18th January 2017
Standing inside a low-walled circle of soil outside Emmi’s corner shop on Colson Way, Streatham Park, SW16, is a gnarled, twisting, typically knobbly, black mulberry, about 9 or 10 metres high and a metre or so around. Much older than the surrounding 1970s housing, it looks at least Victorian, but could be quite a bit older. But how old, and who may have planted it?
A blue plaque on one of the flats overlooking Emmi’s reads:
On this site stood STREATHAM PLACE
the villa of the Thrales in which
Dr SAMUEL JOHNSON frequently stayed
between 1766 – 1782.
In the early 18th century, Ralph Thrale, a wealthy Southwark brewer, bought 100 acres of common land from the Duke of Bedford, stretching from St Leonard’s church in the south to Tooting Bec Common in the north. This became known as Streatham Park, still the name of the area today. In 1740 Thrale built an impressive Georgian mansion, Streatham Place, in the northwest corner of the estate. His MP son, Henry, who took over the brewery business and inherited the estate, later added a fishpond (in the triangular, northwest tip), to complement hothouses, impressive kitchen gardens and an orchard.
Survey of Streatham Park in 1822, showing the Thrales’ villa. The long drive to the east corresponds roughly to today’s Ullathorne Road. The villa would have been situated somewhere around where Ullathorne meets Aldrington Road today (see map below). The site of the Colson Way mulberry is just north of what would have been the north wall of the villa.
Streatham Place, the Thrales’ villa.
In the mid-18th century, Streatham was still a rural village, but being less than 9 miles from the City, it soon became a fashionable retreat for high society. Henry Thrale and his witty wife, Hester, often entertained leading cultural figures, including Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick and, Hester’s favourite, the poet and lexicographer, Dr Samuel Johnson. Reynolds painted several portraits of the Thrales -- and indeed of Johnson -- which were displayed in their library.
Left: Hester Thrale and her daughter, Hester, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c1777. Now in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick, Canada.
Middle: Dr Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c 1756-7, now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Right: The wooden summerhouse.
Johnson struck up a close friendship with Hester and, in 1766, when Johnson was in his late 50s, the Thrales offered the writer his own rooms in the mansion and treated him almost as one of the family. His writing found a new impetus under Hester’s admiring gaze and he would often retire to write in a wooden summerhouse in the grounds. He continued to spend most of his time there until 1782, a year after Henry Thrale died.
After Henry’s death, Hester felt liberated – she’d had 12 children with Henry! She fell in love with, and in 1784 married, Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian music teacher, much to Johnson’s dismay and the disapproval of her society circle. The Piozzis moved to Wales, letting the villa to tenants until they returned for a six-year period in the early 1790s. They finally sold Streatham Park in 1825. It was demolished in 1863 and the estate broken up for development. The now dilapidated summerhouse was rescued and finally came to rest in the grounds of Kenwood House. After it was destroyed by fire in 1991, artist, Alan Byrne set about building an exact replica in his Islington garden, where it stands today.
The decline and rise of Streatham Park
So, did the Colson Way mulberry once stand in the Thrales’ grounds and could Dr Johnson have sat under it on sunny afternoons, as local lore would have it? If he did, this would make the tree over 250 years old, assuming Johnson didn’t sit under a sapling -- he was quite a large man, after all.
Without taking a core sample from the trunk and counting the rings, which could render the tree vulnerable to infection and fungus, context is the only way to guess its age. A quick answer, though, is that, by simply looking at the tree and measuring its height and girth (about 9-10 m high and 1 m around,) it could be that old, although many of the mid-18th century black mulberries in the Morus Londinium database have collapsed (e.g. the one in Elm Park Gardens in Chelsea) with their trunks parallel to the ground. It’s fair to say though, that a lot of the old-looking mulberries in London are Victorian plantings, or have regrown from the decayed stump of a much older tree.
The tree is certainly standing in the part of Streatham Park where the villa was. Rough calculations put it close to what would have been the north wall of the house (marked with a red dot on the simplified 1822 map below, drawn up when the estate was sold). Just to the southwest of the mansion were kitchen gardens and vines, which apparently produced an abundance of fruit. Further southwest, adjacent to Thrale Road, was an orchard, but the Colson Way mulberry is too far north to have been part of it.
Simplified map of Streatham Park by Ethel Bromhead, based on the 1822 survey (above). See also www.thrale.com for a detailed account of the history of the estate. The red dot marks the approximate site of the Colson Way mulberry with respect to the estate.
