15th December 2023
The past three months have sped by – it has been a busy time for Morus Londinium. Behind the scenes, our genius webmaster James has been sorting out various small niggles with the website and interface, while adding new features. These should not only improve the experience for users of the map and the website, but have already made my life easier when it comes to adding trees and annotating them.
Discovering East Anglia’s mulberry heritage
In October I presented a paper on English silk made from silkworms fed on the leaves of black mulberry trees (i.e. was there any?) at a symposium in Norwich of the International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT), with encouragement by one of its organizers – silk roads scholar and my occasional companion on mulberry-tree-hunting, Prof. Susan Whitfield – in association with the Sainsbury Institute. I found the conference fascinating, the textiles wonderful, the other scholars – from all over the world – welcoming and supportive. It was also a pleasure to spend time with textile specialist, Dr. Zhao Feng, Director of the China National Silk Museum, who gave a fascinating public lecture entitled 'From Nara to Norwich'.
I was a bit like a fish out of water, but, remembering the French monarch, Henri IV’s exhortation to rural communities to plant mulberries: “No mulberries, no silk”, I felt I was nevertheless in the right place, advocating for what I’ve called the “sleeping partner” in the silk industry (i.e. the trees that feed the silkworms). As it happens, no more than a few yards of English silk thread were ever produced in Britain – until the Lullingstone Silk Farm’s commercial venture in the 20th century, using leaves from imported white mulberry trees to feed silkworms.
It was my first time in Norwich – a city whose medieval streets and buildings have been beautifully preserved – and I was keen to hunt out any mulberry trees. I only found one, a fairly young and handsome white mulberry in a courtyard in The Halls, a largely intact medieval Dominical friary near to the river.
White mulberry at The Halls - a former medieval friary
There is another, in St Augustine's churchyard.
Mulberry at St Augustine's church
After two days of conference presentations some of us went out to Sudbury (Suffolk) to visit one of the only functioning silk weaving mills in the country, Humphries Weaving Co. After a fascinating talk by Richard Humphries, who founded the company in 1972, a small group of us were taken on a guided tour of the factory, with a dozen or so looms clanking away producing complex silk weaves - a few millimetres added at every pass of the shuttle. Impressive – even unforgettable. Humphries produces exquisite silks, with commissions for historic buildings and royalty, and make their own custom dyes on site.
Richard Humphries with his White Mulberry at Weavers' House
Richard and his wife Michelle planted a white mulberry in 1982 at Weavers House in Little Yeldham (Essex) – home of DeVere Yarns – and 60 others at the original Humphries Weaving mills in Castle Hedingham Halstead. The idea of producing their own raw silk was abandoned as being too labour-intensive to be viable.
Norwich itself embarked on a sericulture venture in the 19th century, planting 1500 white mulberry trees – possibly in Thorpe Hamlet. We are interested in researching this short-lived project further, so any information would be very gratefully received! Please email us.
(Part 2 to follow shortly)