2nd December 2022

  • by Peter Coles


    Since the summer, I have been continuing to visit and record notable mulberry trees outside of London, making use of the Vicky Schilling Bursary I was awarded by the Tree Register of the British Isles (TROBI) last year. I will be writing up my report in the New Year, but this seemed like a good opportunity to share some of my latest 'finds'. 

  • Kelmscott Manor

    At the end of October I went to record an old black mulberry (Morus nigra) in the west garden of Kelmscott Manor, (Oxfordshire). The leaves were a golden yellow, living up to the mulberry's  French nickname ,  l'arbre d'or', (from the heyday of its lucrative silk industry in the 18th and 19th centuries). I was just in time – the  day after my visit the house closed to the public until 1 April 2023.
    The mulberry tree is in the garden to the west of the house,, outside the window of the Green Room. This is a lovely, well cared-for old tree, leaning – as most veteran mulberries do – with branches propped with wooden posts and braced higher up in the canopy The main trunk is hollow and ivy-covered  up it to a height of about 10 feet. The tree apparently lost a branch recently.

  • Kelmscott  Manor was the country home of the 19th century writer, designer and pioneering socialist, William Morris, who was also one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement. His utopian novel News from Nowhere  describes the house and its idyllic location on the upper navigable reaches of the Thames.

  • The black mulberry with its golden autumn leaves [(c) Peter Coles)] 

  • The black mulberry with its golden autumn leaves [(c) Peter Coles)]
  • 'False colour' infra-red image of the mulberry [(c) Peter Coles]
  • The house  is mostly 17th century, although parts date from around 1570. The tree is younger, though would  very likely already have been there in 1871 when Morris rented what he came to call  'this heaven on earth', together with his wife, Jane, and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jane had been having an affair with Rossetti in London in an uncomfortable ménage à trois. Renting the country house meant she could  spend the first summer there with him – and the Morris's two daughters – while William went on a trip to Iceland. Jane features in some of Rossetti's best-known work from this time together.

  • Rossetti soon got bored with country life, though, describing the quaint Kelmscot village as 'the doziest dump of old grey beehives'.  Meanwhile Jane tired of his melancholy moods. By 1873 Rossetti had returned permanently to his Cheyne Walk, Chelsea home, where he kept exotic animals in the garden, including a wombat . After Morris's death, Jane continued to live in the Manor until her own death in 1913. The Morris's daughter, May, bequeathed  it to the University of Oxford on her death in 1938, which passed the house and lands to the Society of Antiquaries in 1968.


William Morris at 53 and  a youngerJane Morris in a drawing by Rossetti [Creative Commons]

I first visited Kelmscott Manor when I was living in Oxford, in the 1970s, travelling up the Thames by boat. This has to be the best way to get there, and Morris draws on his own 6-day boat journey from Hammersmith in News from Nowhere.  

The novel paints an idealised picture of perfect socialism,  imagining a future, post-revolution London, where mass industry, private property, money and social inequalities have been eradicated and replaced by self-sufficiency based on traditional crafts and agriculture. The writing can be stilted at times and, as we now know,  real attempts at socialism and communism have never managed to transcend individual greed and the concentration of power in elites. 

That said, reading the book today, I found its vision of meadows in central London and our historic seats of power turned into museums  refreshing in these times of climate crisis, and forebodings. It cheered me up, anyway, and helped me imagine London becoming more like it was in lockdown, instead of sliding back into the pandemonium of pre-pandemic times!

It's a short walk from the tree to a 'cut' off the Thames where small boats can moor, with a little meadow dotted with old willows. To my delight, in the orchard on the way back to the front of the house, I found  a much younger, but nevertheless handsome Morus alba (White Mulberry), around 12m high, a stone's throw from the M nigra.

White mulberry at Kelmscott Manor


St John's Abbey Gate, Colchester

I owe my discovery of an extraordinary old black mulberry tree in Colchester to a tip-off from friend and street-tree guru, Paul Wood, who'd seen it on his ongoing round-Britain tour of great street trees. This one certainly qualifies, as it is set in a circular traffic island, about  30 feet in diameter, on the edge of a car park. I am currently trying to determine how old it might be.  For sure, it is not as old as the nearby  Gatehouse of the former Benedictine monastery, St John's Abbey,  (see photo) which was suppressed by Henry VIII and his commissioners in 1539, after the Abbott had been executed.

The St John's Abbey Gate mulberry looks  like a grove but is probably a single tree [{c) Peter Coles]

The Abbey was built in 1095 by Eudo Dapifer, William the Conqueror’s High Steward and Constable of Colchester Castle, while the Gate was added as a fortification around 1400. After the Dissolution, the Abbey and lands eventually passed to the Lucas family in 1548, who built a large manor house on the site. The Royalist Lucas family's manor house and some other surviving Abbey buildings were destroyed by Parliamentarians in the siege of Colchester in 1648.  After a chequered history of uses and disuse, the War Office bought the abbey grounds in 1860 and set up a garrison here. 

