forbes-Laird who was the technical editor of the British Standard for tree protection.

Forbes-Laird’s report as submitted to the High Court makes compelling reading. “I identify the Mulberry as a veteran tree,” he wrote, “I cannot understand how any reasonable arboriculturist could conclude otherwise.” He quotes Gascoigne’s map of 1703 confirming the location of the Bishop’s Hall and even refers to a woodcut in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs published in 1563 that illustrates the Bishop flogging a martyr in his garden beneath the branches of a young tree which he suggests is the Mulberry in question. He describes the commemorative inkwell kept at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, dating from 1915, with a brass plate explaining it was made from a branch of the Mulberry beneath which Bishop Bonner sat while deciding which heretics to execute.

These scraps of evidence confirm a long-standing cultural history attached to the Bethnal Green Mulberry, which was already considered to be ancient over than a century ago. A feeble claim by the developer that concrete found among the roots confirms the recent origin of the tree receives short shrift from Forbes-Laird, who points out that the Romans used concrete to build the Pantheon. He confirms, “there is no evidence that the Mulberry stands upon modern made ground, meaning that it could, indeed, be as old as is believed.”

Most sobering is Forbes-Laird’s conclusion, “Overall, I consider that the intended tree works offer very little chance of the tree’s survival.” Thankfully, Tom Ridge won the Judicial Review and, in a Consent Order sealed by the High Court in July, the council’s decision was quashed. The Council were also ordered to pay Tom Ridge’s costs, although they are refusing to comply with this part of the judgement.

Even now the Bethnal Green Mulberry is not saved.

In their current proposals, Crest Nicholson have plonked a block of luxury flats exactly where the Mulberry grows, which means that Tower Hamlets planning committee may be confronted with a choice between the tree or the building when the application is considered later this year. Yet it would be a simple matter to move the proposed building within the ample grounds of the former London Chest Hospital to allow the Mulberry sufficient space to flourish. With a little imagination, the flats could even be named Mulberry Court.

Crest Nicholson’s project is a vast overblown development with a very disappointing low level of ‘affordable’ housing, which includes hideous ‘heritage style’ alterations to the listed Chest Hospital building. I call upon them to show some respect to the wishes of local people by saving the Mulberry tree and reconsidering their whole development.

Click here to read my feature in The Telegraph outlining the  history and culture of London Mulberries

Tom Ridge, White Knight of East End Heritage Campaigners (Portrait by Lucinda Douglas Menzies)

Illustration of Bishop Bonner scourging a heretic from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1563

Crest Nicholson’s proposed development

You may like to read my other stories about Mulberries

The Bethnal Green Mulberry

The 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

28 Responses leave one →
  1. September 9, 2017

    I hope very much that the tree can be saved from these barbarians. Thanks to all working to save it. Valerie

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    September 9, 2017

    It’s all too obvious that corrupt dealings have occurred inside Tower Hamlets here.
    The questiona are: Who? And When? And How much?

  3. September 9, 2017

    Has anyone thought of a Village Green Application? When I applied for ones here it used to be,
    No area too small
    Full title TOWN or Village Green so you can register concrete also
    Show access for 20yrs ‘As of Right’ ie no signs saying you use with permission
    Ownership is irrelevant
    Look at the Open Spaces web site

  4. Erica permalink
    September 9, 2017

    signed and shared. It’s disgusting that developers should be allowed to circumvent protections that have been put in place for so long to avoid this exact demolition!

  5. Zena Woodley permalink
    September 9, 2017

    Edward Buckton also responsible for axing a perfectly healthy Robinia in my Square.

  6. September 9, 2017

    Signed and shared.

  7. September 9, 2017

    This mulberry reminds me of the little diner in the film Batteries Not Included.

    It’s astonishing to think that the value of cultural heritage still has to be pointed out and fought for. When I was young and dreamed of going to university in London, it was precisely because of its rich heritage and exciting places to explore with stories to tell that drew me in.

    I look forward to hearing more from the campaign…

  8. Debbie permalink
    September 9, 2017

    Hope this tree is saved. It’s part of the history of that Area.

  9. September 9, 2017

    Signed. This beggars belief. At the very least, why could the plans not be altered to leave room for this one tree? Developers are the devil.

  10. September 9, 2017

    Signed. Good luck on the campaign.

