2nd October 2016

Old mulberry trees are like Dr Who police boxes, transporting us back in time. The more venerable specimens can often be older than their contemporary surroundings, which may have seen decades, if not centuries of development and renewal. Indeed, the trees may be all that is left of a past that has long disappeared. So, whenever I see an old mulberry tree, especially if it’s not in a park or a stately home, I immediately want to know why it’s there, how old it is, who planted it?

This week, I was finally able to visit Lewisham to see two old mulberry trees flagged by visitors to the Morus Londinium project website some time ago. And I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was so knocked out by the two trees that I immediately went to Lewisham library’s Local History room to see what I could discover about their past. Here is what I found about the first tree I visited.

Rev. George Stanhope’s mulberry?

Ladywell House, at first sight, is now a rather unprepossessing NHS community mental health centre on the corner of Ladywell Road and Lewisham High Street. I even walked past it at first, as I came from Ladywell station, following up an invitation from Jill Tedder. Business Manager. I rang the bell and was shown in by Jill’s colleague, Jo, who led me downstairs, through a back door and into the garden. “I expect you know what you’re looking for,” she said, “but there it is,” pointing to a huge dome of instantly recognisable mulberry foliage on the lawn, before leaving me to poke around on my own.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tree is enormous –with a ‘dripline’ circumference of about 40 metres, based on a rough circumambulation with big strides.   The branches hang right down to the ground, so I had to walk three-quarters round it before I could see underneath, to get an idea of the girth and nature of the main trunk. Ducking under the branches I saw a great tangle of twigs, branches and undergrowth, hiding a huge bole, with several thick trunks pushing upwards and sideways. The tree looked much older than what I had thought was a Victorian building, which as Jo had correctly told me, had parts which dated back to 1879.

After photographing the tree from different angles, I started to walk towards the exit – the tree can actually be viewed from the car park leading off Ladywell Road. That’s when I noticed a curious, Gothic arch and fragment of stone wall, joining an extension to the side of the main house. Unless the ruin fragment was a Gothic Victorian folly, the site could be MUCH older than I thought it was – and so might be the garden and its central mulberry tree.

Having thanked Jo, I made my way to Lewisham Library, which has an excellent Local History room. It didn’t take long to establish the date and true identity of Ladywell House in Duncan’s History of the Borough of Lewisham, first published in 1908.

If I’d taken the time to stand back from the front of the house, I’d have seen that it isn’t Victorian at all. In fact, it dates back to the reign of William of Orange and his wife, Mary, who ruled together, having dethroned James II in 1689. This was also the year that the Rev. Dr George Stanhope, Dean of Canterbury, was appointed Vicar of St Mary’s, Lewisham.  He found the existing Vicarage -- which could have been built of stone, like the church (and hence the fragment still standing in the garden) – “..ruinous and out of repair and not habitable.”

In 1692 Rev. Stanhope had the old vicarage demolished and built a new house “sett some few yards backwards from the roade and into the orchard…”  He footed the bill himself -- £739, thirteen shillings, (about £96,000 in today’s money), which included £42 six shillings and sixpence for “Turf, Gravel, Sand, Seeds, Trees, and Setting and Laying,” plus a further £114, six shillings and a ha’penny for “making of my garden and the fence of that and the yard.”

According to Duncan, the house stood “without any material alteration” until 1879, when the incumbent Vicar renovated it, adding “a drawing-room and other apartments on the garden side.” A few years later, the next Vicar added a wing on the left side of the house, using bricks recovered from Lewisham House, opposite, which was pulled down in 1894.

So, the bottom line here is that, without further evidence, we don’t know if the tree was planted around 1692 by Rev Stanhope, or whether it is a Victorian tree, possibly planted around 1879 (by Rev. A. Legge) or in 1894 (by Rev, Samuel Bickersteth) when the house was extended. Whether it is a 120 year-old, 140 year-old or 320 year-old tree, it is magnificent and one of the best preserved in South London. A hidden gem and worth further research.

Article by Peter Coles.

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