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A Plea For The Bethnal Green Mulberry

October 27, 2017
by the gentle author

Next week, Circle Housing & Crest Nicholson who are redeveloping the site of the former London Chest Hospital next to Victoria Park, present a public exhibition of their revised scheme. In spite of a petition launched by the East End Preservation Society and signed by over three thousand people, they are still intent on digging up the ancient Bethnal Green Mulberry, even though there is plenty of room on site for them to move their proposed building by ten metres to spare the venerable tree.

Readers are encouraged to attend the developers’ presentation at Bethnal Green Methodist Church, Approach Rd, E2 9JP on Wednesday 1st November between 2-8pm and put their request in writing that the Mulberry not be dug up. This is very important since any comments recorded must be submitted to the council with the application in November.


Even with revisions, this 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 Circle Housing & Crest Nicholson 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 Daily Telegraph outlining the  scandal of Crest Nicholson’s attempt to dig up the Bethnal Green Mulberry earlier this year

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.

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

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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. October 27, 2017

    I hope very much that the mulberry tree can be saved in the face of so much greed and ignorance. Valerie

  2. Nicholas Davies permalink
    October 27, 2017

    What a shortsighted and insensitive decision. I hope, for the sake of London’s heritage, the Mulberry tree can be preserved in its original spot.

  3. October 27, 2017

    I agree with what has been said and done this mulberry tree must be saved. After all its a war veteran wounded & surviving WW2 having GBH it gave pleasure during the war also providing a valuable vitamin source. John a bus pass poet – PS all trees will help save the planet, more tree friends in, not more out OK!

  4. October 27, 2017

    I will attend and leave a letter. It is just so disheartening that our government and local authorities have such little regard for our heritage and places of historic interest. The Still and Star pub in Aldgate looks like it will be lost too, simply because of greed. The hands off approach by our authorities is absolutely shameful.

  5. Kate Fearnley permalink
    October 27, 2017

    might we be able to sign the petition at Wanstead Tap next week? Mulberry trees are so very special; I loved the one growing in the garden of the Canonbury Tower when it was “our” Theatre.

  6. Joyce Hampton permalink
    October 27, 2017

    I just wanted to let you know that although I live in leafy Surrey I do care very much about London and its history. I have signed the petition, shared on FB and donated. Sometimes its is all the little people together who can shout so loud with one voice and overule the clarion call of business.

  7. Esther Drabkin-Reiter permalink
    October 27, 2017

    It’s great that so many people have signed the petition – but do encourage everyone who has signed the petition to also submit separate objections to this planning application to the council. They could be based on the same template text. My experience in Southwark has been that the council treat petitions as one response, regardless of how many people have signed it. The council will have certain legal duties and policies on protecting the environment which could also be relied on in the planning objection.

  8. October 28, 2017

    If you can’t get there, tweet @circlehousing and @CrestNicholson – I just did. May have no effect at all, but you never know!

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