23rd June 2018

by Claire Weiss


Tucked behind the carpark of Tesco Superstore in Leytonstone is a very fine, veteran black mulberry tree, now leaning gracefully on a grassy island in the shadow of a handsome 18thcentury building, Leytonstone House.  Writer and local resident, Claire Weiss, has been doing some archival detective work to find out when the tree may have been planted.


The 220 year-old mulberry at Leytonstone House

Tracing the history of the magnificent old mulberry tree at Leytonstone House in east London takes us back in time, revealing fascinating insights into what was a growing Essex village, on the edge of Epping Forest, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. City merchants and East End brewers were finding it useful to have property in Leytonstone, in addition to a town house in the City of London. The forest-edge location served as an advantageous staging post to country seats as far away as Norfolk. 

Leytonstone House is a substantial Grade II-listed, eighteenth century edifice and the adjacent mulberry tree certainly has many of the characteristics of a tree that could also be over 200 years old. Amazingly, there is both historical and pictorial evidence to support this, in a wonderful sketch made in 1864 by the then sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Ellen Buxton. She was living in the house with her parents and siblings from 1849, when she was aged one, until 1866 when the family moved away. 

Ellen Buxton’s daily writings and sketches during the period 1860 - 1864 have been collated in two 1960s publications by her granddaughter, Ellen R C Creighton: ‘Ellen Buxton’s Journal 1860 – 1864’ (1964) and ‘Family Sketchbook a hundred years ago’ (1967). Both are published by Geoffrey Bles, London and, for brevity, we will refer to these as the ‘Journal’ and the ‘Sketchbook’.

Under the mulberry tree, Leytonstone House, 1864

Ellen’s sketch (above) of her named younger brothers and sisters harvesting mulberries appears on page 58 of the ‘Journal’ with the caption:

“Leytonstone. Effie. Under the mulberry tree, Alfred. Janet. Barclay. 1864”

Ellen’s narrative description below the image reads:

“We have a great many mulberries this year, which are very nice, the boys climb up to the top of the tree, & throw the ripe ones down for us.”


18th century origins?

The tree in Ellen’s 1864 drawing already shows the characteristic bends, twists and leanings of a mature mulberry, so it had clearly been planted several decades earlier. The black mulberry is not native to England and has never been a woodland tree here. As it is a difficult species to grow from seed, almost all black mulberries have therefore been deliberately planted, as cuttings, or have layered from ancient trees whose original trunk has rotted away.  The fact that Leytonstone village was surrounded to the north and east by the ancient Epping Forest (earlier known as Waltham Forest) can, therefore, be dismissed from our inquiry. Rather, the planting of the tree is likely to be connected with the arrival in Leytonstone of the business class families from the City of London during the eighteenth century. Judging from the appearance of the tree in Ellen Buxton’s sketch we are therefore looking for an origin date of something like 1800 or possibly earlier.

According to David Ian Chapman in a recent booklet published by the Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society:

Where Whipps Cross Road joins the northern end of Leytonstone High Road stands to this day Leytonstone House. It is not known for certain when the house was built but is thought to be at least eighteenth century. ….. There is much confusion as to who actually lived there.”

The north-eastt facingfront of Leytonstone House,in 2018

The south-west facing rear of Leytonstone House,in 2018

R E Davies in an earlier (2006-07) unpublished paper ‘The Buxtons of Easnye: an evangelical Victorian family and their successors’boldly, but unfortunately without supporting detail, claimed that:

         “Leytonstone House itself was a large Georgian house built around 1740”.

We do know that one Philip Sansom, who in 1787 co-founded the first society for ‘Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ with Wilberforce and others, was resident at Leytonstone House from 1795 to 1815. Although the Buxtons did not apparently move to Leytonstone House until 1840, it is possible that Ellen’s great-grandfather, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1st Baronet, 1786 – 1845), knew the house, and perhaps even lodged there, when visiting political associates such as Sansom. Buxton’s journeys from London to his Northrepps estate in Norfolk would most likely have involved a stop at Leytonstone, as suggested by remarks in Ellen Buxton’s ‘Journal’ and ‘Sketchbook’. 

