12th September 2022
by Peter Coles
The 1940's Garden Court with its four black mulberries
At 7.30 am as I emerge from Bank Tube station, the City is already marching into action, though not a bowler hat or brolly to be seen. No sooner have I reached the main entrance to the Bank of England than I hear my name being called from the other side of Threadneedle Street. It is Simon Hills, Director of Prudential Capital and Risk at UK Finance and a confirmed mulberry enthusiast. Simon has kindly arranged for me to meet the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, and to see the four mulberry trees in the garden outside his office.
Getting into the Bank, as one might expect, is not so easy. However, once past the security checks, Tom, who has been one of the Bank's pink-jacketed stewards for the past 34 years, leads us briskly along winding mosaic-floored corridors to the varnished oak door of the Governor's office. Andrew Bailey, a tall, imposing, yet genial figure, greets us with a firm handshake, a smile, and a welcome cup of coffee. As the nation swirls in an eddy of financial crisis outside the Bank (and doubtless inside its warren of offices), the Governor nevertheless gives us his full attention and genuine interest, even though we know he only has 15 minutes to spare. The next day he would be in the news, forecasting imminent recession.
Andrew invites us to step through the double glass doors of his office into Garden Court, where four trim black mulberries (Morus nigra) punctuate both ends of a central path through the square courtyard. I feel both privileged and delighted to be able to see these trees at last. I've known for years that the Bank has a mulberry (or mulberries), but always imagined it was as impenetrable as Fort Knox and closed to visitors. Indeed, just beneath our feet are nine vaults holding 5,500 tons of stacked gold bullion, worth something like £200 billion, 5% of all the gold ever mined.
Governor, Andrew Bailey (left) with the author
Mulberries and money
The decision to plant mulberry trees at the Bank is a reminder that mulberry bark was used to make the first printed paper money, in Tang dynasty China (7th-10th c). Incidentally, recent research at the British Museum on Ming dynasty (late 14th c) notes in its collection has shown that a mix of White mulberries (Morus alba) and Paper mulberries (Broussonetia papyrifera) was used, together with other fibres such as hemp, wheat, rice, and hibiscus. For this reasonI I had half-expected to find either Paper mulberries or White mulberries in the Governer's garden, so the choice of Black mulberries is interesting. However, while it has become increasingly common in recent years to find White mulberries planted in parks and even as street trees in London, back in the 1940s they were as rare as hens' teeth in Britain.
1 Guàn (1000 wén) mulberry paper note from the Ming dynasty (1368-1399) in the British Museum.
The Bank of England Museum has its own collection of Ming notes on mulberry paper.
The mulberry trees look much younger than I'd expected, based on illustrations showing a handsome solitary tree in a Bank courtyard, which I'd always assumed to be the "mulberry" I'd heard of. One secret of their youth, according to Tom, is that the trees are regularly pruned (pollarded). This is partly to keep the canopy manageable within the enclosed space, but also because they're growing in just 18 inches (45 cm) or so of soil, with the vaults directly below. Mulberries have spreading roots and no tap root. Nevertheless, one of the trees keeled over not long ago and is now tethered with a brace.
Garden Court, with mature Lime, in a 1906 watercolour by Patricia Manners
The main reason why the trees don't look too old, though, is that they're not. They were planted in the early 1940s when Garden Court was relocated from a previous site (with limitless depth of soil) as part of Sir Herbert Baker's demolition and rebuilding of Sir John Soane's earlier 1780s neo-Classical building. Soane's own celebrated design had, itself, involved major changes to the original 1734 Threadneedle Street building by architect, George Sampson, which was extended in 1781 into the deconsecrated site of the 14th century church of St Christopher-le-Stocks. This had been partly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. The churchyard was used to create the new Bank's first Garden Court with, in its centre, a European Lime - the solitary old tree I'd seen in illustrations.
Reproduction of a watercolour of the Lime tree in the old Garden Court (author's collection)
Lime tree in the old Garden Court around 1920 (from Webster's Trees of London)
Refuge for the Bank's giant
When Garden Court was dug up and relocated as part of the 1940s rebuilding work, a number of lead coffins were uncovered, including that of William Jenkins, a 6 foot 7 1/2 inch (202 cm) former Bank employee, who died in 1798. As bodysnatchers would have received a huge sum for such a tall corpse, Jenkins's friends were granted permission to bury him out of reach in Garden Court (which of course was previously a cemetery). The rediscovered coffin was transferred to Nunhead Cemetery in South London, where it now lies in the catacombs.
(c) Text and original photos by Peter Coles
A comprehensive history of the Bank can be found on its website.
Kirsty Parsons, the Bank's Museum's Officer wrote an informative blog about the mulberry trees for Urban Tree Festival in May this year
Details on the composition of Ming dynasty banknotes can be found here.
More on William Jenkins the Bank giant.