Hull: a History

From solely a port for the monks at Meaux to export wool from, to a theatre of battle for the Civil War, to the UK’s City of Culture, it is fair to say that the city of Kingston-Upon-Hull has experienced a wide and varied history. It has been a market town, trading hub, port, military trading port, and an industrial metropolis; it has also suffered from some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, and rebuilt from heavy bombing during the Second World War. It is an interesting concept to consider how something as constant as an urban dwelling has changed over time, and how wider social, political and economic movements and decisions can have such an impact on both a city and its people. Therefore, this article will consider a series of events in the history of Hull, and their roles in the evolution of Hull over the last millennium. To do this, this article will consider the following: the early years, the Civil War, the ‘industrial port’, the ‘Hull Blitz’, and how Hull has used the various elements of its history to help it understand its history as the UK City of Culture.


From Wool Port to Town:

The earliest records of settlement in the Hull location date from the early 1100s, when monks from the nearby monastery of Meaux used the natural port to export wool to other parts of the British Isles. Beyond this, there is little discussion of Hull in historical records until 1293, when King Edward I purchased the town from the monks. Following this, he renamed the town on 1 April 1399, Kingston-Upon-Hull, granting the town a royal charter. This charter remains on display within Hull’s Guildhall, a proud reminder of the early period of its history.

A further point of interest in Hull’s very early history is the establishment of the travelling funfair, Hull Fair. Open for one week every October, encompassing 11 October, it is the oldest travelling fair in Europe. It first opened from 9 to 23 March 1278, and celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1993. It has become somewhat of a local tradition across these years; indeed, when the City of Hull attempted to cancel the fair, the local citizens were outraged! On the whole, in its early years, Hull behaved much like any other British dwelling of a relative size, its origins largely unremarkable.


Theatre of Conflict – Hull and the English Civil War:

Though no single event sparked the Civil War, Hull’s role in the start of actual hostilities is widely recognised – the first siege of Hull in Spring 1642 was amongst the earliest military operations of the Civil War. At the time, Hull was a prosperous town of 7,000 to 8,000 people, and was a place of natural strength. To its east was the River Hull, to the south the Humber Estuary – and east of the Humber was a line of fortifications built by Henry VIII. Around the other sides were heavily fortified walls.

Both sides wanted control of Hull due to the large quantity of weapons available. Hull had been the base for the arms and supcwplies collected for the Scottish War in the late 1630s, and had been garrisoned by 1,000 men. Though the men were withdrawn in January 1641, the magazine of arms remained stored in the old Manor House – and it was the largest magazine in the country, outside of the Tower of London. This was an important cache of weapons which would help either side in military engagements in the North of England.

Parliamentarian Sir John Hotham arrived first – and was given entry into the city in February 1642. However, Charles I decided to move his Court from London to York in the middle of March; York became a ‘sanctuary for all that despise[d] the Parliament’. Immediately, Charles wrote to lords in the area, instructing them to come to York and support his army. By 22 April, Charles decided to make a move on Hull; he thought that he only had to go to Hull in order to take possession of the town. However, this was not the case. Early in the morning of 23rd April, Sir Lewis Dives arrived with a letter saying that the King was on his way south from Beverley, and would arrive in Hull in the afternoon. Unfortunately for Charles, when he at 11:30am, the gates were shut and the bridges drawn: he was not welcome in Hull.

The siege of Hull failed for two reasons. Firstly, the strong defensive features of the city made it extremely difficult to lay siege to. Although the Royalists attempted to set up blockades on the rivers to the east and south of Hull, the local fishermen passed them with ease. These connections allowed Hull to bring in food from outside its walls; they also meant that its residents only had to fight on two fronts. Secondly, as a primary source states, the ‘fresh spring that runs to Hull…is fresh at low water, and every man can dig water at his own door.’ Because Hull lies so low, it has a very high water table, meaning that water is easily accessible across the dwelling.

The sieges of Hull show that Hull was very important in the Civil War, particularly in the beginning. Controlling the town indicated the popularity of the Parliamentarians, even in the conservative north, and gave Parliament a large cache of weapons. It was also important symbolically. By declaring publicly for Parliament, Hull’s defiance offered a prominent example of a large trading town turning on the King.

By the second siege of Hull in September 1643, Hull was the only important place in Yorkshire not in Royalist hands, and was the Parliamentary Headquarters for the operations within the county.


A Booming Industrial Port:

By the early nineteenth century, Hull was a growing port, trading almost exclusively with the ports of Northern Europe; of 711,000 tons which passed through the port in 1870, 554,000 came from there. It was also a city with multiple industries, which meant it did not suffer from the catastrophic changes of fortune suffered by single-industry towns of Lancashire; trades such as corn milling and fishing complimented its port.

As a result of the commercial boom of the mid-1830s, the size of Hull also grew exponentially. With 12,000 houses in 1831, Hull was a relatively standard sized town; by 1861, there were over 20,000 houses, with the growth occurring primarily outside of the Old Town.

Hull is a relatively strange example of a town during the Industrial Revolution. Where most factories employed women and children for fiddly jobs, Hull offered much less employment to these workforces. Instead it offered a more variable supply of work to men than manufacturing districts such as Leeds. There was also a much smaller proportion of Welsh and Scottish immigrants than equivalent-sized towns.

An 1844 inquiry into public health in towns by James Smith of the General Board of Health for Royal Commission on Large Towns and Populous Districts was surprisingly favourable. Whilst he noticed the old streets, particularly within the Old Town, he said many were ‘washed as clean as the deck of a ship’ – an interesting analogy, given Hull’s port status. Whilst there was a significant water supply problem and lack of sewerage outside of the Old Town, Smith was again impressed by the system in the Old Town where sewers were flushed at low tide by water taken by the docks. Overall, his impression of public health within the city was favourable. However, this impression proved inaccurate when it came to the cholera epidemic of 1849.