Plaque by Leyton Women Ratepayers in 1930 on side of the building

Working out who lived at Leytonstone House and when is complicated by the fact that several of the Buxton males share the same name, across three or four generations.  According to a tablet from the Women’s Section of the Borough of Leyton Ratepayers Association, Leytonstone House was inhabited from “1840 – 1867…. [by] Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton and Edward North Buxton”. These were presumably Ellen’s father and her uncle, the 2nd Baronet, Edward North Buxton. Indeed, a Waltham Forest Heritage plaque confirms that this was “originally the home of Sir Edward North Buxton”, while another plaque, which disappeared during alterations in 1938, claims that Edward North Buxton may have been born there, in 1840.

To be true, this would have to have been Ellen’s cousin and not her uncle, who shared the same name. Nearby Upton house in West Ham also claims to have been the birthplace of Edward North Buxton, but this would have been Ellen’s uncle. In any event, these dates rule out the possibility that the Buxton’s planted the mulberry, on the basis of Ellen’s drawing, which shows a tree that is clearly much more than 24 years old.


The Buxton family’s mulberry connections

While there isn’t the space here to recount in detail the various Buxton family contributions to major episodes in history including the campaign to abolish slavery, the support of prison reform and the saving of parts of forestland in Essex for public use, perhaps the connection of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1st Baronet, 1786 – 1845) to the Spitalfields weavers and his charitable and campaigning work for them is of some relevance to the history of the Leytonstone mulberry tree. 

Ellen’s grandfather Thomas Fowell Buxton (the 1st Baronet) had become a partner in the brewery company of Truman, Hanbury & Co in Brick Lane, Spitalfields and had married into the influential Gurney family of Quakers, which included Elizabeth Fry (Sir Thomas’s sister-in-law). Known as ‘The Liberator’, Sir Thomas and his associates formed an Anti-Slavery Society in 1823, while his 1833 Act of Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire.

Sir Thomas also helped raise a £43,000 benevolent fund in 1816 for the Spitalfields weavers who were thrown out of work en masseas machinery took over their livelihoods. Decades later, in 1859 well after Sir Thomas had died, the Grade II-listed Weavers Almshouses were built, just north-east of Leytonstone House in Wanstead, financed by public subscription. 

Support to the weavers by later generations of Buxtons may suggest that the location of the almshouses near to Leytonstone House may not have been a coincidence and that the Buxtons continued to support them. This is backed up by a further reference in Ellen’s ‘Journal’ (page 41):

“Monday Dec 23. This afternoon we went to the Alms houses near here and gave to each of the people half a pound of tea & a pound of sugar, which they liked very much.”

That was in 1861. A later entry in the ‘Sketchbook’ states:

“Taking tea and sugar for a Christmas present to the people in the Almshouses. 22.12.65”

This entry is accompanied by a drawing of the whole family, one on horseback, one pushing a handcart, passing what looks to be the High Stone[1]of Leytonstone, an ancient milestone and landmark which would indeed have been on the walk from Leytonstone House to the Weavers Almshouses at Wanstead.

However that there is little evidence that the weavers, many of whom were descendants of the Huguenots, ever became involved in the production of raw silk or planted mulberries. Rather, the mulberry was favoured for its fruit-bearing qualities. As a soft-fruit-bearing deciduous tree it has advantages over other such fruit that grows on bushes or in plants in the ground such as raspberries, strawberries or currants in that it can be more easily harvested. What’s more, as we have seen in Ellen’s 1864 drawing, it is a great tree for children to climb.


What Leytonstone House and surroundings looked like in the 1860s


 ‘Back of Leytonstone House from the cowhouse March 1st1864’ [and seven named ponies]

Other drawings made by Ellen while at Leytonstone House give us a charming picture of the house and immediate surroundings at the time. Her drawing on page 10 of the ‘Sketchbook’ clearly shows the rear of Leytonstone House, as in our 2018 photograph. The mulberry tree in the drawing is likely to be the shorter one of the two on the right.



