The mulberry miraculously survived the utter devastation caused by bombing of the London Chest Hospital, carefully cordoned off amongst the debris.
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On the trail of the Mulberry tree

It is nothing short of miraculous that Mulberry trees have survived in the UK given they don’t self-seed and are non-native to the country.

It is maybe the tenacity of the tree and the refugees who used mulberries to weave themselves into the community 200 hundred years ago, that one of the last remaining Mulberry trees in East London – here in Bethnal Green – has been the subject of a long campaign to save it from the demolition tools of property developers.

In May 2021, following a four year campaign, the High Court retracted planning permission to redevelop the London Chest Hospital into flats, and in doing so, saved the East End’s oldest tree from its relocation and likely, eventual demise.

The decision is a testament to how the Mulberry tree has become a symbol of a broader fight to preserve the community’s heritage, as well as its environment. Most of the trees have now disappeared, but look closely and we can still see evidence of how the tree and its associated industry have defined our neighbourhood of Bethnal Green.

Mulberry trees were first brought to Britain by the Romans for their believed medicinal value. This particular tree in the London Chest Hosptial, however, was likely planted as part of James I’s vision for the nation to produce raw silk: silkworms feed on an exclusive mulberry tree diet. 

In the mid-16th century, the tree grew in the grand grounds of Bishop Hall, palace and home to Bishop ‘Bloody’ Bonner, who was instrumental in the persecution of Protestants under Mary I of England. 

Although the production of silk was relatively unsuccessful, the country’s silk industry was revived in the eighteenth century when the raw material was imported from elsewhere. Thus began the heyday of silk weavers populating Bethnal Green and Spitalfields, forming the heart of the city’s industrial landscape. 

In a deft and ironic swerve in history, French Huguenots (Protestants) sought refuge in London, fleeing religious persecution in their tens of thousands and became the industry’s labourers. The term ‘refugee’, stemming from the French word ‘réfugié, ‘one who seeks sanctuary’ was subsequently born.

In 1855, Victorian philanthropists turned the site into the London Chest Hospital, which became the tree’s next guardian. The hospital was bombed (and it’s chapel completely decimated) in World War II, but the tree withstood the blaze, aside from a few telling scars.

Most recently, following the hospital’s closure in 2015, the tree faced renewed threat, due to plans to relocate it (along with 37 other trees) to pave way for the development of 291 flats – only 35 of which would have been affordable. However, after a long hard won fight waged by the East End Preservation Society, the veteran tree was saved once again.

So, as Bethnal Green inhabitants come and go, the tree still reliably fruits year after year, having withstood fire and war. It has quietly borne witness to the environment’s many evolutions, from aristocracy and silk labourers alike. 

Follow this trail of the landmarks that together inform the trees mighty 400 years of life, to trace a more encompassing history of Bethnal Green.

Detail of scarred trunk of the Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree in full bloom, London Chest Hospital, Bethnal Green.
The Bethnal Green’s Mulberry Tree in full bloom, hidden behind the hospital’s walls. Photo by Paul Godfrey © The Gentle Author
An Inkwell mounted on a slab of mulberry tree, etched with a description of Bishop Bonner sitting beneath the Bethnal Green mulberry tree.
The Inkwell mounted on a slab of wood believed to be from the Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree or one of it’s propagations, describes the scheming activities of Bishop Bonner. It is archived in the Royal London Hospital Museum, Whitechapel. ​​Courtesy of the Royal London Hospital Archives
The doors and shutters of the 18th century built house fronts of Fournier Street, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green.
Many of the beautiful 18th century houses around Spitalfields, like these on Fournier Street, were leased to silk-weavers and mercers’. The silk for Queen Victoria’s Coronation Gown was woven at Number 14. Photo by Lily Wakeley, © Social Street CIC
The green tiled fronted shop, Labour and Wait, Red Church Street, Bethnal Green. Previously the Dolphin Pub, where silk weavers organised the 1979 riots in Bethnal green.
The distinctly East End green tiled shop front of Labour and Wait, Redchurch Street, which was once The Dolphin Pub, where ‘The Bold Defiance’ met to plot against the mechanisation of silk looms. This led to the bloody 1769 riots, which is understood to be an informant moment for workers rights’ today.
A stone sundial inscribed with ‘Umbra Sumus’, mounted on Brick Lane Mosque, Fournier Street, Bethnal Green
A stone sundial that reads ‘Umbra Sumus’ or ‘We Are Shadows’, originally built on La Neuve Eglise, Fournier Street by the French refugees in 1743. The Church was later turned into a Synagogue and now is Brick Lane Mosque.
Bombed stub of Mulberry Tree enclosed by fencing, amongst the debris of the London Chest Hospital, Bethnal Green, in sepia.
The mulberry miraculously survived the utter devastation caused by bombing of the London Chest Hospital, carefully cordoned off amongst the debris.
Nurses in uniform holding hands, dancing around the mulberry tree in the Chest Hospital grounds, Bethnal Green.
Nurses of the London Chest Hospital gleefully dance around the tree hand in hand in 1944, perhaps willing it back to it’s former health. As seen at the Royal London Hospital Museum. Courtesy of the Royal London Hospital Archives
Sign of a textile wholesalers, ‘H. Suskins Textiles Ltd’, Spitalfields which opened in 1965 and closed in 2002, Bethnal Green.
The textile wholesalers H.Suskins Textiles Ltd opened in 1965 (and closed in 2002), showing the longevity of the area’s fabric industry, long after the manufacturing of silk. Photo by Lily Wakeley, © Social Street CIC
Reaching up high to collect saplings, St Margaret House Mulberry Tree, Bethnal Green.
A tool is needed to collect saplings from the top of Margaret’s House Mulberry Tree for the Mulberry – Tree of Plenty project, which ran as part of the Trellis Festival, UCL. Photo by Jane Watt, © Jane Watt Projects

If you enjoyed this photo trail, you might enjoy this piece about what we can learn from Brick Lane’s Mosque and Sundial.

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