29th April 2022
One of the things I love about Morus Londinium is the way old mulberry trees offer opportunities to make discoveries about the past. A tree may lead to a forgotten garden, property or a person, perhaps a celebrity in one field or another. And so it was, recently, that ‘my’ mulberry – a black mulberry in West Hampstead cemetery, near to where I live – led me to a film actor from the early decades of the 20th century, Dennis Neilson Terry.
Morus nigra in Hampstead cemetery
I was able to make a connection between the actor and the tree thanks to the gardeners, who recently removed thick ivy to reveal the headstone of the grave upon which the mulberry was planted. The headstone not only gave me the name of the dearly departed, but also a date for the tree (1932), which had eluded me for the 15 years since I’ve known it. Given that the mulberry would have been planted as a sapling, this makes it a very credible 100 years old, give or take.
To have a definite date for an old mulberry is a real boon, as it gives us a yardstick to calibrate vital statistics like girth, height, general health and whether it’s upright or has fallen over. This is useful when it comes to trying to estimate the age of a mulberry for which there is no – or at best only a vague – record of a planting date.
It was an unexpected bonus to learn that the grave (and therefore, in some sense the tree) belongs to an actor of some repute, when cinema was still in its infancy. But the story doesn’t end there. Dennis Nielson Terry was the son of a well-known acting couple (and producers of stage plays) – Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, who are buried right next him in Hampstead cemetery. Dennis died of pneumonia at the age of 36, when on tour in South Africa, so pre-deceased his father by a year and his mother by 24 years (she died in 1957). Dennis’s daughter, Hazel, was also an actress, playing opposite her cousin, (Sir) John Gielgud, another member of the Terry theatre dynasty.
Dennis Neilson Terry, actor
Dennis's mother, Julia Neilson, in about 1920
Fred Terry & Julia Neilson's tomb next to their son's
Just to close the loop in a serendipitous way, I’m reading Birds of a Feather Unpublished Letters of W. H. Hudson (the celebrated naturalist), having found a pristine first edition in a charity shop for a few pounds a few days ago. The book collects together Hudson’s correspondence with an amateur birdwatcher, John Rudge Harding, over a 17-year period from 1906 to 1923. Now, Rudge Harding’s day job was as a successful West End actor – including a performance in the premiere of The Scarlet Pimpernel at the New Theatre in 1905, alongside its stars and producers, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, our late mulberry actor’s parents.
Read some other celebrity mulberry stories at Morus Londinium:
Ludwig Mond - founder of I.C.I. chemical giant
Dr Johnson' s mulberry in Streatham
Stephens' inks mulberry in Finchley
John Evelyn's mulberry in Deptford
and of course, Hogarth's mulberry and Keats's mulberry
Morus Londinium is hosted by the Conservation Foundation and is maintained by the voluntary contributions of Peter Coles, with support of a Vicky Schilling travel bursary (2021-22) from the Tree Register. Peter would like to acknowledge past grants from Goldsmiths, University of London (CUCR) and the Worshipful Company of Weavers, as well as the original grant from Heritage Lottery Fund (2016-18). Morus Londinium is a 2021 winner of the European Heritage Awards / Europa Nostra Awards 2021. Peter's book, Mulberry, is published by Reaktion Books (2019).