‘View from our meadow of Leytonstone village and the church’

Another drawing on page 11 of the ‘Sketchbook’ shows a prominent mid-distant building, probably the church of St John the Baptist, built in 1833.[2]This is the view that Ellen would have had from the back of the house, probably not far from where the central horse is standing. Ellen had a drawing tutor which may explain the mature grasp of perspective contrasting with a more charming representation of buildings. It also shows how few other buildings there were between the church and Leytonstone House at the time.

This sketch on page 3 on the ‘Journal’ shows a building easily recognisable as the front of Leytonstone House.


Another fascinating drawing is of the view from Ellen’s obviously upstairs room window, which might have been on either the first or the second floor, at the front of Leytonstone House. Reproduced on page 17 of the ‘Journal’, the drawing is a reversal of the direction of view in the drawing that shows the front of the house. The lower right-hand corner appears to show a small segment of the same low-lying or sunken area that takes up the greater part of the foreground in the previous drawing. This is probably Green Man Pond, located at the east side of Leytonstone High Road, next to the ancient coaching inn of the same name. 

 ‘View from my window’[of Leytonstone House] 

Ellen’s legend on this drawing also gives ‘Wanstead Park Pond’ as indicated by the number 3, just visible in the central far background. From other notes in both the ‘Journal’ and the ‘Sketchbook’ it is clear that this is ‘The Basin’ a water feature of the nearby Wanstead House grounds, the grand house itself having been demolished in 1823/24. The legend indicator 4 is labelled ‘Archery House’, which is probably the building that then occupied a site now known as Becontree Archery Quaker Burial Ground, located in Bushwood Road, Leytonstone. The forest (Ellen’s legend no. 5) remains behind it. Ellen might have walked this way to get to The Basin where in the winter where, she mentions, there was ‘capital’ skating.


Leytonstone House after the Buxtons

Unlike several other grand houses of that period in Leyton and Leytonstone, Leytonstone House avoided demolition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which would have helped the survival of the mulberry. In 1866 Thomas Fowell Buxton and his large family decided to move out of Leytonstone House. A charming drawing on p.82 of the Sketchbook shows the move in progress. However, they did not sell the grounds to developers, which was the Victorian fate of other local estates. Instead the Buxton’s Quaker-inspired philanthropy led them to sell the nine-acre estate in 1868 to the Bethnal Green Union. These new owners built there a residential complex for children whose parents were in the Union’s workhouse in London’s East End. The layout of these buildings included keeping Leytonstone House as administrative quarters, and so the mansion was saved for posterity. It is the Bethnal Green Union buildings that can be seen in the background of the contemporary photo (top photo).


Other mulberries in Leytonstone

The Morus Londinium map shows three other trees in Leytonstone: one at the junction of Fairlop Road and Grove Green Road, one at the corner of Barclay Road with Mornington Road, and the third at Selsdon Road. Their location in private gardens has so far frustrated photography or investigation. Given the fast pace of urbanisation of Leytonstone in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and the loss of several other grand houses in the area, the possibility of identifying any common patterns in the distribution of so few mulberry trees from those times is somewhat speculative. 

However Leytonstone was part of the County of Essex, so the next exploration might usefully take us beyond the village and into the adjacent parts of Essex that were developed in the eighteenth, seventeenth or earlier centuries. The most obvious place is neighbouring Wanstead, where the very grand Wanstead House had been in existence from Tudor times. In a further blog we will investigate the grounds of the unfortunately demolished Wanstead House and Buxton House, the latter of which may help to unravel some of the confusion around who was born, lived and died at Leytonstone House. If only we could just ask the 220-year-old mulberry tree! Research and text: Claire Weiss


Text: Claire Weiss

Photographs: © Karl Weiss


Claire Weiss’s book “Unravelling the Yarn” is a fascinating account of the life of Zoe Lady Hart Dyke, who created and ran England’s only successful 20th century silk farm.

[1]The High Stone is a grade II listed building (List entry Number: 1065570) at the junction of Hollybush Hill and New Wanstead. It was an important mile marker sitting at the junction between two of the main roads leading to East Anglia and shows distances to Epping, Ongar, Whitechapel and Hyde Park Corner. It has stood in roughly the same location since the early part of the 18th Century.
[2]‘Leytonstone and its history’, W G Hammock, 1904, transcribed by David Boote, Leyton & Leytonstone Historical Society, 2010


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