Saturday, 13 June 2009


‘A KINGDOM OF ITS OWN’ - HULLNESS – A historian’s perspective

What is special about Hull? In what ways is Hull distinct from other great English cities? What are the ‘identifiers’, although not necessarily unique in themselves, that when combined make up the unique city of Kingston upon Hull.

Underlying everything else is the city’s location. When people, both residents and outsiders, write and talk about Hull they invariably refer to the city as ‘remote’, ‘isolated’, ‘cut off’, ‘end of the line’ and ‘a backwater’. As a Financial Times columnist recently commented: ‘Hull sits at the end of a motorway, staring out to sea with its back turned to the United Kingdom, isolated from the rest of the country by the muddy Humber Estuary, 200 miles from London, 200 miles from Edinburgh and some 100 miles from anywhere half-way decent.’

But this so-called isolation has given the city an independence that makes a positive rather than negative contribution to Hull’s distinctive character. The ‘isolate city’ of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Bridge for the Living’ has ‘through centuries [held] her separate place’. Hull is not lost in some greater conurbation like most northern or midland cities where undistinguished urban areas merge one into another. The city is surrounded on the three sides by the East Riding, one of the most purely agricultural areas in England, and to the south is the Humber where in Larkin’s words ‘sky and Lincolnshire and water meet’. There is no matching built-up area on the south side of the estuary, as at Liverpool and Newcastle. Hull stands alone; its boundaries are distinct.

Hull’s ‘separateness’ was recognised in 1440 when the borough was taken out of the jurisdiction of the county of York and, with its ‘precinct’, created a county of its own. This independence was demonstrated in 1642 when King Charles I was turned away from the gates of Hull, and again throughout the Civil Wars when the town was at times the only Parliamentarian stronghold in Yorkshire. In the 20th century Hull’s determination to retain its own telephone service was another expression of individuality.

Although ‘a separate place’ Hull, as a leading port since the 13th century, cannot be considered insular or parochial. Its residents came into daily contact with merchants, seamen and settlers from continental Europe and from all over Britain who made a lasting impact on the trade, buildings and cultural mix of the town. Traders and sailors from Hull would spend much time in Baltic, Dutch and French ports, as did their counterparts from these ports in Hull. Merchants in particular would establish close links abroad, often opening agencies in continental ports run by sons or younger brothers who on their return would introduce new ideas to Hull. In the 17th and 18th centuries members of the Maister family were at times resident at Stockholm, Riga, St Petersburg, Helsingore, Dantzig and Gothenburg. At the last place the second son of Thomas Wilson of Hull, founder of what became the largest private steamship company in the world, settled as the company’s agent in 1843 and later established a firm in the Swedish port that still exists today.

Similarly the Dutch-born Joseph Pease, who came to Hull in 1708 as representative of his family’s Amsterdam merchant house, was founder of Hull’s first bank and did much to develop the port’s oil-seed crushing industry. Many others from the continent settled here and by the mid-late 19th century Hull was the most cosmopolitan town in Yorkshire, with proportionately far more residents born abroad than in the case of the larger towns of Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield. The ‘foreign’ settlers came chiefly from Russia, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Denmark and Italy. To serve the migrant communities, and visiting seamen, vice-consulates were opened, social clubs founded and churches established which have their legacy today. From these communities came businessmen, industrialists and city leaders as well as personalities such as the celebrated art dealer and benefactor Lord Duveen and, more recently, the actress Maureen Lipman.

It is to the continent, especially the Low Countries, that we owe Hull’s particularly distinctive early architecture. The city’s two finest early buildings, the 14th-century Holy Trinity church, by area the largest parish church in England, and the 17th-century Wilberforce House, both reflect strong Dutch influence. In the case of Holy Trinity church the influence comes in the use of brick for the chancel, transepts and lower part of the tower. The bricks would have been made in a brickyard established by c.1300 on the site of Prince’s Dock. The making and use of brick which had ended in the Roman period was underway by the 12th century in the Low Countries from where no doubt it was introduced into Hull. Over 4 million bricks were used in the early 14th century to construct the town walls, which with numerous other brick buildings made Hull ‘the one brick-built town of the Middle Ages in England’.

