The Story of Hull

In Brief

The origin of Hull is somewhat vague, and has various beginnings depending on what account you read. One will state that it was originally the mediaeval town known as Wyk upon Hull, whereas another will claim that Hull was built on a new site separate from ‘Wyke’, upon a new river which had actually been diverted away from its course to the present day channel. What everyone seems to agree on however, is that although it cannot be said for certain that Hull definitely grew out of any one village or settlement, it has certainly since swallowed up a number of them, including Myton, Sculcoates, Drypool and Southcoates, all names which are still in use today as areas or ‘wards’ of the city.

One of the earliest records of the history of Wyk states that in 1289, the Dean of York granted land to Carmelite Monks (or White Friars) who established an abbey there. The ‘old town’ street of Whitefriargate still exits as one of Hull city centre’s busiest shopping thoroughfares. It was also round about this time when King Edward I began to express an interest in the town. He recognised the strategic importance of the site, having potential both as a trading port and as a suitable place at which to establish a garrison. After negotiations with the abbey, the land came into possession of the king in 1293; he appointed a warden in the name of Richard Oysel and Kingstown upon Hull was born. Edward was keen to see the port establish itself, and offered many inducements to those electing to make a home there.

Coat of Arms

The city’s original coat of arms is something of a mystery. No-one knows for sure why the emblem was adopted as its use actually predates the College of Arms institution itself. But here’s a possible (if fanciful) explanation – Apparently the mediaeval merchants of the city adopted the crowns to demonstrate a ‘connection’ with the Three Wise Men, who were merchants themselves, and whose remains are rumoured to lie in the city of Cologne. At the time Hull and Cologne were very closely linked in trade with linen and cloth, and coincidentally, both cities use the three crowns in their coat of arms. Perhaps more likely, the arms simply signify the sign of the Holy Trinity, the ancient parish church around which the original city grew.

The Charter

In 1298, the king spent Christmas at nearby Baynard Castle in Cottingham, and it was during this time that he agreed to grant the town its first royal charter. On 1st April 1299 that charter was signed, and with it came many privileges for the city. Amongst these was the right to hold an annual fair, and although it may have changed beyond all recognition, the Hull Fair is still held and is actually the largest of its kind in the country.

The city rapidly grew under the favour of the king, and during the next few years major improvements were made such as street paving, and the creation of major highways to Beverley, Anlaby and Holderness.

The next stage of opening up Hull as a major place of commerce was the setting up of a ferry in 1316 which linked the town to Barton in Lincolnshire. This ferry route continued more or less uninterrupted for centuries. The paddle steamers Lincoln and Tattershall Castle being the last vessels to take passengers across to New Holland, until the more recent arrival of the the Humber Bridge finally closed this period of history.


Under the reign of Edward II in 1322, the city’s fortifications were begun. These walls encompassed all the area now know as ‘the old town’, with what later became Queen’s, Prince’s and Humber docks providing a protective moat. It is hard to believe now, but at that time the narrow River Hull itself served as the town’s busy harbour.

In 1331 Hull was granted another charter by Edward III, with William de la Pole becoming its first mayor. It was during the next few decades that the town developed rapidly into a major port, taking both trade and inhabitants from many smaller settlements in the area which all suffered as a result. One great bone of contention was that Hull was given the right to divert water to the town from springs which normally fed Anlaby, Cottingham and other areas. So great was the strength of feeling that in 1392, the villagers actually banded together and laid siege to the town, an ill fated venture which saw many of them later executed for their revolt.

Hull played a large part in showing loyalty to the succession of kings in their various military campaigns, providing ships, men, and shelter within its walls when required. And because of this, the town continued to receive royal favour. A 1439 charter granted by Henry VI made it a ‘county of itself’, and the Town and County of Kingston upon Hull was given jurisdiction over an area stretching as far west as Swanland, and north to Hunsley Beacon, encompassing all the villages and parishes in between. By 1508 it was acknowledged as one of the most prosperous and important towns in England.

