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Local history and heritage
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Maritime heritage

History of Hull

Holy Trinity church 1842

The Humber estuary links the rivers of Yorkshire and the East Midlands with the North Sea. Hull grew up in the middle ages, where the River Hull joins the Humber.

Hull developed as a port through which wool from its surrounding area was exported to northern Europe, and through which the raw materials of the Baltic region - principally timber - were imported into England.

Sea going ships anchored in the mouth of the Hull to transfer cargo to and from smaller vessels which could sail up the rivers to Beverley, Nottingham, Knottingley, Selby and York.

A port of importance
In 1293, King Edward I bought the port to use as a supply base for his military campaigns in Scotland. In 1299, the king founded the borough of Kingston-upon-Hull on the site, and this name is still the formal title of the city.

Hull continued to be an important port in the later middle ages. It exported lead and grain as well as wool. Imports included cloth from the Netherlands, iron-ore from Sweden, oil seed from the Baltic and timber from Riga and Norway. Timber and oil seed continue to be major imports through the port of Hull to the present day.

Some Hull merchants grew very rich. The De La Pole family became wealthy enough to join the ranks of the English aristocracy, and for one brief period in the 1400s, become heirs to the throne.

Civil war
Hull suffered a decline in trade during the 16th and 17th centuries, but its strategic importance meant that it received the military attentions of both sides in the British Civil Wars.

In April 1642 King Charles I attempted to take control of the arsenal at Hull, but was turned away from the gates by the governor Sir John Hotham. Hull supported the Parliamentarian (Roundhead) side in the conflict, and was consequently besieged by the Royalists (Cavaliers) for five weeks in September and October 1643.

The leading English republican, Sir Henry Vane, was a member of parliament for Hull at this time, and slightly later, both before and after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Andrew Marvell, the Hull-born poet, represented the town.

The growth of trade and industryHull whalers 1822
Increasing trade on the back of the agricultural and industrial developments in Yorkshire and the East Midlands saw Hull’s development as a port accelerate in the 18th century. The first dock was opened in 1778 and others were constructed over the next 150 years. The population of the town also increased, and Hull outgrew its medieval walls as spacious middle-class suburbs developed to the west and east of the town. The 19th century saw the establishment of industries based on processing raw materials imported through the port, such as corn milling and seed crushing.

The late 18th century saw the rise of the whaling trade in Hull. By 1800, 40 per cent of the country’s whalers sailed from the town, and the trade brought increased prosperity to Hull until it began to decline through over-fishing in the mid 19th century.

By then, the fishing industry itself was beginning to take off in Hull. In the 1840s, the 'silver pits' – a very fish rich part of the North Sea – led to fishermen from Devon and Kent migrating to the Humber, at first seasonally and then permanently. The introduction in the late 19th century of new fishing methods – the 'trawl' – and of steam powered trawlers, meant that Hull fishermen fished as far a field as Iceland and the White Sea.

Trade and industry in Hull were boosted by the arrival of the rail link with Leeds in 1840. Other railways followed, including the Hull and Barnsley Railway and associated dock which were opened in 1885 to break the perceived local monopoly of the North Eastern Railway.

William WilberforceWilliam Wilberforce 1838

One member of Hull’s increasingly prosperous merchant class who achieved national prominence was William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Born and educated in Hull, he was elected as MP for the town in 1780, before becoming MP for the County of York in 1784. His profound Christian faith motivated his political life and led to him becoming the leading opponent of slavery in parliament. His campaign work contributed to the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and of slavery as an institution in 1833.


Hull was at its most prosperous in the years before the First World War. This prosperity, and the civic pride which went with it, is demonstrated by major civic buildings, such as the Guildhall (built 1904-16). Hull was granted the status of city in 1897, and the first citizen received the title of Lord Mayor in 1914.

The 1920s and 30s saw industrial decline, exacerbated by overproduction in the fishing industry. However this period saw many improvements in housing and planning, with the construction of council housing estates on the outskirts of the city, and a major urban improvement in the development of Ferensway. This last was interrupted by the Second World War, and is now being restarted with the St Stephens development. Hull University was founded in 1925.

Damage during the warCity Hall 1941

During the Second World War, Hull’s strategic importance saw it devastated by air raids, particularly in March and May 1941. The city was the heaviest to be bombed outside London, and post-war reconstruction (hindered rather than helped by a detailed plan co authored by the famous architect Edwin Lutyens) took many years.

The profile of trade in Hull changed after the war. The smaller, older docks were closed, but Queen Elizabeth Dock opened in 1969 to handle container traffic. The port continues to thrive with some of the largest super ferries in the world operating from Hull.

The main loss to the city was the fishing industry, which collapsed in the 1970s after the 'Cod Wars' with Iceland. However many of the old industries which originally developed in Hull to process imported raw materials are still here, including pharmaceutical firms Reckitt Benckiser and Smith & Nephew, and millers Maizecor. The port is still, after over 700 years, a major importer of timber from northern Europe.

Looking ahead

At the beginning of the 21st century, Hull is a unique city with a proud heritage and strong foundations on which to build a prosperous and exciting future.

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