It is not often that London loses an industry before it has even begun, but that is what happened when James I decided in the early 1600s that England needed its own silk industry to rival the success of those of France and Italy.
At first, all went swimmingly. James ordered thousands of mulberry trees on his own account, which were planted on several acres covering part of the garden of today’s Buckingham Palace, extending over Constitution Hill to the edge of Green Park. He also persuaded prominent noblemen to plant thousands more. All was set fair except for one thing: James had ordered the wrong kind of tree. Silk worms thrive on the leaves of white mulberries, but the ill-advised James had chosen black ones, which were ill-suited to England’s cool climate. What happened to them? Are any of them or their descendants still around?
Today, there are 40 mulberry trees in the garden of Buckingham Palace, which houses the National Collection of mulberries, curated by the Palace’s head gardener, Mark Lane. None of them, however, are direct survivors of James I’s endeavour, except for one grown from a cutting from the famous heritage mulberry at Charlton House. This is believed to have been planted at the behest of James, presumably as part of his plan to get the nobility involved. The website MorusLondinium.org describes the Charlton mulberry as “an extraordinary tree” which, at over 400 years old, is one of the oldest trees in London and the strongest candidate to have been planted as part of James’s original project. Pity about the colour of its fruit, though.
Mulberry trees had existed in London long before James became interested them. Archaeological digs have uncovered seeds planted by the Romans to create a food source, and they were grown in monasteries for that purpose as well. There were later failed attempts to establish mulberry trees for silk production, including by the Raw Silk Company in around 1720. It planted 2,000 trees in the area of Chelsea Park, complete with a silk worm nursery. That came to nothing, but Morus Londinium tells us there are still plenty of mulberries around. It has recorded 135 sites so far and is still counting.
One surviving link with Jacobean times is the so-called King James mulberry, which was grown during 17th century in what became the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was destroyed during the Second World War, but not before cuttings were taken, which have generated many descendants around London.
There is something special about sitting under a mulberry tree. There are two fine specimens on the terrace of the café in Hyde Park opposite the Duke of Wellington’s abode, and there is a clump of them in St James’s Park south of the blue bridge. The most newsworthy one is what is claimed to be the oldest mulberry in the East End, on the site of the former London Chest Hospital. It is threatened by a housing development by Crest Nicholson & Circle Homes. The tree may well have been planted as part of James’s ill-fated scheme. For that reason alone, it should unquestionably be preserved.
Read the first 111 articles in Vic Keegan’s Lost London series here.
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