7th April 2017

A mid-March sunny day was ideal for visiting the svelt black mulberry at Forty Hall, in Enfield. Languishing on a lush carpet of purple crocuses and golden daffodils, the mulberry looked both enchanting and enchanted. Although it is not nearly as old as either the house or the massive Cedar of Lebanon towering over it in the fenced-in enclosure, it is, along with many other mulberries in Britain, rather like a Dr Who police box, or the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia: a portal opening onto other times and places, with fascinating stories revealed along the way.

Forty Hall is a Jacobean House built between 1629-36 for a wealthy haberdasher, Sir Nicholas Rainton (or Raynton), who became Lord Mayor of London in 1632. Rainton had made his fortune importing silk, velvet and taffeta from Italy. We don’t know for sure who the architect was, but the building apparently resembles another house built by Edward Carter.[1]  Sir Nicholas had bought the land from the 2nd Earl of Salisbury, Sir Robert Cecil, in 1616.

The ghost of a Tudor Palace

What Elsyng Palace may have looked like.

When Sir Nicholas bought part of the manor of Worcesters, on which Forty Hall now stands, the surviving buildings and grounds of Elsyng Palace, a large and once magnificent Tudor palace, stood a few hundred yards to the north, downhill from today’s pond – roughly where the double avenue of Lime trees, planted in 1700, now ends.

It is possible that a medieval manor was already standing on the site in 1381, which had been extended and developed by the time Henry VII visited in 1497 and 1498. In 1539 Henry VIII acquired the property in exchange for other lands and converted the extensive “courtier’s palace” into a royal palace. Its proximity to Enfield Chase made it a perfect place from which to go hunting.

Both Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth stayed here as children. Some say that it was here that they learned of their father’s death in 1547 and that the young Edward was to become king, although this is disputed. Elizabeth continued to visit after she acceded to the throne, but by 1597 the Palace was in decline.

James I inherited Elsyng Palace as part of the Crown Estates when he came to the throne in 1603. But he preferred Theobalds, less than four miles north, and even suggested that Elsyng could be demolished and some of the materials used for Theobalds. Part of the house was preserved, though, and the Tudor ornamental gardens, ponds, walks and orchards restored by the palace’s next keeper, Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, favourite of James I. These were still there when Sir Nicholas Rainton acquired the estate, somewhere between 1650, when Pembroke died, and 1657.

What was left of the old palace was preserved until it was finally demolished around 1656-7. After a short period when it was partly used for farming – a threshing barn was built on the site -- it became a pleasure ground for Forty Hall,  about the time that the double avenue of Limes was planted in 1700.

In the shadow of a champion

It’s not easy to say exactly when the Forty Hall mulberry was planted, but it may not be very old – about 100 years or so.  With their typically knobbly, leaning or collapsed trunks, loping and twisting branches, mulberries often look a lot older than they really are. The only mulberries that are almost certain to have survived from the early Jacobean period are at Hatfield House and Syon Park – and probably Charlton House. And these trees have a forceful presence that has to be seen to be appreciated -- very unlike mulberries that are even 150 years old. 

It would be possible to count the annual rings by taking a plug of wood from the trunk, but this is risky and could make the tree vulnerable to infection. There are formulae for calculating the age of a tree from its girth – the circumference of the trunk at waist height. But this tree is lying down, while the bole or base of the tree has divided, sending branches up like young trunks.  

We often have to turn to documents and archives to estimate the age of a mulberry tree.  But this is also where the really exciting detective work can begin, with the tree -- no matter what its age -- bringing all kinds of long-lost ancestors to life.

1911 OS 25-inch map from the Scottish National Library’s online digital map database.  The cross marks the location of the mulberry tree today.

On the 25-inch OS map of 1911, a conifer is marked, close to the coordinates of the present mulberry. However, although 6-inch and 25-inch Ordnance Survey maps, at least up to 1892, often recorded natural and man-made details, down to letter-boxes and mile posts, the tree symbols on these maps don’t necessarily denote actual trees. Rather, they describe the kind of vegetation at a given place -- whether there are deciduous trees or conifers or a mix (as here), or whether it is woodland, parkland, or an orchard.

