National Geographic : 1953 May
Silkworms in England Spin for the Queen 689 In a 15th-century Castle, Thousands of Pampered Larvae Make Silk for Elizabeth's Coronation Robe BY JOHN E. H. NOLAN ONE April morning in 1952, a letter bearing the royal coat of arms arrived at Lullingstone Castle, stately and historic home of Zoi, Lady Hart Dyke, pio neer of sericulture in 20th-century Britain. "Her Majesty," the letter said, "would be pleased if the silk for the Coronation Robe could be supplied by the Silk Farm at Lullingstone." Lady Hart Dyke at once announced the good news to her staff of young silk workers. There were cheers, and some quoted the silk farm's motto: "Patience and perseverance turn mulberry leaves into the silken robes of a Queen." Young Elizabeth is not the first English Queen to be associated with the estate of Lullingstone, which has witnessed more than 800 years of history. Queen Anne was a frequent visitor, first as a child and later as ruler from 1702 to 1714. The castle, built almost 500 years ago, nestles in Kent County's scenic Darent Val ley, 17 miles southeast of London (page 692). It takes its name from the original estate of Lullingstone, which was listed in the Domes day Book in 1086 as the property of Odo, French Bishop of Bayeux, half brother of William the Conqueror. Traditionally, the name Lullingstone came from the peaceful sound of the waters of the Darent River falling over stones on their way to the Thames. How Silkworms Came to Lullingstone Even more fascinating to me is the story of Lullingstone today. Here, in the short space of 20 years, Lady Hart Dyke has established a silk farm which not only attracts world wide attention, but has received royal patron age. Beginning with a handful of silkworms and a few mulberry leaves, Lady Hart Dyke struggled against pessimism and apathy to prove that Britain could produce raw silk as fine as the best from China and Japan. Silkworms were brought to Europe in the 6th century, when two monks risked torture and death by smuggling a few of the prohib ited eggs from Persia. The Oriental monopoly of the golden thread was thus broken, and from this one daring act all silk raising in the Western Hemisphere originated.* At Lullingstone I saw the same methods of rearing the worms to the cocoon stage as had been perfected by the Chinese around 2000 B. C. Only the incubating and reeling opera tions have been improved. The director's late husband, Sir Oliver Hart Dyke, designed and built the machinery for unwinding the cocoons. Her ladyship im ported thousands of eggs and mulberry cut tings, and numerous books for studying the subject. To learn more about it she went to Italy and visited silk mills at Milan before starting the farm in 1932. From the Palestine Government's nursery at Nablus, Lady Hart Dyke obtained 4,000 mulberry trees. From France she imported a few pounds of white mulberry seed, which she planted under glass. Near the famous herb garden, her veteran gardener, Tom Booker, who has served the family for more than 40 years, tended row upon row of seedling mulberries. Now there are 22 acres of mulberry trees. In the castle itself, aided by three local girls, Lady Hart Dyke set up the incubation rooms, reeling and testing machines, and other equipment. School Children Help Robe a Queen By 1936 the silk farm was a great success. Inquiries poured in from many countries. People of all ages wrote or came to purchase eggs and mulberry seeds for starting their own silk farms. Her ladyship now buys back suitable cocoons raised all over Britain, mostly by school children (page 690). Continuing the royal contact with Lulling stone that has existed since its first stone was laid, Her Majesty Queen Mary displayed great interest when visiting the farm. She asked Lady Hart Dyke the most searching and difficult questions about sericulture, and, upon leaving, graciously accepted a length of green silk damask. Then came the most important event in the silk farm's history up to that time. It was 1937, and Lullingstone was chosen to provide 20 pounds of raw silk for the coronation robe of King George VI's Queen, and for the robes of the little Princesses, Elizabeth and Mar garet Rose. The farm's maximum output was then only five pounds of raw silk a week, but, to fill the royal order, 20 pounds had to be produced in two weeks. This meant running the machines *See "Spain's Silkworm Gut," by Luis Marden, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1951.