Civil Unrest

1536 saw Hull’s loyalty to the crown briefly interrupted, when an army of pilgrims led by Robert Aske and William Stapleton laid siege to, and eventually took the town in response to the treatment of the Friars following Henry VIII’s reformation of 1534. Stapleton then left Hull under the governorship of John Hallam, and continued with his army to march upon Pontefract. A short while later, the king agreed an armistice with the pilgrim army, which promptly broke up. When William Rogers the mayor learned of this, he had Hallam seized, evicting him and his followers from the town, and returned Hull to the king. The town changed hands several more times over the following months, with Sir Robert Constable leading the pilgrims to victory before they were disbanded by political manoeuvring from King Henry, who then again took control. Eventually, in an attempt to surprise the defendants with an undercover ‘Trojan’ attack which was discovered, Hallam and his followers were caught and executed.

The Plague

Hull had its share of plague and flooding, and in 1576 the street of Blackfriargate (across the present day main dual-carriageway from the market place) was actually walled up to prevent any of its inflicted inhabitants escaping. Disease came to the town once more in 1849, when almost 2000 people fell victim to a cholera epidemic.

Sanitation arrived in 1613, when under the reign of James I, the waterworks were built, piping freshwater to all parts of the town. In 1622 street lighting appeared in the form of candles set out at night.

1635 and the plague once again descended upon Hull. This time not confined to one area, the whole town was put into quarantine. For three years the disease raged, and by the time the disaster was over, around half the population had perished, those which were left had suffered a great deal financially through the loss of common trade. But by 1639 economic recovery was almost complete. Thanks mostly to the vast accumulation of stores and strengthening of the town’s defences by order of the king, in readiness for possible war against the Scots following the imposition of church government upon them.

Civil War

The year of 1642 saw what was probably Hull’s most famous role in history. The differences between Parliament and the king had reached such a state that civil war loomed. Both parties recognised the importance of the fortified and heavily armed city and sent men to seize control. By this time the town’s loyalty had swayed towards Parliament and the king’s representative in the Earl of Newcastle was refused entry. Sir John Hotham arrived with 800 men, and although he too at first was denied access, after negotiations the town was taken for Parliament. On the 23rd April, King Charles himself arrived at the Beverley Gate and demanded entry. Sir John Hotham, now Governor of the town refused to lower the drawbridge, stating that he had been entrusted to hold the town for the peoples’ use. After the king had demanded entry several times more during the next few hours, he gave up, declaring Hotham a traitor he retreated to Beverley. And so was recorded the first overt act of rebellion against the crown in the war for democracy.

Hotham prepared the town for war. He flooded the surrounding area to make access to the walls difficult, and demolished any outlying buildings that might offer protection to its attackers. Parliament assisted by sending 2000 reinforcements, with 2 warships to patrol the River Humber, and it was on the Humber that the civil war’s first battle was fought. A ship laden with arms meant for King Charles was intercepted and sunk by a Parliamentary ship under Captain Pigot. A siege of Hull ensued, but by the end of July, after the defenders had made several very successful sorties, the Royalists had been driven back and pursued through and out of Anlaby. The king retired once more to Beverley in his first defeat of the campaign.

Although Hotham had won the first victory for Parliament, he himself was never totally committed to the cause, and when command of the Parliamentary army in Yorkshire was given to Sir Thomas Fairfax rather than to himself, he jealousy plotted to turn Hull over to the king. His plans never came to bear fruit however, the truth slipped out and Hotham was taken to the Tower of London and decapitated. Lord Fairfax became the new Governor and protector of the town.

September saw Hull once again under attack from an army led by the Earl of Newcastle. The bombardment lasted for 6 weeks, before a number of successful sorties by the townspeople, combined with heavy defeats for the Royalists in neighbouring Lincolnshire prompted the Earl to withdraw his forces.