Panic ensued in 1847, when first news of cholera in Russia reached the port town. The link between cholera and the water supply had not yet been made at this point (it was not until 1854 that John Snow made the connection at the Broad Street water pump in London), but Hull’s residents knew that their water and sewerage systems were sorely lacking. However, these systems could only be made fully efficient at excessive cost – something that the council and ratepayers were unwilling to do. This meant that, when the epidemic struck, Hull had the highest death rates in the country. Over 500 people were dying every week at the disease’s peak in September 1849, with 24.1 deaths per square mile in this period.

Therefore, whilst Hull had become a thriving industrial port in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it still struggled with the basic issue facing almost all towns: how to keep people alive.


Hull Blitz and its Reconstruction:

Though not traditionally recognised as one of the most bombed places during World War Two, Hull was in fact the (unwilling) recipient of enough bombs to make it the second most bombed place after London. Estimates suggest that 95% of Hull’s housing was damaged or destroyed during the bombing raids, with bombing raids most intense inhull blitz March and May of 1941. Nick Tiratsoo states that 5,000 houses were destroyed in the war (6% of the pre-war total), with two million square feet of factory and warehouse space also destroyed. Approximately 1,200 people lost their lives during the bombing raids. However, no new naval bases or shadow factories were created in the area during the war; this was due to the city’s proximity to Germany, and the fact that Luftwaffe planes used the Humber Estuary to navigate their way in and out of the country. To produce goods here would have been futile. Indeed, only the port continued to work during the war.

Rebuilding the city provided the Labour Party with a location where they could put their new policies into action. Having won by a landslide in 1945, the Labour Party decided to prioritise the rebuilding of housing in the Hull area. They pledged to build 5,500 units of housing over three years, at a cost of £4.4million. Concurrently, the Ministry of Health and the town planner, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, created a town redevelopment plan, which involved moving the shopping area and expanding the dock. The process of ‘dockizing’ was considered in order to grow trade with Scandinavia and the USSR; this involved adapting Hull’s docks to make them even bigger. However, Abercrombie’s plans were met by a hostile local population, who instead chose to prioritise the industrial rebuilding of the city as opposed to the docks or redeveloping the city centre.

Unfortunately, the plans to change Hull’s dire housing situation failed miserably. 30,000 people began on the waitlist for new housing in 1945; this figure remained at 16,000 in 1951, with 2457 temporary housing units still in use. Concurrently, there was a significant growth in unemployment levels after the near-complete employment rates during the Second World War, which made the situation worse.

The industrial reconstruction of Hull had been favoured over the civil reconstruction, but ultimately, it appears that this was the wrong decision.


Historical Significance: Hull, the City of Culture:

Following the conclusion of World War Two, it is fair to say that Britain’s industrial reputation declined; post-war Britain has focused upon consumerism and the rise of the service industry, meaning traditional industries has fallen to the wayside. For an industrial city like Hull, this was not good news. Unemployment rates in Hull have always been at least two percent above the national average, with the peak in 1990 of almost twenty two percent of men unemployed in the city. Furthermore, the city was regularly voted one of the worst places in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s. Fishing and manufacture fell away, leaving the city with an unclear identity: just what would be its new niche?

And yet, in 2017, it seems as though Hull’s fortunes have completely turned aroun

city of cultured. After initially investing in 2014, the German multi-national corporation, Siemens, opened its first factory in Hull in late 2016. The £310 million wind turbine blade factory has directly created 1,000 jobs; this is an intriguing situation, given the fact that citizens of Hull voted 2:1 to leave the European Union. However, the importance of Siemens in the redevelopment of Hull has been recognised as part of the City of Culture celebrations; for six weeks, a 70 metre wind turbine blade was positioned in Hull City Centre to highlight the role of the company.

Hull City Centre has also undergone extreme redevelopment in the past three years. Following the announcement in 2013 that Hull was to be the next UK City of Culture, work began to redesign the city centre, and the image of the city. This involved new footpaths, new buildings, and negotiations with national corporations such as the BBC. This deal has resulted in Hull being identified on weather maps on all major channels for the duration of its year as City of Culture.

Also intriguing is Hull’s use of its own history in its rebranding. This has been seen most evidently at the opening event of the City of Culture celebrations, in early January 2017. This event involved a series of ‘Made in Hull’ light shows, which used buildings throughout the city centre to project films created by Hull residents. Featuring films about Hull’s unemployment, its cultural contributions to film and television, and the importance of immigration to the city’s success in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the series offered an insight into Hull’s diverse culture. However, the pinnacle show was reserved for Queen Victoria’s Square; this show charted Hull’s history from port through to Civil War, to industrial heartland. It discussed the importance of the docks, the tragedies involving the lost trawlermen, and the Blitz – as well as Hull’s footballing and rugby history, its bid to be the City of Culture, and some of the people who make Hull special.



Whilst it is impossible to say what the future holds, it is clear that Hull has held a variety of positions in its thousand year history. From a small port to one of the starting points of the Civil War to an international port, it has proven that it can adapt with the times. It has also recognised its own history – both good and bad – in creating its own identity in recent years. Though it suffered particularly badly in the post-war era, investments into the area by companies such as Siemens suggest a tentative trust in the city’s potential, though only time will tell as to Hull’s next adaptation.


Written by Victoria Bettney



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Campbell, James. ‘Stunning Made in Hull light show launches City of Culture 2017.’ Hull Daily Mail. January 1, 2017. Accessed March 20, 2017.

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