26th July 2017

As part of this year's London Tree Week events, Morus Londinium's mulberry heritage specialist, Peter Coles, led a series of walks around four areas of London to hunt down their often hidden mulberry trees. After kicking off with an all-star walk from Charlton to Deptford, via Greenwich on the Sunday, Peter explored Spitalfields mulberry and silk weaving heritage the next day.

This walk was sponsored by the City of London's London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) and co-run with Andrew Stuck, founder of the Museum of Walking. The aim was to explore a small part of Spitalfields that has relics of the Huguenot silk weavers' workshops and Master weavers' houses and to seek out traces of some long forgotten associations of the area with mulberries.

White mulberry (Morus alba) in the garden beside Christ Church, Spitalfields

We started at Christ Church, on the corner of Fournier Street, where a white mulberry (Morus alba) - one of only a few in London - was planted a few years ago. Last year Morus Londinium offered a black mulberry sapling to Christ Church, which was handed to the Rector by the outgoing Bishop of London, the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Richard Chartres at a ceremony in October. The tree will be planted in the church's community garden when it has been landscaped.

From there we wandered down Fournier Street, Wilkes Street, Princelet Street and Brick Lane, taking in the visible remains of the area's rich Huguenot past. Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green were where thousands of Huguenot refugees, many with skills in silk weaving, came to settle after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in October 1685. The Edict had given Protestants in France protection from persecution for three generations, since it was promulgated in 1598 by King Henry IV of France.

Former silk weavers' workshops under the roof on Wilkes Street, Spitalfields

In Brick Lane, successive waves of migrants have left their traces, from Huguenots to Jewish refugees and more recently those from Bangladesh. The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque, for example, was originally built in 1743 as a Protestant chapel for the Huguenot community, many of whom still spoke French at home. In the 1880s it became the Machzike Hadath synagogue for the Jewish community, who had fled persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Since 1976 it has served the local Bangladeshi community as a mosque.

A sundial on what is now the mosque, recalls its origins as a Huguenot church, built in the 18th century

Stanley Rondeau, descendant of original Huguenot settlers who lived in Wilkes Street. Stanley has traced his ancestry back to 1596 and is to be found in the church on Tuesdays.

Today, mulberry trees are few and far between in Spitalfields, (though there is a young tree in the Thomas Buxton Primary School on Buxton Street). Recent research by the Survey of London has uncovered the traces of two plots of land that had several mulberries at one time. One is partly in Mile End New Town, on the site between Great Montague Street and Chicksand Street and west of Greatorex Street. In the 17th century this was Leonard Gurle's Great Garden', which once included 299 asparagus beds, 11,600 plum, cherry and pear stocks and 127 mulberry trees. Gurle was gardener to King Charles II at St James's Palace, which may have something to do with the presence of such a large number of mulberry trees. James I's mulberry garden was still in the grounds of St James's Palace at the time.

Just across the Whitechapel Road south of what is today Mulberry Street, Peter Guillery of the Survey of London's Histories of Whitechapel project, has unearthed a 17th century mulberry garden. While this may have had something to do with the silk weavers in Spitalfields, the trees alone are not evidence of a silk-making industry. There would also need to be some evidence of the paraphernalia that goes with rearing silk worms - heated rooms, shelves, silk reeling, silk dying it, etc. - which has yet to come to light.

John Rocque's 1746 map, showing the site of the Whitechapel mulberry gardens

The only other mulberry we were actually able to find on the walk, though, was a few streets east, visible from the rear bar of the Good Samaritan pub, on the corner of Stepney Way and Turner Street. The Gentle Author, of the Spitalfields Life blog has taken some great pictures of it, though, courtesy of local resident Roy Emmins, who lives in the flats overlooking the rear yard. And the bar of the Good Samaritan was just the right place to end our exploration of Whitechapel's mulberries.

A few days later, we returned to the East End to track more mulberry trees in Stepney and Bethnal Green.

Article and photographs by Peter Coles

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