3rd January 2022
By Peter Coles
The veteran Lesnes Abbey mulberry has to be one of the Capital’s most photogenic trees, on a mound flanked by the ruins of a 12th century monastery and nestled beneath ancient woodland. But the old farmhouse it once belonged to has disappeared without trace.
Photo © Peter Coles
The Lesnes Abbey mulberry has inherited an enviable pedigree, simply by its location. Standing in the shadows of what remains of the dormitory and refectory walls of a ruined 12th century Augustinian abbey, one would be forgiven for thinking this impressive old black mulberry has the credentials of a really ancient tree.
Looking north-west, with remains of the dormitory walls (Photo © Peter Coles)
The formulae for calculating the age of an old tree are quite complex, as trees grow quickly when young and more slowly with age, depending on soil and sunlight. But after looking at hundreds of old mulberries I’ve found that an average increase in girth of about 1 cm per year (over several decades) gives a reasonable ‘ball park’ estimate. Signs of hollowing and dropped branches are other cues to a veteran tree – which the leaning Lesnes mulberry shows. With a girth (‘waist measurement’) of just over two metres (225 cm), this rule of thumb would suggest the tree was planted around 200-250 years ago.
The Lesnes mulberry in 2013. [Photo © Peter Coles]
After searching in the Bexley and Kent archives, it seems that the mulberry tree does indeed probably date to the late 18th or early 19th century, when the Abbey ruins had not yet been excavated. Back then, the visible remains of the abbey were just a few bits of rubble and remnants of walls poking up in a field. Dominating the site was an impressive farmhouse, with some of the abbey’s original walls requisitioned for outbuildings and to enclose an orchard. The tree would therefore have been part of a farm, with no direct connection to the workings of the medieval abbey (already in ruins for 200 years by then).
An information display by the tree – installed some years after I first visited it in 2013 – claims that it dates back to the early 17th century, as part of James I’s (failed) attempt to foster English sericulture – rearing silkworms to produce silk thread. But this is unlikely, not least because there is no evidence of any silkworm houses nearby or any history of sericulture here. A 400-year-old mulberry would likely be completely hollow and possibly lying horizontally (as this one will be before the end of this century).
The search for a heritage link to James I’s silk venture is understandable. After all the Stuart king did import thousands of mulberry saplings in the decade after he took the throne in 1603, some of which survive today. But the Lesnes tree has a cultural link with a much older tradition of growing black mulberries for their nutritious, juicy, and famously fragile fruit – notably in monastery and medieval gardens.
The abbey ruins from the south [Photo: Peter Coles]
Lesnes Abbey was founded in 1178 by Richard de Lucie, who was Chief Justicier (a bit like Prime Minister) to Henry II. De Lucie apparently felt bad for not doing more to prevent the murder of Thomas Beckett at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. Indeed, Lesnes Abbey is on one leg of the Pilgrim’s Way Southwark Cathedral to to St Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury amd the abbey church was dedicated to St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr.
An imposing structure, Lesnes (or Lessness) Abbey was nevertheless one of the ‘smaller’ monasteries which were supressed by Cardinal Wolsey in 1524-5, to fund a new college – Cardinal College – in Oxford. This was a decade before his nemesis, Henry VIII, dissolved the monasteries (1536-4) to mark his rift with the Catholic church and the Pope – and fill his coffers with plunder.
Typically, supressed monastery buildings were first weakened so that they would collapse and anything valuable, including stones from the walls, salvaged for construction projects, such as roads and mansions. Over the following centuries, the remaining parts of walls, doorways, pillars and pulpits gradually got buried and overgrown, with just a few ruins poking up like bits of shipwreck, until the site was eventually excavated in 1909-13.
The Abbot’s lodging and the forgotten farmhouse
One of the monastery buildings did survive intact until 1845, though. This was the Abbott’s Lodging – an early 16th century brick and timber building, nestled in the angle formed by the dormitory (dorter), its latrines (reredorter), and the refectory (frater) at the north-west of the site. Ralph Sadler (Henry VIII's Chief Minister) lived here with his family for a while, until he sold the property.
Old farmhouse on the site of the medieval Abbot’s Lodging in1801 [British Library]
Under the ownership of Christ’s Hospital from 1633, the building continued to be used as a farmhouse – using some of the walls of the ruined Abbey – until it was demolished, and a new one built in 1845. The new farmhouse was itself demolished around 1933 when the site was purchased by the former London County Council and later transferred to Bexley Borough Council.
Farmhouse in 1915 after it was rebuilt in 1845 (demolished 1933) [British Library]
North wall of the ‘frater’ (refectory) showing the rebuilt farmhouse.
The mulberry is beyond the wall to the left of the house. [British Library]
The mulberry tree
It’s never easy to age a veteran mulberry tree as they often look older than they really are. In this case, though, there are photos from some time after the rebuilt farmhouse was demolished in 1933, showing an already mature and leaning mulberry tree – no question the tree we see today.
A post-war postcard showing the Y-shaped mulberry, already starting to lean
The mulberry in 2021 (photo © Peter Coles)
A little pencil drawing by Samuel Grimm in the British Library, dated April 4, 1757, shows what could be a young mulberry near the west side of the house, enclosed by a low wall.
Is today’s mulberry the little tree behind the wall in this 1757 drawing
by Samuel Grimm in the British Library?
Detail of a drawing of the farm seen from the nearby ponds to the west,
possibly showing the mulberry. [British Library]
The mulberry we see today was therefore undoubtedly planted by one of the farming families who lived in the imposing house on the site of the former Abbot's Lodging. If the tree was planted in or shortly after 1845, when a new farmhouse replaced the Tudor one, it would be around 177 years old. But it could be older – perhaps planted in the 1750s?
Since the 1530s, it is the timber and brick Abbot's Lodging and subsequent Victorian farmhouse that dominated the site, so it is both a pity that it does not have a more prominent place in the information displays, for it is this association, and not the Abbey itself, that surely marks its origin. That said, we will never know if the Abbey's infirmary also had a mulberry as part of its infirmary garden, as was often the case, but it wasn't the present tree. All parts of the black mulberry have medicinal uses that have been known for thousands of years.
Interestingly, an 1855 guide to Erith mentions the so-called 'Abbot's Thorn' on the Abbey site: a tree 'of great age' measuring 6'6" (198 cm) around the trunk, with two stems, and having a crown circumference of 60 feet (18.2 metres). It's not easy to confuse a thorn with a mulberry, but who knows?
Text (c) Peter Coles
 For full details see Alfred Chapman, Lesnes Abbey in the Parish of Erith. The Casio Press, London, 1915.
 A 2021 Lesnes Abbey guidebook on sale at the site mistakenly situates James I’s silk venture in 1720, although it was over 100 years earlier. In 1607 James called on the landed gentry to plant mulberries and raise silkworms. While the Lesnes mulberry could plausibly be 300 years old, it is not, in the author’s opinion, 400 years old, and almost certainly was not used to supply leaves for silkworms.
Morus Londinium is hosted by the Conservation Foundation and is maintained by the voluntary contributions of Peter Coles, with the support of a Vicky Schilling travel bursary (2021) 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).
Read Peter Coles's article London's Mulberries and their Lost Gardens in the December 2021 issue of the RHS Plant Review.