Wilberforce House built c. 1660 is also of brick, but here it is used in a far more original way and enriched with stone decoration. The style, referred to as ‘artisan mannerist’ because of the crude use of classical details, echoes contemporary buildings found in Holland and Belgium, and we do know that the builder, Hugh Lister, a wealthy merchant, probably spent some time in Holland. His ‘architect’ William Catlyn was also responsible for other ‘artisan mannerist’ buildings on either sides of the Humber, including Crowle House, further south along High Street, and the Master’s House at Charterhouse, which has a Dutch-style shaped gable and the earliest recorded use of pantiles in Hull. Pantiles, the curved clay roofing tiles, were imported into Hull from Holland in large numbers, as were the small yellowy clinker bricks, used for flooring, and Delft tiles, to be seen at Wilberforce House, and the black ledger gravestones that line the floor of the east end of Holy Trinity Church.

Hull in the 17th century would have looked very much like a Dutch town, surrounded as it was with brick walls and gates, with the River Hull to the east, the Humber to the south and wide water-filled ditches to the north and west. It is a unique feature of Hull that it has retained so much of its medieval topography, not only in the street pattern of the Old Town but also in the clear definition of its boundaries through the building of the early docks along the line of the medieval walls. In no other great industrial or port city is the historic core so well defined.

Following the demolition of the town walls the built up area spread rapidly north and west and the docks, once located on the edge, were soon at the heart of the town. William Cobbett noted in 1830 that ‘as you walk round the town, you walk by the side of the docks and ships’. A hundred years later the popular travel writer H.V. Morton, in a piece very much in praise of the city, commented: ‘Ships sail right into the heart of Hull. They saunter casually across the main streets, their masts become mixed up with the electric cable poles. Trawlers steam in from the North Sea across roads and nestle their smoke stacks against the chimneys of Hull. Barges roll in casually, with the skipper smoking his pipe and looking up pleasantly at the long line of taxicabs, oil-cake wagons, cement carts, and tram-cars which wait respectfully for the bridge to swing back.’ Ships no longer sail into the centre of Hull, but the presence of Humber, Railway and Prince’s Docks and the filled in Queen’s Dock give the city a unique flavour. The Marina has been a great success and the setting of Prince’s Quay is so much better than any other shopping centre in Britain.

It is not only the new uses of the former docks, but also the greatly improved setting of, and access to, the Humber foreshore, that have highlighted Hull’s distinctive maritime townscape.
The open spaces that have been retained or created give the centre of Hull a sense of spaciousness rarely found in other cities. This spaciousness is enhanced by comparatively wide roads and the lack of tall office and apartment blocks which now dominate city centres elsewhere. Hull is a city on a human scale, a city for the people; long may it remain so.

Finally what of the people of Hull? Are they distinctive? J.B. Priestley writing in 1933 found the people of Hull ‘pleasant but queer. They are queer because they are not quite Yorkshire and yet not quite anything else’. Many Hull residents will dispute this view, but they must accept that they differ from the people of the West, North and, to some extent, the East Ridings. Most noticeable about the people of Hull is their dominant Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian origin and their distinctive speech which will have been modified by those who flocked into the expanding port in the 19th and early 20th century. In 1871 only 70% of the residents had been born in Yorkshire; of this group those not from Hull largely came from Holderness and along the river and canal network in the West Riding, some 8.5 % (over 15,000) had been born in Lincolnshire, and the rest from all over Britain and abroad. The rhythm of the Hull dialect is said to have similarities to that of Lincolnshire but the source of the particularly individual use of the long ‘er’ as in ‘fern’ for ‘phone’ or ‘er nerr’ for ‘oh no’ is unknown.

