27th May 2019
by Peter Coles
Every now and then I hear of a mulberry tree that promises to be special – one of what the poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) called “Lost Angels of a ruin’d paradise” (i.e. survivors from a disappeared garden), borrowing the words of another poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. This turned out to be the case with a sprawling black mulberry on a lawn in St Catherine’s Court, a 1933 development of flats in the mostly late 19th century Bedford Park Conservation Area (Chiswick), just north of Turnham Green tube station and Acton Green.
Infra-red photo of St Catherine's Court mulberry (c) Peter Coles
I had been drawn to West London to see another mulberry in St Peter’s Square, one stop away on the District Line, at Stamford Brook, by Peter Gorle, a contributor to the database with whom I’d been corresponding. While in the area I thought I’d drop in at nearby St Catherine’s Court, which is near to where Peter lives. Another contributor, Barbara Robinson, had told me about an interesting mulberry there that was “sadly in a state of collapse, though the leaves still look very healthy.”
What I found was indeed a collapsed – but massive and thriving – black mulberry in flower, with both male and female catkins in abundance (many black mulberries are hermaphrodite, or monoecious). Apparently a victim of the 1987 Great Storm, the original bole of the mulberry is fractured and partly hollow, but has sent multiple stems and branches outwards and upwards to form a large canopy with a dripline circumference of perhaps 50 metres. According to local residents, it produces delicious black fruit every summer. The inevitable intrigue – how old is it?
Bedford Park and Tower House
St Catherine’s Court is a 1933 U-shaped development of flats, built around a landscaped courtyard of lawns and trees entered through an archway off Bedford Road. Although not part of the original late 19th century Bedford Park development, it is nevertheless within the present Conservation Area. A 2007 Ealing Borough Council appraisalof the Conservation Area describes St Catherine’s Court as “a substantial apartment building which is not a bad building in itself but it is in an unsympathetic style.” Indeed, the defining characteristic of almost all of the rest of Bedford Park is the unity of its architectural style, inspired by the Queen Anne revival vernacular.
Tower House appears on the 1890 OS map
The land on which Bedford Park now stands was purchased in 1865 by Jonathan Carr, who commissioned a number of talented architects to design residential houses with a ‘garden city’ feel. The most influential of these architects was Richard Norman Shaw, whose tall, gabled, red-brick houses gave the development its signature style, in line with the Aesthetic movement and Arts and Crafts movement in vogue at the time. Although scorned in the 1881 Ballad of Bedford Park for its ‘boiled lobster houses’, Bedford Park attracted some distinguished artists and writers, including the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats and the neo-Impressionist painter, Lucien Pissarro, son of Camille Pissarro, who also painted scenes featuring the area’s houses and gardens.
The Tower House was designed by Richard Norman Shaw around 1888 for Jonathan Carr
St Catherine’s Court – and its old mulberry tree – stands on the site of what was once one of the showcase houses of Bedford Park, a mansion called Tower House. This was Jonathan Carr’s own residence and was designed especially for him by Richard Norman Shaw around 1888. Before this time, as seen on the 1865 OS map, the land was part of the grounds of Sydney House.
View of Tower House and gardens
St Catherine’s Court mulberry
There was a brief period, from 1908 to 1933 when Tower House became a convent, renamed St Catherine’s. It kept its original layout and grounds, including – according to the 1930 OS map – a couple of trees, although not exactly where the older mulberry is today. The question (which will have to remain unanswered for now) is: to which phase in the history of the site does the old mulberry belong?
It could well have been planted as part of the development of Tower House around 1888. It could even conceivably have been one of the trees in the grounds of Sydney House, which was then preserved. This would make it about 135 years old, or more. Or, it could have been planted during The Tower’s time as St Catherine’s Convent (1908-33), making it 90-110 years old. Finally, it could have been planted since the present St Catherine’s Court development in 1933, making it less than 90 years old (assuming it was already a sapling of several years’ growth when planted).
Before Bedford Park the area was part of Sydney House grounds
Which date to choose? To be honest, they’re all plausible. A 90-year-old mulberry can already look older than its years, and the 1987 storm would have precipitated its collapse. On the other hand, it would have been entirely in keeping with a newly-created convent to plant a mulberry tree. The heart-shaped leaves of the black mulberry were appreciated by Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s chancellor, who is still venerated by the Catholic church. A dozen mulberry trees are growing today at the Allen Hall seminary in Chelsea, on the site of More’s 16th century mansion.
An older association with Tower House is also feasible. Bedford Park was designed to accommodate the fine trees already growing there, so a mulberry in the gardens of Sydney House would probably have been preserved. Mulberries are often associated with the Arts and Crafts movement – the architect Edwin Lutyens, and contemporary landscape designers Gertrude Jekyll and Fanny Wilkinson all included black mulberries in gardens and parks they designed. Not far from St Catherine’s Court at 14 South Parade is one of architect Charles Voysey’s most famous buildings, ‘An Artist’s Cottage’. An old black mulberry survives in the garden of another of his houses in Streatham Park, South London.
Charles Voysey's An Artist's Cottage is nearby
Mulberry trees seem to have become at least an ad hoc feature of the landscaping of St Catherine's Court. On the lawn across the central path from the veteran mulberry stands a much younger black mulberry, this one apparently a male (in which case it won't bear fruit). And a few yards away, until recently stood a white mulberry (Morus alba), which was removed when its roots threatened the foundations.
Text and photos (c) Peter Coles