However, because of its great size, even in Edwardian times, the conifer symbol on the 1911 OS map may actually refer to the magnificent Cedar of Lebanon that stands only a few metres away to the south of our mulberry. The Cedar is, today, a ‘champion’ tree and one of the Great Trees of London, planted not long after they were first introduced to Britain in the 17th century.  It is – and has long been – a familiar local landmark and is the most photographed tree at Forty Hall.

A. D. Webster, in his classic book London Trees, published in 1920, refers to a Cedar of Lebanon planted between 1662 and 1670 in “Elizabeth’s Palace” in Enfield. It is very likely the same tree that stands to the east of Forty Hall today, given that these Cedars were still extremely rare in the 17th century, when they were first introduced to Britain. There wouldn’t have been two in Enfield at that time. The Cedar that Webster refers to was apparently planted by a Dr Robert Uvedale, described as a “learned Divine and celebrated botanist” from Enfield in an article printed in the September 1815 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle (Part 2).

The tree is reputed to be the second oldest surviving Cedar of Lebanon in Britain today, a slightly older one surviving in the little village of Childrey, near Oxford, apparently since 1646 (see here).  Four other specimens planted in the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1683 had all died by 1903.

Not mentioned -- or not there?

Some old stately houses have continuous archives that stretch back to their origin. In the archives of Hatfield House, which was rebuilt by Sir Robert Cecil during Nicholas Rainton’s lifetime, are bills written by the celebrated plantsman, John Tradescant (the Elder), for fruit trees purchased for his employer, Robert Cecil, as he travelled to the Low Countries and France in 1611. These included as many as 500 mulberries, both black and white species, although there is no record of where they were planted. It was Cecil, of course, who later sold the Forty Hall estate to Sir Nicholas Rainton, so mulberries were already beginning to be fashionable at the time in the social spheres around the estate .

Mulberries are also associated with Theobalds, now Cedars Park, less than four miles north of Forty Hall, in Waltham Cross. James I had swapped Hatfield House – and 17 other estates – for Theobalds in 1607. He had coveted Theobalds since he first visited Robert Cecil in 1603, shortly after coming to the throne.

As part of his (doomed) project to start a silk industry in England, promulgated by a 1608-9 decree, James I planted hundreds of mulberries at Theobald’s (now Cedars Park). There is just one mulberry at Cedars Park today, although not a survivor of James’ occupation, but possibly a scion of one of these trees, planted during the period of ownership by the wealthy Meaux family of brewers in Victorian times.

Unlike Hatfield House, which has remained in the Cecil family since 1607, Forty Hall has seen a succession of owners in its 380-odd years of existence. Any records of plants that had been purchased and planted have long disappeared.

The property twice came up for sale because the owner at the time had run into financial problems. Plans of the various lots were drawn up for the sale in 1772, but this fell through.

Plan of the proposed sale of Forty Hall in 1772/3.

Forty Hall and its grounds were eventually sold for £8000 in 1787 to Edmund Armstrong. The catalogues for the 1772 and 1787 sales mention the Cedar of Lebanon, but there is no reference to a mulberry. Forty Hall was up for auction again by 1799 and was bought by James Meyer the following year for £11,940.  The house was then handed down through the family in 1826, 1832 and 1837. 

Left: Forty Hall in Victorian times. The Cedar of Lebanon is clearly visible, but no mulberry (unless it’s behind the bush). Right: 1867 OS map showing the 17th century walled kitchen garden to the south-west of the house and what could be the mulberry that was there until 1987, marked with an ‘x” here. There is also a deciduous tree symbol under the ‘H’ of “Hall” which is near to the site of the mulberry today, but later maps don’t show it.

