A Short History Of Hull ~ The Rivercity
The following is a short essay developed from a portion of an early draft of ‘Rivercity’; a book I was working on in 1997. It was originally part of a larger element of Coates’ – the protagonist’s – narration whilst hiding in a deserted warehouse after his office has been destroyed. Although rewrites made it inappropriate to retain within the (unfinished) novel in any way – it unbalanced pace, and never found a place where it felt like the authentic voice of Coates fulminating on a general piece of history – I believed it was worth keeping hold of anyway as an interesting prose piece on Hull’s origin and growth.
It helps support some of the descriptions and narrative, and may also convey some of the overall atmosphere of this beautiful, historic city and in particular the ancient centre of the Old Town which still exists in a mesh of streets, staithes and buildings and which forms the backdrop to the story.
I hope to do more with Rivercity someday soon…
EDIT: Rivercity is now online in its entirety here…
The Old Harbour, the river, the junction of rivers – the Hull and the Humber – is where it all began. Not the city of today. I mean the true city – the river city. And the sound of the river is why: the chugging of barges labouring in the churned, muddy water, the gulls shrieking above them and the dull humming and growling of traffic in the distance: sirens, exhausts, horns and brakes.
Most cities in the country owe their identity, their architecture and their heritage to a particular period in history: essentially some defining moment that gave them the status they carried with them for the rest of time.
They were shaped by a particular expansion that occured during the Industrial Revolution or the medieval period or the modern age.
Hull, along with notably few other cities is exceptional in that it was decisively shaped, characterised and defined by each period in its history: medieval, mercantile, industrial and modern. (As far as I know the only other cities that share this pattern were Newcastle, Nottingham, Coventry and Bristol.) And it all happened because of the river.
Hull originated from the manor of Myton and the hamlet of Wyke. These formed part of the parishes of Hessle and North Ferriby and were gradually acquired by the monks of Meaux Abbey. Two tenants, Rotenheryng and Box, pioneered Hull’s import and export trading from their quays near the point where the River Hull joins the Humber. King Edward the First purchased the lands from the Abbey in 1293, and in 1299 he granted the town its first municipal charter. From that point on it became known as Kingston upon Hull.
By 1640 the busy town was almost entirely enclosed within the wall defences with only the tiny hamlets of Trippet to the north and Drypool to the east, across the other side of the River Hull actually outside of the defences (which were amongst the most substantial in the country). Otherwise, apart from a tiny cluster of buildings near Beverley Gate, you looked out across the flat enclosed fields and grassy, reedy wetlands and scrub.
Within the fortifications Hull was already leaning towards the water with the old High Street (originally Hull Street) and the River Hull being the most crowded. To the West of Lowgate and the Market Place there was less crowding, some blocks even containing gardens, tofts and orchards.
Pre-industrial Hull’s topographic form, structure and layout essentially remained unchanged from the final decade of the thirteenth century when its walls and fortifications were originally erected. Its status as a trading port, already well established, grew and grew after the Civil War. More merchant houses were built, many replacing the city’s medieval properties as well as finally using up a number of vacant plots within the walls.
Daniel Defoe remarked on its claustrophobic, crowded centre on his visit to the city in 1726: “The town is exceedingly close built and should a fire ever be its fate, it might suffer deeply on that account… ‘tis extraordinary populous, even to an inconvenience, having really no room to extend itself by buildings.”
That was, of course, assuming that the city would not move outside its walls. When they disappeared to make way for the building of the town’s dock system then there was no longer the natural boundary. The rim of the city now merely became the outside of the urban hub and Hull was free to extend wherever its people took it.
Whilst the ‘Old Harbour’ at the mouth of the Hull had provided good service to the city, being a good natural harbour which extended to about a third of a mile upstream and had an average width of some 160 or so feet, it was by no means ideal and as time went on – and the waterborne traffic increased – it became ever more congested.
The congestion was not the only problem which needed addressing though: whereas the east side of the river was occupied by the garrison, the west was lined with quays, wharves and staithes. Hull was quite unique amongst British ports in that it did not have a single legal quay. This meant that along the entire length of the Old Harbour – from the south end right up as far as North Bridge – there was nowhere that cargoes could be checked or duties assessed by port officials.
The boarding of vessels was a fairly inadequate solution, as was inspecting goods on the staithes themselves. This kind of action was particularly unwelcome as many merchants and traders actually lived on their premises and oversaw their business on what were essentially private landings.
Eventually the combination of evaded duty and river congestion in the Old Harbour led to the passing of the first Dock Act in 1774, which resulted in the formation of the Hull Dock Company.
They built Hull’s first dock on ground they acquired along what was then the northern perimeter of the city. It included part of the ditch and fortification walls. This came to them free along with a £15,000 subsidy. Other funds were raised by selling shares to the corporation, Trinity House and the Charterhouse, as well as a number of merchants. (In the long run they proved a wise investment, providing nearly 25% dividends for many years.)
