21st September 2018

Tower Hamlets councillors yesterday (20 September) approved a development plan for the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green, which involves uprooting and replanting a veteran black mulberry tree on the site, supposedly protected by a Tree protection order (TPO).  When the plan  first became known last year it attracted fierce opposition from local people. A last-minute injunction prevented an earlier attempt to start work to move the tree to a lawn in front of the old entrance to the hospital. But yesterday's decision will now allow this to go ahead.

Mulberry trees have been moved before. About five years ago the Wellcome Trust arranged for  a 100-year-old black mulberry to be moved to a new location as part of the development of its Genome Campus near Cambridge, with preparatory work (root pruning) starting in 2012, well in advance of the move. In this case, the tree was moved intact to a new site. In 2013 Waitrose comissioned a specialist company to move a 200-year-old black mulberry tree from a site that it was redeveloping in Dorking to a community orchard, where it is now growing.  Prior to the move the crown was cut back, substantially altering the tree's apearance. But the  tree is reported to be doing well in its new location.

The London Chest Hospital black mulberry, though, is more fragile, as it was damaged by the blast from a bomb that destroyed the hospital chapel in 1945.

The mulberry is one of two that were covered by tree protection orders (TPOs). The other tree , which was located on the lawn in front of the main hospital etrance ((numbered T78 in the extract shown here) was removed several years ago, although at the time of writing it is not clear when or why.

The exact age of the tree is not known. It is at least 150 years old, but could have origins that stretch way back to the mid-16th century when the site was part of the palace of Bishop Bonner – and, according to arboriculturalist Julian Forbes-Laird, may even be linked to the Romans. Of particular importance, though, is that the tree has become a living manifestation of the memory – and history – of the site, perhaps even more than the bulding itself, which opened in 1855. 

One possible outcome following the tree's move (next year?) is that a kind of totem pole version of the present tree - i.e. one with a reduced crown and perhaps minus one limb -  will be planted in its new site at the front of the building. If the tree does not survive (which Julian Forbes-Laird thinks is likely), it will be replaced by one of many cuttings that were taken two years ago and which have been growing on in a nursery. While genetically identical to the present tree, it will be anywhere between 150 and 450 years before the sapling has the character of its parent. Meanwhile, the memory of Bishop Bonner will probably be enshrined in a small brass plaque, or somesuch and doubtless a range of wooden mementos and 'treen' (small wooden objects) made from the remains of the tree we can still see today.

Peter Coles

Note: Peter is leading a walk around some of the mulberry trees in Stepney and Bethnal Green on  Sunday 23rd September.  Click here to book a place. 




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