Within Hull there were distinct communities linked to locations and particular industries. The decline of the industries and clearance of most of the working-class housing, particularly the cul-de-sac courts that were distinctive to Hull, and the dispersal of the residents to large estates on the periphery of the city, has not totally destroyed the traditions and loyalties of these areas. The main divide was, and to some extent still is, between those who live to the East and West of the River Hull and the rivalry between the two sides of the city is displayed in support for Hull FC or Hull Kingston Rovers, the two Rugby League teams. Dominating the east side was Hull’s close-knit fishing community off Hessle Road. Here originating with migrants from Devon, Kent and Norfolk, the city’s most distinctive culture developed. As well as the use of particular words and phrases, many linked to the fishing industry, the hardships faced by the trawlermen and their families gave rise to a whole host of superstitions and traditional activities that have been recorded by Alec Gill. The fishing industry lasted for little more than a century from the mid-19th century but its impact on the life and image of the city has been immense. Thirty years since the virtual end of fishing, outsiders still refer to Hull as a fishing port.

Hull is still one of Britain’s leading ports, a position held for more than 700 years. This and its particular location have determined Hull’s distinctive economy, social grouping, cultural life, architecture and topography and made it a unique city. As Herbert Morrison, onetime Foreign Secretary, commented some fifty years ago, Hull ‘seems to be a sort of kingdom of its own, with an identity of its own. It is a remarkable place with an individual character’.

David Neave June 2009


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think what has been stated by John Netherwood very carefully and clearly describes the city and what is there and what might well be done to do improve / modernise things. Unfortunately, I think only a little describes Hullness. I would say the two items on his list that do so are the flatness and the isolation, both of which, along with its position which led to its becoming a port. I belive that Hullness really is about the people; the people themselves and, as I pointed out at the meeting, the dialect and its associated accent.

    I will start with the dialect which I believe is wonderful and overflowing with lovely expressions, words and phrases, many of which are unique to the city. Hear a Hull person interviewed on radio or TV and you can tell straight away where they come from. But they are not proud of it, many hate it. Why ? It's special and as much Hull as geordie, cockney or scouse are to Newcastle, London or Liverpool. It should be celebrated and I hope to see that it is.

    The people, possibly as a result of some or all of the things on John's list are, in general, very conservative (with a small "c"). They don't like change and are quick to complain when it is in the offing. This is helped by a local paper that is ready and willing to publish negative letters. For example, many didn't want the Deep .... or the Stadium. They can't see the point of new hotels or offices like Humber Quays. I moved to the area shortly after the Infirmary was built and even then people were complaining then that they didn't need that, that there had been a perfectly good hospital on the site of what is now the prospect Centre. Think of the uproar about the Hull (or should I say hull) cog logo.

    Alongside this is a negative attitude, a lack of self belief. This manifests itelf in the lack of ambition of many parents for the achievements of their children - why send them to school ? There aren't any jobs. You can walk around the city any day and see children of school age, many with their families. They can't all have dentist's appointments.

    The city is policed badly. There is little presence and equally little respect for the force which advertises all sorts of initiatives which all seem to be short lived and forgotten. This allows behaviour to occur resulting from the negative attitude.

    It is also poorly led - successive councils have been lacking in ambition and consequently toothless in their attempts to get the best for the city. Many councillors have represented the same ward for years - it seems like since the war - and until recently - could rely on winning any election without bothering. Only today we hear that the council has not even applied for government money to help with flood protection. Similarly it is rarely on the radar for government initiatives and was dealt a cruel blow by Maggie and the Cod War.

    There is a relatively small clique of business leaders who seem to have the city at heart but organisations like Hull Forward, who are doing a great job - as John Holmes said we are ahead of many other regenerating cities - are described as a waste of money by the man in the street. Who else is going to make the city a better place ?

    Hullness the to me is two things. The way he people speak which is unique and immediately identifies a person as coming from Hull. And this lack of self belief that holds the city back from dynamism.

    John Brien