Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush – At Wakefield Prison

As a child, my grandfather would walk me to the fields above his house and as we gazed down over Wakefield he would always point out three buildings, conspicuous by their architecture, these were the Cathedral, the town hall and the prison. They are the three landmarks of Wakefield that have always been familiar to me and yet, it was years before it truly registered that, what was just casually pointed out at ‘the prison,’ is actually HMP Wakefield the largest maximum security prison in the UK and western Europe, not only that, it is the first Supermax security jail in Britain.

Strangely and perhaps somewhat unbelievably, given that I was also driven past the prison every school day for six years, the realisation didn’t actually dawn on me until a couple of years later, when we were in the pub opposite (Henry Boons, a fine establishment) when the barman with a nod to over the road commented, “Ey up, visiting times over,’  and sure enough, a trail of people were exiting the prison and making their way across. Great for the visitors to have a pub so close, not so great for the inmates, particularly when you consider that opposite Henry Boons is Clarkes Brewery where beer has been brewed intermittently  from 1906 to 2018. The smell of that must be torment to those in need of a pint.

Anyhow, I digress, Wakefield Prison is indeed a top security prison which has held Harold Shipman (who committed suicide there), Roy Whiting, Ian Huntley and currently has Jeremy Bamber and the infamous Charles Bronson, dubbed “the most violent prisoner in Britain.”  Easy to see how it has earned its moniker of Monster Mansion, ironic that it is situated on Love Lane.

It seems paradoxical therefore that this piece, yes I am finally getting to the point, was inspired by a children’s nursery rhyme, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush which, if urban myth is to be believed, originated at this very prison.  There is reasonably strong evidence to back this up. The prison wasn’t always a high security facility, it originated in 1595 as a house of detention, it’s primary purpose being to detain criminals until a punishment was meted out.  There has indeed been a mulberry tree on site for the last 400 years or so and so, it is easy to see how this story came about. According to historian R. S. Duncan, a former governor of Wakefield Prison, the song originated with the female prisoners of that time, who were exercised around a mulberry tree each day and some say invented the rhyme to keep their children amused.

Move on a few hundred years and in 2016, the actual mulberry bush was shortlisted for Tree of the Year award, an award based on the story, rather than aesthetics, and given that this is how the tree looked at the time, that is perhaps fortunate.  Sadly, it didn’t win, and such was it’s disappointment that the tree finally, if not unexpectedly, died in 2017 and had to be removed. Concern was then raised. Was this to be the end of the Mulberry Tree at Wakefield Prison?  Tom Wheatley, HMP Wakefield governor, said the tree had “been a part of the prison for hundreds of years……..It’s on the main route that prisoners take each day to go to work in workshops, so four times a day most prisoners walk past it and they’ll notice it’s not here anymore.”  You would hope so.

Fortunately, a solution was found. A former prison warden back in the 80’s had taken a cutting and had successfully grown a tree from it, his widow was more than happy to provide a cutting from that, and so it would seem that all is well that ends well.

So, whilst evidence would seem to point in the direction of this being the origin of the nursery rhyme, there is one other theory, and that is that mulberry cuttings were brought over to Britain so that we could start to give the Chinese competition in the market of silk production. As it turned out, our climate was too cold for the tree and the silk worms and so it was doomed to failure. Now that little anecdote has the potential to open another rabbit hole for me to disappear down and so for now, I will leave this there and just share with you, for those who need a reminder, the words of the nursery rhyme.

Here we go round the mulberry bush
The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush
Here we go round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning

This is the way we wash our clothes

Wash our clothes, wash our clothes
This is the way we wash our clothes
So early Monday morning

This is the way we iron our clothes
Iron our clothes, iron our clothes
This is the way we iron our clothes
So early Tuesday morning

This is the way we mend our clothes
Mend our clothes, mend our clothes
This is the way we mend our clothes
So early Wednesday morning

This is the way we sweep the floor
Sweep the floor, sweep the floor
This is the way we sweep the floor
So early Thursday morning

This is the way we scrub the floor
Scrub the floor, scrub…

Oh, but there is one more anecdote about the prison. I was once approached by a former inmate who was very proud of his time inside. I had just returned from working my sixth ski season and was on a night out ‘up Westgate,’ with a friend, wingwoman and fellow ski bum. We were propping up the bar when a gentleman who shall we say, didn’t exactly look like my ideal suitor material, approached. My wingwomen disappeared behind a cloud of smoke from her Marlborough lights, this was 25+ years ago when smoking was still allowed in pubs, and I could do nothing more but smile politely. A conversation ensued which ended as follows:

US (Unsuitable suitor): So, where’s tha from?

Me: Here, well, not far, erm just Ossett.

US: Is that reight? Tha dun’t sound like tha’s from round ‘ere.

Me: No, well, erm, I’ve been away erm, well, for a while.

US: Nahh, ‘ave you?

Me: Yes, erm….

US: Me ‘an all!! I were in Wakey, just down’t road. What did you do your time fo’? Mine were GBH.

Shall we just say, I was even less inclined at that point to have anything to do with anything concerning Love Lane.

For any Indian friends reading this, GBH = Grievous Bodily Harm.

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