Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Here’s one of the more unusual lgbt heritage sites that there is in London. Basically, the history of the site goes something like this – King James I, that old queen who came up with the name of Great Britain, set up a mulberry garden in St. James’s Park in 1609 which, fifty years later, had become the site of a brothel before becoming part of the Buckingham Palace gardens.

I don’t visit London very often, but the history of this site got me so intrigued that I wanted to find out more. The first thing I wanted to know is why King James wanted to set up a mulberry garden. It all boils down to money.

At the beginning of the 17th century silk production in Europe was centred in France and Italy. The French were especially skilled in silk production and within a century many religious refugees from France, the Huguenots, many of them silk weavers, were arriving in London to create the lucrative silk industry that King James had dreamt of.

King James had big plans for silk. He set up several mulberry gardens on various royal properties and encouraged his Lords Lieutenant in the counties of England to buy mulberry saplings from him to create their own. Unfortunately, he or his advisors chose the wrong type of mulberry bush.
The silkworms of China, France and Italy fed on the leaves of the white mulberry. King James chose the black mulberry for his project. All the experts on silk production at the time knew that silkworms which fed on black mulberry produced a coarse, brittle silk. The probable reason why King James went for black over the white was because of the British climate. White mulberry grows better in warmer climes.

This may also be the reason James shipped thousands of white mulberry bushes over to the New England colonies in America, because the climate was warmer than Britain’s. Again, the silk industry in America wasn’t a success, this time because the silkworms preferred the native American red mulberry. It looks like King James’s silk project was doomed to fail on all grounds.

The mulberry garden which King James set up and which concerns us today was a 4-acre garden set up in what was a large piece of wasteland to the west of St. James’s Palace, the then official residence of the monarch, just down the Mall from Buckingham Palace.

Various 17th century maps show this garden, though its exact location and size varies from one map to another. During the period of the Protectorate, the years of the disastrous British republic under Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s, the whole area was used as military barracks. The government weren’t interested in silk production and neglected the mulberry garden in its northern corner. This is when it was reported by Clement Walker that the garden had become a place of “new-erected sodoms and spintries”.

“Spintry” is one of those quaint old words that could easily have cropped up on an old BBC quiz show about obscure words called “Call My Bluff”. The word is of Greek origin, via Latin, and is supposedly derived from the word for a bracelet. The allusion being that your hand goes through the bracelet. I’ll leave you to guess how it came to be used for sexual activity. From the very beginning of its entry into the English language “spintry” was used to describe male prostitution and homosexual activity.

A house was built on land between the garden and St. James’s Palace, and this is the site of the present Buckingham Palace. Several families owned the various houses that occupied the site before the current one but they didn’t own the mulberry garden.

By the 1650s the mulberry garden had been leased to a new owner who turned it into a pleasure garden. Gone were the male prostitutes and in came the 17th century high-flying jet set and “It” crowd who turned it into a fashionable place to be seen.

All this attention made neighbouring St. James’s Park another fashionable place to be seen. It was at this time, 1677, that the mulberry garden became part of the property of the house where Buckingham Palace now stands.

Today you can walk past the old mulberry garden where the male prostitutes used to operate. If you walk from Hyde Park Corner to the Palace the site of the garden is on the other side of the Buckingham Palace wall as you walk down Constitution Hill.

Next time I visit London I’ll make a special effort to pay my own respect to James I’s failed silk industry and follow the example of the 17th century Poet Laureate John Dryden who, on his frequent visits when it was a pleasure garden, nibble on a mulberry tart. Perhaps also I’ll give a thought to those nameless men who sold their services to others in the “spintry”.

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