Industrial Past

Hull of uncharted history

Working as a journalist in Hull it wasn’t hard find to find bad news. With devastating floods, murders and large scale job losses some could say that the city was tainted.

Yet from a selfish point of view, all of this meant there was usually plenty of choice for us to find a powerful front page, even if it did nothing to bring cheer to the people of East Yorkshire.

But returning for a weekend break four years on, I wanted to find out if there is a reason to smile optimistically about Hull today.

Unfortunately within five minutes of arriving at Hull Paragon train station I knew this was going to be an uphill struggle; there seemed to be more empty shops than when I was last in the city and the majority of those that were trading could fit into the categories of pound stores, pay day loans and bookies.

What’s more, the copies of local paper the Hull Daily Mail I picked up featured gloomy headlines such as ‘Man failed for five years after attacking elderly woman with her walking stick’ and ‘equipment shortage putting obese patients at risk’.

Clearly there were also some more positive stories, like one about a barking dog alerting sleeping family to blaze in their home, but overall bad news continues to be high up on the agenda in East Yorkshire.

So in a bid to get away from all the doom and gloom I decided to head for a whistle stop tour of one of Hull’s museums. In the past these have always impressed and this visit was no exception.

The Hull and East Yorkshire Life Museum tells the captivating story of early settlement both in the region itself and further afield. If you were fascinated by Neil Oliver’s recent BBC series, a History of Ancient Britain, then this is the place for you to visit.

The exhibitions also cover the arrival of the Romans (with particular reference to how life changed for the inhabitants following the crossing of the Humber in AD71), illustrated by some wonderful local floor mosaics and finds from regional settlements.

But then, after displays on early Medieval East Yorkshire, this captivating story comes to an abrupt halt. Just as Hull is arriving at its prime, its glory days, visitors are greeted by signs to the gift shop and exit.

There are of course other, specialist museums in Hull, such as the excellent Streetlife museum (charting the Victorian transport revolution in the city), the Maritime Museum and Wilberforce House (covering slavery and its abolition), but there is nothing that brings the social narrative together for a popular audience. “Perhaps they ran out of money,” said one of the museum attendants.

You might not think it today, but the people of Hull do have a lot to be proud of. Building on its early trade of the export of wool and imports of wine, the River Hull became a haven for shipping.

And after being awarded royal charter by Edward I in 1299, the settlement was renamed King’s town upon Hull, or Kingston Upon Hull and rose in importance. The increase in trade after the discovery of the Americas ushered in very prosperous centuries for the city.

During the English Civil War, Charles I was barred from Hull, strategically important because of the large arsenal stored there, thus becoming a key part of the long-running conflict.

Right up until the First World War, when its prosperity peaked, Hull remained an important place. Many settlers from Northern Europe passed through the Port of Hull on their way to the New World.

It must have been a really exciting time as over the years new docks were built and wave after wave of immigrants moved in to work in a variety of industries, including the whaling trade. By the Victorian era the city had of course expanded far beyond the medieval city walls.

Then during World War Two Hull had 95% of its houses damaged or destroyed, making it the most severely bombed British city or town apart from London. Much of the city centre was wiped out and 1,200 people died in the raids.

Hull never really recovered and, worse still, in the decades that followed the Port of Hull on the Humber dwindled bringing numerous job losses.

It’s easy to focus on the gloomy recent history, but as I have recounted in the last few paragraphs Hull has seen some happy, more prosperous times.

The city needs to step up to the plate and follow the example of the likes of London, Bristol and Liverpool which all have excellent museums properly charting their histories. There is in East Yorkshire a Hull of a great tale to tell.

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Categories: Industrial Past, Reviews

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