Caught by the River

The Hiroshima Tree

3rd September 2021

An extract from Mark Hoopers ‘Great British Tree Biography’ — published yesterday by Pavilion — with illustration by Amy Grimes.

Cherry, Tavistock Square Gardens,
London, England

At 8.15am local time on Monday 6 August 1945, a 4,400kg (9,700lb) uranium-enriched gun-type atom bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, was dropped from the USAAF Boeing B-29 bomber Enola Gay above Hiroshima, Japan. It exploded at a height of 600m (almost 2,000ft) over the city, with an energy of 15 kilotons, effectively flattening an area of 3.5km (2 miles) in diameter. The shockwave of the explosion was accompanied by a fireball with a surface temperature of 6,000°C (11,000°F). This fireball and the subsequent radioactive fallout was estimated, in 1946, to have killed around 140,000 people (a number that was revised to 202,118 in a 1998 study taking into account deaths from longer-term radiation-induced cancers that could be linked to the explosion). 

Little Boy was one of only two nuclear bombs ever used in warfare. The second, Fat Man, was detonated just three days later over Nagasaki (a back-up target after the original, Kokura, was obscured by smoke from a previous firebombing raid). This time a plutonium implosion-type device was used – but the effects were just as apocalyptic. The 21-kiloton explosion resulted in a total of 60,000–80,000 fatalities. 

It’s impossible to imagine this degree of devastation. Leonard Cheshire, a group captain in the RAF who acted as an official British observer of the Nagasaki bombing, later wrote: 

‘By the time I saw it, the flash had turned into a vast fireball which slowly became dense smoke, 2,000 feet above the ground, half a mile in diameter and rocketing upwards at the rate of something like 20,000 feet a minute. I was overcome, not by its size, nor by its speed of ascent but by what appeared to me its perfect and faultless symmetry… 

“Against me,” it seemed to declare, “you cannot fight.” My whole being felt overwhelmed, first by a tidal wave of relief and hope – it’s all over! – then by a revolt against using such a weapon.’ 

Cheshire was not alone in feeling revulsion for the horrors that humankind can inflict upon one another. The justification for unleashing such weapons on civilians relied on cold mathematical calculations about the number of casualties on both sides that an invasion of mainland Japan might incur. While the bombings undeniably hastened the Japanese surrender, and thus the end of the Second World War, the atrocities suffered by the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki raises the question of whether the end justified the means. 

In the intervening years, there have been countless memorials around the world to those who died in those two atomic bomb blasts. In Tavistock Square Gardens in London’s Bloomsbury, a flowering cherry tree was planted in memory of the Hiroshima victims on 6 August 1967 by Councillor Mrs Millie Miller, Mayor of Camden. It was an apt location for such a tribute: in 1920 the Tavistock Clinic was founded on the square to treat psychiatric patients, including those suffering from shell shock following the First World War. The site is now occupied by the headquarters of the British Medical Association (BMA). 

The year after the Hiroshima tree was planted, in May 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson unveiled a statue by sculptor Fredda Brilliant of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), leader of India’s non-violent independence movement and a prominent champion of civil rights. 

The square has come to be known as the Peace Garden due to the number of trees, statues and monuments it holds dedicated to the pursuit of peaceful initiatives. The large Conscientious Objectors’ Commemorative Stone (‘To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage gave us hope’) was unveiled near the square’s North Gate entrance by the Peace Pledge Union on 15 May 1994 to mark International Conscientious Objectors’ Day. 

A sculpture of the writer Virginia Woolf (1912–41), a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group of literary figures, thinkers and artists, stands in the south-west corner of the square (placed there in June 2004 by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain and based on a 1931 original by the artist Stephen Tomlin). A Ginkgo biloba dedicated to Virginia’s husband, author Leonard Woolf (1880–1969), was planted there in December of the same year. As well as being notable figures in the pacifist movement, the couple were residents of 52 Tavistock Square, living there between 1924 and 1939; the building was subsequently destroyed following a bombing raid during the London Blitz in October 1940. Opposite Virginia’s sculpture is a memorial designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens dedicated to Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon (1865–1925), who is renowned not only for her early work treating cervical cancer, but also for performing surgery on the front line during the First World War. 

At 9.47am on Thursday 7 July 2005, eighteen-year-old Hasib Hussain set off an explosive device on the number 30 double-decker bus he was riding on as it passed Tavistock Square. In total, thirteen people were killed in the explosion, one of a series of co-ordinated suicide bombings across the city by converts to the Islamist group al-Qaeda that killed a total of fifty-two people. It is a grim irony that a square dedicated to pacifism and the remembrance of past atrocities should itself be visited by such murderous destruction. 

In September 2018, a memorial stone was laid in the square, bearing the names of the victims of the 7/7 bus bombings, with London Mayor Sadiq Khan amongst the attendees. It replaced a temporary plaque that had been fastened to the railings opposite the BMA building (some of whose staff were among the first to arrive on the scene to deliver assistance to the injured). 

It feels only appropriate to end with a quote from the man whose likeness sits beatifically in the middle of Tavistock Square: 

‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.’ Mahatma Gandhi 


Extracted from ‘The Great British Tree Biography: 50 legendary trees and the tales behind them’, written by Mark Hooper, illustrated by Amy Grimes, and published by Pavilion Books. Order a copy here (£15.79).