The 17th century walled kitchen garden to the south-west of the house seems to have had a mulberry in a central position at the north end, which may have dated back to the time Eliab Breton owned the house. When he died, in 1785, there were 419 orange and lemon trees.  The mulberry was blown down in the 1987 hurricane and has been replaced by a new tree.

Black mulberry tree in the walled kitchen garden at Forty Hall, planted to replace one blown down in the 1987 hurricane and which might have survived from the days of Eliab Breton’s residence in the 18th century.

Clues to the origin of the Forty Hall mulberry?

Forty Hall finally earned well-deserved respite from its pillar-to-post existence, when, in 1895, Henry Carrington Bowles purchased it for his eldest son, Major Henry Ferryman Bowles.  Henry Carrington Bowles was living at Myddelton House, just across the New River, on the other side of what was Elsyng Palace. The house was named after Sir Hugh Myddelton, who had been responsible for overseeing the completion of the New River project to bring freshwater from the Lea River near Ware (Herts), to Clerkenwell. Originally conceived in 1602, the New River was opened on 23 September, 1613.

Henry Ferryman’s brother, Edward Augustus (“Gussie”) Bowles, inherited Myddelton House when their father died. A celebrated plantsman and horticulturalist, Gussie Bowles created one of the finest gardens in Britain. He became known as the “Crocus King” for his skill in cultivating new varieties. His book, A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum, became a standard reference. And his trilogy My Garden in Spring, My Garden in Summer and My Garden in Autumn and Winter, became best-sellers.

Watercolour of an old black mulberry beside the pond at Myddelton House, painted by Ernest Burns, probably in the 1950s. It was blown down by the 1987 hurricane and is no longer there.

There was a mature black mulberry by the pond in the garden at Myddelton, near to the house, recorded in a watercolour by Ernest Burns, probably painted in the 1950s. It was destroyed by the 1987 hurricane.  The present Myddelton House was built in 1818 by Henry Carrington Bowles, who came, by marriage, to own an Elizabethan red brick property on the site, known as Bowling Green House, apparently associated with a bowling green in nearby Elsyng Palace. His wife, Anne Garnault had inherited the house in 1809. Her father, Michael Garnault, of Huguenot descent, had bought Bowling Green House in 1724.

It is quite possible that the mulberry in the watercolour was planted around 1818 by Henry Carrington Bowles when he built Myddelton House. It does look as though it could have been about 150 years old in the 1950s.

When Major Henry Ferryman Bowles took over Forty Hall in 1895, did he take inspiration from the splendid mulberry by his brother, Gussie’s pond? After all,  “…for many years the two houses were united, not only by family ties, but also physically by bridges over the old course of the New River, the common boundary between them.”[2]

It is quite possible, then, that Henry Ferryman Bowles planted the mulberry that now stands next to the Cedar of Lebanon to the east of the Forty Hall, inspired by his brother’s tree.

Is the mulberry the low, spreading tree to the right of the photo, taken from the south, looking north, in 1960?

Henry Ferryman Bowles died in 1947 and in 1950 the house was sold to Enfield Urban District Council. It was restored in 1962 and opened to the public in 1966. If the mulberry was there when Enfield UDC bought the property, this would make it between 70- 122 years old, which seems quite feasible. Oddly though, the tree doesn’t clearly appear in any of the photographs of Forty Hall in the Enfield Council archives.  Perhaps someone living locally may have early memories of it and can shed some further light on its likely origins?

From May 20th - July 23rd you can visit the Morus Londinium exhibition at Forty Hall and Charlton House, celebrating London's mulberry heritage and the story these ancient trees can tell.

[1] London Borough of Enfield, (not dated). Forty Hall, Enfield

[2] Geoffrey Gillam. Forty Hall, Enfield 1629-1997. Enfield Archaeological Society. 1997. With a foreword by Andrew Parker Bowles.

See the invaluable resource built by the National Library of Scotland. A slider allows the viewer to superimpose today’s street map onto a range of old OS maps dating back to Victorian times.


Article and photographs by Peter Coles

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