  11. Juliet Trewellard permalink
    September 9, 2017

    Important. Part of the history of this vital area.

  12. Vanessa Homewood permalink
    September 9, 2017

    I used to live down the road in Mulberry House, and so have a special place in my heart for the area. The WWII bombs did enough damage to the area – I am astonished and saddened that the area continues to be ravaged by greed in the 21st Century. Seems this tree, and little slice of history could be easily saved. Thanks for giving us a chance to speak up!

  13. Jane Bartlett permalink
    September 9, 2017

    Much respect and gratitude to Tom Ridge.

    Let’s also be rallied by the knowledge of those plane trees lining the street frontage of Spitalfields’ former Fruit & Wool Exchange — they’re still there, not least due to Lifers’ signatures giving councillors the means to vote down Exemplar Properties’ application to remove them, and insist they protect and work around them.

    It can be done. Should be. Must be.

    Under-resourced and all too easily over-whelmed by developers’ monetary and methological might and mischief, councils such as Tower Hamlets, and Islington, are over-reliant on both delegated-powers decision-making and the Windows-Android-iOS tree management system ‘ezytreev’ with it’s auto-reporting functionality [Is any one at all re-assured by the name? ]

    Im hoping that ‘we’ may be able to help by asking any ‘good’ aboriculturalists we know to please consider the current vacany in Senior Aboriculturist Edward Buckton’s team…


    Tower Hamlets Arboricultural Officer (full-time, permanent)

    Closing date for applications: 10 September 2017

    “[…] The ability to be a strong advocate for trees and the positive role they play in environmental management and quality. […] Experience in planning and development work. “

    SO1 – £29,424 – £31,140


    The appalling precedents and contradictions between stated policy and implementation on the ground have to stop. They have to be stopped, from within, and with help from the ‘outside’.

    I’m yet to find out why but when it came to King Edward Memorial Park/Shadwell Park — and the GBP110K in legal fees already spent by the Council defending this tree-lined public green space — Mr Buckton signed off a deeply flawed AMS (Aboricultural Method Statement) with the executive summary saying one thing and the body of the document something materially different. Both in fact were a misrepresentation.

    Thames Water’s contractor Tideway were initially asserting that 26 trees would be “removed”. The total is likely to be 42 individual trees plus at least 1 “tree group”. And with Mr Buckton’s team imposing no contractual requirement for any to be relocated, even trees with an expected remaining life expectancy of 40-plus years end up being chipped.

    28 down with however many more ‘to go’. Some up to 90 years old, some 15-18-metres high.

    The all too few trees that council and developer have agreed ‘should remain’ include those where there is to be an incursion into the Root Protection Area (RPA) of up to 70% [anything over 23-25% and the trees long-term survival is seriously in doubt].

    A July ‘special order’ (again with Mr Buckton’s delegated powers being called upon) permitted Tideway/CVB to excavate to a depth of 30cm in the immediate vicinities of 10 individuals trees and cut through whatever roots were found there. …The AMS having been produced by a ‘young’ aboriculturalist, employed by Tideway’s contractor CVB, who was less than three months into his new job, his first since graduating.

    Tower Hamlets Officers and elected representatives have been appeased by the promise of ‘2 for 1’ replacement trees.

    …little more than saplings, and, at 84 trees thereby calculated as owed, more than the park can possibly accommodate, so however many — without L.B. Tower Hamlets let alone the community having much of a say — will get redistributed “project wide”, and as a result if, for example, Berkeley Homes want some arboricultural ‘soft landscaping’ for their new luxury flat development at what is now the Tideway Tunnel Chambers Wharf site in Bermondsey then so it be, the trees can be ‘thrown in’ for free.

    So, long live the Bethnal Green Mulberry …not least because if it doesn’t what a triumph for short-term profiteering and private-sector dominance of local democracy, ‘place-making’ and cultural history it would surely represent.

  14. Chris F permalink
    September 9, 2017

    QUOTE: “The Council were also ordered to pay Tom Ridge’s costs, although they are refusing to comply with this part of the judgement”. A local Council refusing to obey a Court judgement? Who ever heard of such a thing? (Hint of sarcasm) Maybe the Court Bailiffs or the Police should be sent to the Council offices and ordered to arrest the leader of the Council. Some developers (Not all) obviously don’t see beauty in a natural environment when looking at a development opportunity, but only see pound signs….