Today, Colson Way cuts north-south from North Drive to Ullathorne Road, with an odd dog-leg kink where the mulberry tree now stands (marked with a star on the modern map, below). Back in the Thrales’ time, the tree-lined drive to the house from what was then Green Lane in the west (where the aptly-named West Drive meets Thrale Road today) was situated about one third of the length of the western boundary, tracing the same route as today’s Ullathorne Road. A similar calculation locates the sweeping north drive to the villa roughly at the junction of Aldrington Road and … North Drive. The villa itself would have stood roughly at the junction of today’s Ullathorne Road and Aldrington Road.
Left: The Colson way mulberry is marked with a star. There are two other black mulberries nearby, marked with a red dot (see text below).
Right: Ideal Homes map of Streatham Park in 1877 after the villa was demolished. Note the new railway line to the east and the fishpond.
To have survived from the time that Streatham Place was demolished in 1863, the site where the Colson Way tree stands must have been protected from the developments since then. An 1877 Ideal Homes map shows the villa gone, but no development as yet.
By 1895 several large villas with extensive gardens had been built (see map). The site of the Colson Way mulberry (marked with a star) has not been built on and seems not to be attached to a private garden. This could reinforce the idea that it survived from the Thrale estate.
1893-95 OS Map of Streatham Park. The Colson Way tree is marked with a star. The circle and square mark the site of other old black mulberries today (see text). Some of these houses (on Aldrington Rd for example) suffered war damage from V1 flying bombs. The area came under control of the London County Council in 1947.
A 1947-65 OS map shows some 20th century developments. Here, the plot with the Colson Way tree has been included as a part of the garden of No 13 Ullathorne Road. Meanwhile, the tennis courts have become a bowling green, with a pavilion.
So, the Colson Way mulberry, at least, seems to be on a plot of land that has never been built upon and could, as a young tree, have stood near the north wall of the villa Dr Johnson stayed in. We can’t be sure that it was there when he lived there. After all, some eighty years passed from the time Johnson left Streatham Place in 1782 and the demolition of the house in 1863, which would make the tree very old.
1947-65 OS map showing the Colson Way and other nearby mulberries.
The area was completely transformed when new flats and houses were built in the late 1960s - early1970s on the site of several of the late Victorian and Edwardian mansions and their gardens.
Did Johnson have a choice of mulberries?
When I came to look at the Colson Way tree, I made a deviation to the invitingly named Mulberry Close, a private road a few hundred to the west, with a similar kink (see the modern map above). There I did, indeed, discover another mature black mulberry, a bit younger than the one in Colson Way, on the lawn in front of the 1970s flats. A long-standing local resident remembers that there used to be a similar mulberry on the opposite side of the flats (marked by an ‘x’ on the map above), which was felled “about 27years ago”.
Mature black mulberry in Mulberry Close. According to a local resident, a similar tree stood in roughly the same place on the opposite side of the flats, until it was felled about 27 years ago.
Having shown me the spot where that tree had once stood, she then kindly took me to meet her neighbour, who, she explained, has an old mulberry her garden at 8 North Drive, a further hundred yards or so to the west. This is no ordinary house, though, but a handsome Arts and Crafts residence, known as Dixcot, built by celebrated architect, Charles Voysey, around 1901 or shortly after. The tree, set back from the house in the astonishing 13-acre garden at the rear (see maps above), is about 8-9m tall and consists of a cluster of slim trunks that have suckered from an older bole which must have been cut down at some point, perhaps 25 years ago.
It’s hard to establish whether this tree was planted after the house was built, or whether it is another survivor of the Streatham Place mansion, demolished nearly 50 years earlier. Arts & Crafts architects and designers have been known to include black mulberry trees in their garden designs, but these were often trees that existed before the garden was laid out, as at Lindsey House in Chelsea, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertude Jeckyll in 1911, and Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’s summer retreat on the Thames.
On the far right, young black mulberry trunks grow from a much older bole. The tree bears plenty of fruit each summer. The house itself is a rare Arts and Crafts house, Dixcot, designed by the architect Charles Voysey and built around 1901.
All three trees, then, stand on the site of grounds around the front of the former Streatham Place. None of the sites has ever been built on, although they have had various incarnations, including as gardens of large houses built after 1863. They may not be 300 years old, but if they are, perhaps Dr Johnson had a choice of mulberries to admire?
See the excellent Thrale.com blog pages on Streatham Park
The Plant Lore website also contains a page on the tree.
See also this invaluable resource built by the National Library of Scotland. A slider allows the viewer to superimpose today’s street map onto a range of old OS maps dating back to Victorian times.