500-year-old mulberry tree saved in High Court victory for campaigners

The 500-year-old mulberry tree at Bethnal Green 

The 500-year-old mulberry tree at Bethnal Green - Credit: East London Garden Society

Campaigners have won a High Court challenge over plans to move Bethnal Green’s historic 500-year-old mulberry tree planted by Bishop Bonner during the reign of Henry VIII. 

The tree stands in the grounds of the former London Chest Hospital, which was bought by developers in 2017 when the NHS moved out, in the Victoria Park conservation area. 

A scheme for 291 flats agreed by Tower Hamlets Council in October would have meant moving the Mulberry out of the way and getting rid of another 37 trees, including some protected and many more than 200 years old.

Geoffrey Jordan... beat developers with High Court challenge to save historic mulberry tree 

Geoffrey Jordan... beat developers with High Court challenge to save historic mulberry tree - Credit: East London Garden Society

The campaign was led by East London Garden Society chairman Geoffrey Jordan and the East End Preservation Society, with £20,000 raised through crowdfunding. 

“We got 17,000 signatures to our petition to stop the tree being moved,” he told the East London Advertiser

“But why should the public have to raise funds to challenge the council to preserve our heritage?

“This is a conservation zone. Trees are very important and we must not disadvantage them.” 

The campaigners feared the tree would not recover from being shunted due to its age; it survived the Blitz with scars and scorch marks on its bark when a chapel in the hospital grounds was destroyed during a German air raid. 

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Developers will have to go back to the town hall with a planning application if it wishes to pursue the scheme. 

The tree originally grew in the grounds of Bishop Bonner's palace.

An inkwell made in 1915 from one of its boughs, which is kept in the Royal London Hospital’s museum in Whitechapel, has a brass plate engraved with the sardonic yarn that clergyman sat beneath it while deciding which heretics to execute.  

Judge Sir Duncan Ouseley said in his court judgment on May 21 that the tree “had historical associations and had survived significant bomb damage during the Blitz”.

He ruled that the council's planning committee unlawfully misinterpreted national planning policy when it considered if the tree would die or deteriorate if it was moved. 

Council members “did not take into account the policy which they were advised they were taking into account — and which they were advised had been met”.  

Sir Duncan added: “They took into account something else, sufficiently different to create a legal error.” 

The campaigners had not won on grounds of heritage — but the risk of damaging the ancient tree was enough to carry the day. 

The East End Preservation Society argued that “the overblown development” would have blighted the Victoria Park conservation area "for generations to come".  

It said in a statement: "We are dismayed by the shameful way the council has repeatedly advocated bad developments without regard for the community or heritage."

This refers to last week's failed campaign at a public hearing to save the historic Whitechapel bell foundry, after developers got council approval for a seven-storey themed hotel.

The Advertiser contacted the council over the mulberry tree decision.

A town hall spokesman said: “The council acknowledges the High Court decision to quash our original approval for planning and listed building consent for a development at the London Chest Hospital site.

"The application to challenge our decision was based on five legal grounds, of which the High Court dismissed four. The fifth relating to the mulberry tree has been upheld.”

There were 11 protected trees in the grounds which were earmarked to be felled and another 27 planted in the 18th century all due for the chop — but all now saved by a High Court judge.