  15. Jane Bartlett permalink
    September 9, 2017

    A Tree Protection Order: tree, protection, an Order — what’s not to understand.

    The old Mulberry and indeed its legal status must stand.

    If this one goes none of East London’s trees are truly safe from the developers ‘diggers’ (insert ‘gold’ or ‘grave’ as appropriate)

    ‘Arbori-culturalist’ — Mr Buckton, the clues in the name, the responsibility is as stated in the job-title. Trees are culture — history, geography, identity…

  16. Sally hiller permalink
    September 9, 2017

    We fought hard to save london chest hospital with numerous fund raising fêtes and bazaars. Please keep this ancient mulberry tree. Why cut down such a majestic specimen.

  17. September 9, 2017

    Thanks for spreading the word. Signed the petition, and also shared with a friend here in the Hudson Valley who has organized a project to protect a magnificent towering Elm tree, high atop a hill with a view of the Catskills. It wasn’t in danger of being cut down, thank goodness, but was threatened by a disease, needed treatment, follow-up, etc. Thanks to her efforts, we all drive by the tree up on that beautiful promontory and think with gratitude about her interventions and caring. She was moved by your efforts, of course, and has shared on Facebook.
    People love trees — and are moved to protect them, all over the planet.

  18. pauline taylor permalink
    September 9, 2017

    Signed straight away, the thought of this act of vandalism is unbearable. When oh when are developers going to be made to stop even thinking of destroying a lovely living tree like this.

  19. September 9, 2017

    Ahhh. The venal desires of Tower Hamlets Council to allow any amount of housing to be built at the extent of the borough’s history. I believe the council will only be contented when it has laid waste the entire east end and flattened it to build as much mixed housing developments as possible – sold to the public on the basis of the provision of an insultingly small number of ‘affordable’ (don’t make me laugh!) homes. The problem here is that generations of east enders with an investment in the history and community of the area have moved out.

  20. Janine Evelyn-Wilson permalink
    September 9, 2017

    No more wanton destruction!

  21. Chris Ashby permalink
    September 9, 2017

    Just signed. Thanks for drawing to our attention.
    Chris A.

  22. E Brining permalink
    September 9, 2017

    Do not dig up or harm this mulberry tree.

  23. Mary Moulder permalink
    September 9, 2017

    May God protect His Creation, this legally historical tree, from the cultural greed blight of humans. This mulberry tree has only given to our Huguenot heritage, and should not be held guilty of being in the way of greed.

  24. Carole Copeland permalink
    September 10, 2017

    My father’s family were from Bethnal Green and he played in Victoria park in the 1930’s
    No more wanton destruction from greedy developers.
    We are having a very similar fight in East Kent right now so good luck,

  25. E Berris permalink
    September 11, 2017

    It was the London trees I missed dreadfully when I lived in the botanists’ paradise that is New Zealand. Every effort should be made to save them, especially those with such a history as this mulberry. It is clearly seems too fragile to be moved successfully but should continue to flourish if left where it stands – a real pleasure for everyone living and working in the new development.

  26. Helga Edstrom permalink
    September 14, 2017

    Shared in the West Midlands and wider. We lost a beautiful mature Plane Tree thanks to Birmingham City Council who deemed it to be in the wrong place. It had been happy there for 250 years…… Murder.

  27. Maggie Thwaites permalink
    September 20, 2017

    I am sick of big business and Councils many of whom employ people who have no idea or interest in the history and heritage of this country or this particular area in dispute and how important it is to so many of us.

  28. Adele Leffman permalink
    August 23, 2018

    Some years ago an ancient tree in the garden of the Pewterers’ Hall in Oat Lane was threatened by a large American firm who were building on the adjoining site. This would have blotted out any light for the tree and condemned it to a slow death. A petition was launched and happily the owners accepted a different design which threw even more sunlight on the tree than hitherto. It also resulted in an amazing feat of engineering which gave them a most striking building. To their everlasting credit they paid a much larger bill than expected and did it with a very good grace.

    So big money doesn’t always win, David conquered Goliath and we must fight on in the hope that the mulberry tree will also survive as it has done all these years.

    Adele Leffman, City of London Guide

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