Extensive archaeological research has been carried out on the site of the former abbey, notably as parts of the  site are being developed. So far I have not  found any mention of the mulberry, but a report by Colchester Archaeological Group (Bulletin No. 56) published in 2016, gives a very detailed account of this part of the Abbey precinct site. . From the maps in the report the location of the tree is just to the south-west of where the abbey buildings stood. Its position corresponds to one of several parkland trees on the detailed  25" Ordnance Survey Map of 1892. For a while in the 1840s, this part of the Abbey Grounds were known as Pinnacle Garden and had a bandstand.  Some OS editions up to 1923 seem to show two trees at this location with some kind of a wall or fence on the north and east sides. All we can say for now is that it (or they) seems to be at least 150 to 200 years old.


My sketch of part of the tree, showing that it has lost branches and is 'layering'  [{c) Peter Coles]

I will be returning in the New Year when the leaves have all fallen in order to get a better picture of the structure of the tree, and perhaps more clues to its  age. Watch this space...

Gainsborough's House, Sudbury

I've wanted to see the Gainsborough's House black mulberry  for several years, not least because it is in the town of Sudbury, which has strong connections with Spitalfields and the English silk industry of the 18th century. Also, two of the oldest black mulberries I've seen are in the nearby villages of  Edwardstone and Groton, which has made me curious about Suffolk's  connection with the species, which seems to pre-date James I's 1609 attempt to start a domestic silk industry. 

So, after my visit to the Abbey Gate mulberry in Colchester I hopped on a train to nearby Marks Tey, and changed onto the  dinky two-coach rail shuttle, passing  through lovely open countryside to Sudbury. Gainsborough's House and Museum is in the town centre, a short walk from the station.

The tentacular old mulberry tree is in the orchard garden at the rear of the house.

[(c) Peter Coles]

The house, in fact, is where the painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was born, not where he worked. He produced much of the work for which he is famous in his studio in London (Hatton Garden), often inventing  landscape backdrops for  portraits of  his society  sitters that fused his vivid memories of the Suffolk of his childhood with idealised classical landscapes inspired by  masters like Lorrain.

I spent a long time looking at, photographing, measuring, and drawing the sprawling tree, before visiting the house/museum.  Although Gainsborough never painted here, the Gainsborough House Society has created a mock-up of what the artist's studio mlght have looked like.

I really enjoyed the house-museum. Upstairs is a room dedicated to Sudbury's links with silk weaving and with Spitalfields. Many skilled master weavers and journeymen  - often of Huguenot descent - found better pay and conditions in Sudbury and moved from London. The town was to become a celebrated centre for industrial silk manufacture in the 18th century, with four leading manufacturers still operating  today.

Because mulberry leaves are used to feed silkworms and Sudbury has a history of producing silk (even in this house and next door) it is sometimes assumed that the Gainsborough House mulberry must have been planted in the early 17th century as part of James I's project to start a silk industry. However, even accepting that silkworms will feed on the leaves of the black mulberry, there is no evidence for sericulture (raising silkworms for silk) in Sudbury, unless I am mistaken. The English silk industry, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, has always used imported raw silk thread.

Rearing silkworms and looking after mulberry trees was mainly a rural cottage activity at the time, carried out by  farming families in those countries where silk thread was  produced successfully (such as Turkey, France, Italy, and India). The Gainsborough mulberry is much more likely to date to the early 18th century and to have been grown for its fruit as part of the orchard that was included in the sale of the house in 1792. In keeping with this heritage, a medlar has been planted in the garden near to the mulberry.

View of the garden, with its mulberry and medlar,from the top floor of the house [(c) Peter Coles]

  • Coming soon:

  • Over the last few months I have been busy researching and visiting other mulberries, including the so-called 'Spenser' mulberry (after Tudor poet, Edmund Spenser) at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where I spent a morning in the archives. I also returned to Chiswick Mall to record a black mulberry at Morton House, which now joins the hall of fame alongside at least four others in private gardens on the Mall. I'll be writing something about these in due course. I might be tempted to squeeze in a few non-mulberry photos from the magnificent Capability Brown park at Audley End (not far from Sudbury...). where I spent an afternoon with the Tree Register's David Alderman and historian Nick Chrimes, who lives nearby.  The park is home to several  champion trees, including the Audley End Oak.
  • The visits described here were partly suported by a Vicky Schilling bursary to Peter Coles from the Tree Register of the British Isles  (TROBI). Morus Londinium is looking for other sponsors to enable us to continue recording, documenting and helping preserve Britain's mulberry tree heritage. Please contact us at the Conservation Foundation if you would like to asupport the project (see contact email below).
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