After the civil war Hull continued in its military role, with a citadel (fortress) being built between 1681 and 1700 to protect its flank on the east of the river on the area now occupied by the citadel trading estate. This stood for 160 years, but as Hull developed into more of a trading port with the building of ships and expansion of its harbours, the need for defence was no longer seen as a major priority, and it was subsequently demolished in 1863.

Docks & Fishing Industry

In 1778 the first of the town’s docks was completed. The Queen’s Dock as it later became known, was at the time the largest in England, and is now the site of Queen’s Gardens opposite the Hull College.

A second dock was opened in 1809 (now the marina), and a third in 1829 (where Prince’s Quay shopping centre stands). Many more docks were subsequently built on the banks of the Humber, some of which are still in use, whilst others have been turned into retail parks.

Fishing was for many years one of the town’s biggest sources of income, and as early as the end of the 16th century the port began sending out whaling ships towards the treacherous waters of the Arctic. This trade flourished for well over 200 years until the last whaler, the ‘Diana’ was lost in 1869. Trawling for fish continued to grow with the advent of steam, and at the end of the 19th century it was estimated that around 20,000 Hull people were dependant or involved in one way or another with the port’s fishing industry. This wasn’t to last however, and by the end of the 20th century fishing in Hull had all but died out altogether.

Hull – the City

1897 saw the town become a city. This status was granted both in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s 60th year, and Hull’s approaching 600th anniversary since the granting of its first Royal Charter.

Hull’s position as one of England’s major cities went into steady decline throughout the 20th century, and this couldn’t have been helped by the onset of the Second World War The importance of the docks was not overlooked by the Luftwaffe, and the German air force made Hull one of the country’s most heavily bombed cities, with much of its architectural heritage and industrial wealth being destroyed in the process. The location of the city, and its position on the readily identifiable landmark of the River Humber made it an easy target, both for incoming bombers and those returning from other targets with their bomb loads still intact. 95% of the city’s housing was damaged during the blitz, but this fact was kept out of the news to avoid letting the enemy know how much success they were having, and to avoid demoralising the British public. Hull became the forgotten city and even now it still struggles to gain recognition.

The present day council are hard at work trying to coax the city into emerging from the chrysalis of post – war obscurity to become something of a tourist attraction (no, don’t laugh). Once bustling docks are being replaced with leisure parks and shopping centres. Now more of a haven for students than trawlers, every chain store and takeaway franchiser in the land seems to have dropped anchor here over the last few years. It does make one wonder though when thousands of pounds can be spent on the design of a new (and very simplistic) city logo, whether those that are aiming to make this a ‘top ten city’, are really missing the target altogether. It makes little sense to some to open multi-million pound attractions and shopping centres, whilst on many of Hull’s once busy shopping thoroughfares, business after business closes its doors.

The roads of modern Hull are notoriously bad. The extremely poor traffic flow is mostly a result of very bad traffic management by the city council. We have:

  • traffic lights forcing drivers to wait where clearly there should be ‘give way’ lines
  • all dual-carriageways and two lane roads forced down to one lane
  • crossroads where the lights change so quickly that no-one gets a chance to move
  • inadequate (or simply incorrect) road markings
  • a higher number of suspension breaking speed humps and 20mph zones than any other city in the UK

One could fill a page with the problems caused by basic lack of proper planning and judgement from those responsible. So if you ever decide to visit Hull to see what it has to offer, be prepared to queue!

700 years on and now with a population of around 260,000 – roughly divided in two by the narrow muddy channel from which the city takes its shortened name, Hull seems to have come full circle. From its early beginnings when people flocked in from the countryside to share in its prosperity, the wealthier inhabitants now seek to move away from its unattractive interior to escape back to the surrounding villages. However, the population has swelled in recent years due to a large influx of immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers.

Since Hull’s time in the spotlight as the 2017 City of Culture, there has been new regeneration taking part in areas in and around the city centre with a view to bringing its heart back to life. Has the tide turned once again? Only time will tell.

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