Far Horizons: From Hull to the Ends of the Earth: Some stories of Hull People and Ships and their part in the port’s long and continuing involvement with the sea

Kingston upon Hull can be truly proud of the maritime related projects it has developed. The Deep is a superb asset to the City. Its concept was visionary and has been widely acclaimed. It is of national and international significance. The Maritime Historical Studies Centre of the University of Hull based at Blaydes House on High Street also has an international reputation and Hull’s Maritime Museum provides a wealth of excellent information and displays whilst Trinity House is one of the port’s hidden treasures.

Hull from the Humber, c.1837
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Today, the City is still steeped in the business of maritime commerce. Hull possesses a wide variety of firms and people whose maritime skills and expertise are in great demand worldwide. It is one of the most effective and efficient ports in the country and in 2004 its world-class port facilities handled 12.5 million tonnes of cargo, an 18 per cent increase on the previous year, then an all-time record for the port. Indeed, the Humber ports, including Hull, handle almost one fifth of all imports in terms of tonnage coming into the United Kingdom and nearly 10% of all exports. The new Logistics Institute established at the University of Hull has broken new ground. It is one of the few truly world class centres of excellence in global logistics, supply chain management and related technologies. Hull’s Fishgate is one of the most advanced electronic auction wholesale port fish markets in the world and was the first to have been awarded an EFSIS Accreditation. Yet although Hull prides itself on being a pioneering city, perhaps we focus too much on the land and on England in this respect and perhaps we all don’t make as much as we might of Hull’s pioneering role in the opening up and development of the global seaways or of its current maritime activities?

Although twenty-five miles from the coast, Hull has always psychologically been part of the sea. The River Humber and Hull are simply inseparable, both geographically and economically. The broad brown mud estuary provides the Yorkshire port’s raison d’etre. Upstream, its tributaries and canals carried goods to and from the heart of northern England – the powerhouse of the world’s first industrial revolution. Downstream, the deepwater channel links the city with the open sea and the world. The original settlement, the Old Town, lodges along the eastern bank of the River Hull where it falls into the Humber. The mouth of this lesser river has long been lined with staithes or quays where generations of merchants, from medieval to modern, transshipped goods and transacted their maritime trade. Immediately behind these quays, running eastwards from the Old Harbour, stretched a medieval maze of slim, straightish streets, more accurately narrow lanes, intersected by the High Street, the former main thoroughfare that followed the broadly north-south weave of the River Hull as it approached the Humber. In its maritime heyday, much of the Old Town was a congested place, a busy clutter of crowded entries and alleys, packed with humble dwellings that filled all available space between the finer houses and taverns, shops and shambles, warehouses and workshops that fronted the streets.

We sometimes forget that by the early twentieth century, when Britain was the largest and most powerful maritime nation in the world, Hull was already the nation’s Third Port. It was not only one of the world’s leading fishing ports but also of global significance in terms of trade and commerce. By 1900 the port also stretched far beyond the confines of the medieval Old Harbour, spreading along the banks of the great estuary. Brick buildings, many, many more houses and shops, rubbed shoulders with factories and forges, churches and chapels, pubs and clubs, all clustered around terraces and streets in the immediate environs of roads leading out of the port. Almost seven miles of docks and warehouses fronted the Humber and Hull to handle ships trading with not only with Europe but also the rest of the world. The commodities they handled were many and various, worked by lumpers and raff yard workers, deal porters, coal heavers and trimmers, corn porters and bobbers – the latter of whom unloaded fish. Many of our forefathers carried out such tasks or sailed across all the oceans of the world. The largest privately owned shipping company in the world, Thomas Wilson, Sons and Company, was based in the port. Its ships sailed to Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Far East and North America including New York.

Hull has always been more than one of England’s leading cities. It is a global player and we should make more of this. The world’s oceans and seas were the original World Wide Web and Hull played a major role in opening up and trading across the world’s seaways. Even before the first Royal Charter had been granted by Edward I back in 1299, merchants and seamen from the settlements that became Kingston upon Hull had gone down the estuary to the sea in ships, to do their proverbial business in great waters. In the 1720s Daniel Defoe thought it did more business than any other town of its size in Europe. His prolific pen had already dispatched Robinson Crusoe from its quays en route to shipwreck in the remote South Seas.

Some people will know a little of the story of the planked boats unearthed at Ferriby which date back to the Bronze Age but perhaps not their full significance in terms of early trade and vessel construction techniques. Moreover, how many realize that it has been claimed that the first experiments with steam propulsion on water probably took place on the River Hull before the end of the eighteenth century?

Ripple the surface of many epic tales of Britain and the sea and you will often find Hull people or Hull ships. This website outlines a number of brief biographies of people and ships from Hull and something of their impact on different parts of the world. They provide an essence of the port’s long involvement in trade and exploration across the world’s oceans. Their stories make up just part of the rich history of this great port city. Many other examples Hull’s long and successful interaction with the world’s oceans and seaways could have been cited.