1 June 2021

Blank image

The origin of the well–known English nursery rhyme Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush is uncertain, but it may lie in the doomed attempts of James I and James VI to establish an English silk industry in the early seventeenth century.

The objective was to break the near–monopoly on silk production that China had enjoyed for more than a millennium, but despite the nationwide dissemination of cheap seeds and plants, the enterprise failed. This has often been attributed to the fact that only black mulberries were planted, the Chinese having cunningly concealed from Europeans the fact that silkworms only thrive on the white variety. It is much more likely, in fact, that our frosty northern winters were to blame, and an examination of the participation of Cambridge colleges in the scheme—at least four are known to have given it a go—would seem to support this.

The archives of Corpus Christi College, for instance, record that in the year ending Michaelmas 1609 they paid six shillings to ‘the Frenchman for a 100 of white mulbury settes’. At about the same time, Emmanuel (with more spacious gardens) bought 300 ‘mulbyrie plants at the kings appointment’, at a cost of eighteen shillings. Given the coincidence of price and timing, it seems highly likely that we acquired our seedlings from the same source, and that they were also of the white variety. Emmanuel’s young plants probably failed fairly soon, for a few years later the college tried again with more mature specimens, the accounts for April–October 1612 recording the setting of ‘fourtie mulbyrie trees’.

We can only speculate as to exactly where they were planted, for none of them is now standing, unlike the gnarled survivors at Jesus, Christ’s and Corpus Christi colleges. The Parlour Wager Books record that on June 15 1832, James Bunch (Fellow) bet the Master (Robert Towerson Cory), that “the mulberry tree in the Master’s garden is not half as high again as the young mulberry tree in the Fellows’ garden”. Bunch won the bet. Could the older tree have been a Jacobean relic?

A black and white photo of a man in naval dress replacing soil underneath a small tree, held by a man in a suit, who has a huge moustacheSeveral mulberries are known to have been planted in more recent times. On 31 May 1921 the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, visited Cambridge to receive an Honorary Degree, and as the Vice–Chancellor, Dr Peter Giles, happened also to be Master of Emmanuel, the Prince was entertained here. Dr Giles’s daughter Elspeth recorded that the Prince ‘came to our house and…he went into the garden and was introduced to a number of leading undergraduates and after that he planted a mulberry tree for us!’ [L: Left: HRH The Prince of Wales planting a black mulberry tree in May 1921]. Photographs of the ceremony show the Prince smoking throughout the proceedings, so the soil was no doubt enriched with cigarette ash. The mulberry is not marked on a tree plan of the garden made in 1937, so it presumably succumbed to disease within a few years.

A large tree with a gnarled trunk, with a wall and small gate behindShortly before the installation of the Prince’s ill–fated mulberry, an entry in the Parlour Wager Books records that a ‘new mulberry tree was planted in the Fellows’ Garden early in March 1921’. Leo Greenwood, Classics Fellow, contributed a bottle of wine to the Parlour on this occasion: ‘to congratulate the silk worms’. This tree, a black mulberry, evidently thrived, for the Garden Committee minutes for 25 February 1943 record that permission was to be sought from the Governing Body to remove the old mulberry tree in the Fellows’ Garden: ‘so as to permit proper growth of the young Mulberry’. Presumably the ‘old’ mulberry was the one referred to in the June 1832 entry in the Wager Books.

Emma’s surviving 1921 mulberry tree [R: the mulberry tree in the Fellows’ Garden] can be found between the swimming pool and the Oriental Plane tree. Other mature specimens of the tree are growing in the gardens of 14 Park Terrace and Camden House. Mulberries have, in recent years, acquired the status of a ‘superfood’, but even without this fashionable endorsement, the delicious fruit produced by the college’s mulberry trees can be highly recommended.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

Back to All Blog Posts