Discover Lewisham’s History Through Its Veteran Mulberry Trees

by Peter Coles

4 February 2019
Originally published in our Old Blog.

I use London’s old mulberry trees as signposts to a past that has often been buried under cycles of urban and social transformation over the past 400 years. The Morus Londinium project I set up in 2016 with the Conservation Foundation and 2-year Heritage Lottery funding has been documenting, mapping and researching these unique trees.

While looking for further funding to keep the research going, I’m keeping up the momentum through regular walks and talks, capitalising on the fantastic resource and knowledge the project has helped to build up. Midweek Mulberry Walks are regular lunchtime walks that last about 60-90 minutes and explore a specific locality and its history through its veteran mulberry trees.

On 13th February I will be exploring part of Lewisham’s hidden history, including disappeared Silk Mills, steam mills, schools and housing and a 300 year-old mulberry tree in a private garden behind an uninspiring NHS building, which is in fact a former 17th century vicarage.

Ladywell Mulberry Tangle by Peter Coles.

The walk starts at the site of Lewisham’s Silk Mills which once stood on the banks of the Ravensbourne River. Silkworms will only feed on the leaves of the mulberry tree, but this silk mill used imported yarn. Once a major employer in the area – Girls as young as 11-13 worked long hours – the Silk Mills produced silk for buttons and ribbons. All that is left today are evocative street names, like Silk Mills Path, but the presence of the mill can be seen in local topography.

We then cross the Ravensbourne to the site of other long-lost mills near to Elmira Street. The recent housing development around Prendergast Vale School replaced a previous 1960s development which in turn grew up on the site of mill works and Victorian housing. All that remains is a wonderful 150-year-old black mulberry tree, that once stood in the playground of a Victorian boys’ school.

Pine Tree Way Streetview by Peter Coles, and Ladywell Vicarage (1879-81).

The walk continues through Victorian streets parallel to the Ravensbourne River, ending at the former Ladywell Vicarage (now an NHS facility). Built in the late 17th century by Rev. Stanhope, the building has been developed and extended twice. But hidden from view at the rear is a rare, sprawling black mulberry tree that is anywhere between 150 and 300 years old. Possibly one of the oldest in South London. We will have privileged access to the tree, which is usually closed to the public. Nearby we can see some imposing and eccentric Victorian architecture.

Places are limited, so booking is essential. For booking and further details click here. Reduced student rates are available.

Peter Coles is CUCR Visiting Fellow and Workshop Tutor for the MA in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.