Built to plans drawn up by a Liverpool engineer named Henry Berry and modified by John Grundy, and rather unimaginatively named The Dock, it was finally completed on September 22nd 1778.
Stretching roughly east-west, the dock was entered by a channel off the River Hull.
Outside the port of London it was the largest dock so far constructed – A third of a mile in length and with a surface area of some ten acres. Whilst the north side of the dock was largely timber yards, the south side was the legal quay that Hull required, opening at the end of 1779.
Expansion of business was rapid after the dock’s opening and by 1800 Hull was the third largest port in the land. As well as its continuing trade with northern Europe, the city developed its trade with other parts of Britain itself (most notably West Riding, Lancashire and the Midlands) through the country’s growing canal system.
River and sea trade also began to dominate Hull’s industries, fuelling a boom in shipbuilding and whaling, as well as the processing of the raw materials which the city imported. By the 1820s Hull had a fleet of over sixty whaling vessels.
It soon became apparent that a second enclosed dock was required. Although The Dock had alleviated much of the congestion on the River Hull, there was still the problem of a vast number of ships needing to navigate up the river to be able to berth in the dock.
Further than that, expanding trade was clearly catching up with available facilities provided by the dock and the Old Harbour.
Built on land sold cheaply for the purpose by the crown, the second dock (completed in 1809) was entered from the Humber and was called Humber Dock.
Hull’s total encirclement by water (making it the “Rivercity” to my mind in developing a title) was accomplished in 1829 when a third dock was built. It followed the line of the old fortifications to join The Dock and Humber Dock and was named Junction Dock.
The city of Hull was now effectively an island, bordered to the east by the River Hull, to the south by the River Humber and to the west and north by its three docks.
Water held the city in and others out just as the walls had done for the medieval city. The emphasis had changed and the encirclement reflected the change perfectly. Defence in less stable times had required bricks. Trade in the boom times required water. Both trade and water formed the city limits and protected (either with a physical shield, or with the money borne in on the multitude of ships) Hull from the ravages of siege, plague and poverty.
Most of Hull’s inhabitants still lived within the same topographic boundary that had essentially not changed since medieval times and while the plagues that ravaged the land had largely disappeared, such close confines did prove to be the cause of illness and death, most notably in the cholera epidemic of 1849 which took about two thousand lives. As in the age of plague, the chief culprit was the city’s wholly inadequate sanitation. Overcrowded tenements sat with abbatoirs and tanneries. Filth and sewage was left in heaps for collection by night and the water supplies were contaminated – and unreliable.
Hull truly felt the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the final quarter of the eighteenth century, most obviously in the huge rise in trade. Some was the to-ing and fro-ing of foreign ships, some was river and coastal trade from within the country.
The expansion in trade brought with it an expansion in trade-associated industry: for example shipbuilding, sugar refining, tanning and oil seed extraction.
Hull’s first residential suburb followed closely on the heels of the building of the first dock and was contained on land to the north of the dock itself. It was to be, for several decades, the home of wealthy merchants and traders as well as ship owners and a number of other professionals.
Poor quality housing for labourers, seafarers and factory workers sprang up in South Myton to the west of the Old Town and was to be the point of origin of Hull’s famous Hessle Road fishing community. The city continued to expand in the following years, mainly to the north and west and included a fast growing industrial belt alongside the river, going beyond Wincomlee and including a number of worker’s communities. Westward growth dragged the Hessle Road area more than a mile from the Old Town. South Myton, at the east end of this sector was already notorious for its tight back-to-back courtyard format housing (entered through tunnels) and its appalling conditions. They were part and parcel of the growth in its fishing trade; first the whaling boom and then trawling.
Although Hull’s maritime history goes back many centuries – the national and international trading and the huge nineteenth century whaling fleet, for example – the trawling heritage is actually more incidental and shortlived. Nonetheless it is the more immediately evocative image of Hull.
It only began to develop after about 1843 following the arrival of smackmen from Devon and Cornwall. Merchants tried both to deny them landing space and to force them to move to, and operate from, Grimsby. Nevertheless their persistence and their increasing numbers defined them as a beneficial force amongst the region’s developing traders.
Even the trawlers though were all but gone by the end of the twentieth century. Hessle Road’s decline since the death of the fishing industry was halted gradually by a series of ‘prime-site’ development schemes and a stubborn retail trade. Nonetheless, it was little more than a ghost town compared to the faded sepia photos of its glory days.
The expansions had been followed by something approaching an implosion, and as the docks fell into disuse and the industries fell away the city seemed to retreat back towards the centre, towards the hub from where it had all started – where now advertising and new media and design and retail and leisure began to fill the yawning gaps, as the new vegetation takes hold among the old ruins.
© Gareth Bouch, RIVERCITY, 1997-2008
EDIT: Rivercity is now online in its entirety here…