A History of Hull

By Tim Lambert

Hull in the Middle Ages

The town of Hull was founded late in the 12th century. The monks of Meaux Abbey needed a port where the wool from their estates could be exported. They chose a place at the junction of the rivers, Hull and Humber, to build a quay. The exact year Hull was founded is not known but it was first mentioned in 1193. It was called Wyke on Hull.

In 1279 Hull was granted the right to hold a market and a fair. (A fair was like a market but was held only once a year and lasted for several days). People would come from all over Northeast England to buy and sell at one.

The Church of the Holy Trinity was built by 1285. The Church of St Mary was built in the early 14th century.

In 1293 the King acquired Hull. It was renamed Kingston (King’s Town) on Hull. The king wanted a port in Northeast England through which he could supply his army when fighting the Scots. The king set about enlarging Hull. He gave the town the right to hold 2 weekly markets and an annual fair lasting for 30 days. The king also established a mint in Hull about 1300. The same year he built an exchange where merchants could buy and sell goods.

The main export from Medieval Hull was wool. Much of it was exported to towns in what is now Holland and Belgium where it was woven and dyed. Some salt was also exported as well as grain and hides. The chief import into Hull was wine (the drink of the upper classes). Other imports were wood and iron from Scandinavia furs, wax, and pitch (a substance like tar, made from the sap of pine trees).

Although a great deal of raw wool was exported from Hull some wool was woven and dyed in the town and exported. By 1365 there was a weigh house where bales of wool could be weighed. The only other substantial industries were brick-making and tile-making. Outside the town, walls were brickyards and tile yards. There were also the same craftsmen who would be found in any town, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, bakers, brewers, and butchers. There were also many fishermen in Medieval Hull. However, Hull was a port rather than a manufacturing centre.

In the early 14th century, Hull was given a stonewall and a ditch. There were 4 main gates, one of which was Myton Gate.

Like all other towns, Hull suffered from the Black Death of 1349, which probably killed about half the population. But it soon recovered. By the late 14th century Hull may have had a population of 3,500. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important place. The streets were paved but no doubt they were very dirty, full of animal dung and other refuse.

Early in the 14th century, Hull was run by a steward appointed by the king. In 1331 Hull was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain privileges). This gave Hull its independence. From that date, Hull had a mayor. The first was Richard De La Pole, a rich merchant. By the 14th century, there was a grammar school in Hull.

In the Middle Ages, there were friars in Hull. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Carmelite Friars (known as white friars because of the colour of their habits) arrived in 1293. They live, of course, in the street named Whitefriargate. From 1303 there were Augustinian friars (known as grey friars) in Hull. The street name Blackfriargate indicates there were Dominican friars (known as black friars because of their black costumes) in Hull.

The church also ran ‘hospitals’ for poor people. In the Middle Ages, there was a Carthusian priory (a small abbey) in Hull and a ‘hospital’ run by the monks.

Trinity House began as a guild. In the Middle Ages, skilled workers were organized into guilds that looked after their member’s interests. The seamen were organized into a guild, which met in Holy Trinity church. They ran a ‘hospital’ (actually an almshouse). They also controlled navigation in the River Humber.

Hull in the 16th century

In 1536 came the Pilgrimage of Grace. Many people were angry about Henry VIII’s religious changes and they rose in rebellion. At first, the town council resisted the rebels but eventually, they surrendered and allowed the rebels to enter Hull. However, the king dispersed the rebels by making promises (which he did not keep!).

In 1539 Henry VIII closed monasteries. The friaries in Hull were closed. So was the Carthusian Priory. However, the ‘hospital’ run by the Carthusian monks was taken over by the town council.

In 1541 Henry ordered that there should be improvements to the town’s defences. On the other side of the river Hull, opposite the town, Henry built blockhouses or small forts. One was nearly opposite the North Gate. The other stood near the confluence of the Hull and the Humber. Between them stood a larger fort, a castle. A wall joined all three of them. In 1552 the town council was given custody of these forts. In the Middle Ages, there was a ferry across the River Hull. In 1541 a bridge was built near the North Gate.

Exports of cloth continued in the 16th and 17th centuries. The export of grain also flourished. Lead was also exported from Hull. Timber, hemp (for rope making), and pitch were still imported from Scandinavia. Flax was also imported. It was used to make sails. Wine was still imported from France.

As well as trading with other countries Tudor Hull also carried on coastal trade. Coal was brought from Newcastle and some of it was ‘re-exported’ to other parts of Britain. There was also still a large fishing fleet, but fishermen now sailed to Norway and Russia rather than to Iceland. Ships from Hull also went whaling in the Arctic. From the early 17th century there was a shipbuilding industry in Hull.

Hull in the 17th century

Like all towns in the 16th and 17th centuries, Hull suffered from outbreaks of plague. There were outbreaks in 1537, 1575-76, 1602-4, and 1637. In the last outbreak, perhaps 10% of the population of Hull died including the mayor.

In 1642 the country was moving towards civil war. In April 1642 the king attempted to enter Hull. However, the governor of Hull, a man named Sir John Hotham held a meeting with some parliamentarians in a room in his house known as the ‘plotting room’. He decided to refuse the King entry to Hull.

Actual warfare between the king and parliament began in August 1642. The king was determined to take Hull but the navy supported parliament and the town could be reinforced and supplied by sea. A royalist army occupied the rest of the north of England but Hull remained a parliamentary outpost. In July a royalist army laid siege to Hull. However, at the end of that month, the defenders marched out and routed the royalists. The siege was then lifted.

A second siege began in September 1643. This second siege ended in October when, again, the defenders went out and defeated the royalists in battle. The civil war ended in 1646.

In the late 17th century trade boomed in Hull. Exports of grain and wool continued to flourish, as did imports from Scandinavia. Shipbuilding also boomed.

In the late 17th century a travel writer called Celia Fiennes described Hull thus: ‘the buildings of Hull are very neat (it has) good streets. It’s a good trading town by means of the great river Humber that ebbs and flows like the sea. We entered the town of Hull from the South over 2 drawbridges and gates. In the town, there is a hospital that is called Trinity House for sailor’s widows. There is a good, large church in Hull’.

In the late 17th century the fortifications around Hull were modernised. From the mid-16th century, there had been a castle on the East bank of the Humber with 2 forts or blockhouses North and South of it. The castle was rebuilt and the Southern blockhouse was rebuilt. A new triangular fort was built which included the citadel and the southern fort within its walls.

Hull in the 18th century

In the 18th century, Hull was, increasingly, an outlet for manufactured goods from the fast-growing towns of Yorkshire. Goods like tools and cutlery were exported. Raw materials for the industrial towns were imported into Hull. One import was iron from Sweden and Russia. Materials for shipbuilding such as timber, hemp, pitch, and flax were also imported. Exports included grain and other foodstuffs.

Many whalers were operating from Hull. Whales were hunted for their blubber, which was melted to make oil, and for whalebone.

However, the port became congested so a dock was built where ships could load and unload cargoes. It opened in 1778 on the site of Queens Gardens. At that time it stood just North of the town. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the walls around Hull were demolished piecemeal.

In the 18th century, Hull was not a manufacturing center. The only large-scale industry was shipbuilding. However, there was also an industry grinding rapeseed. They were ground by windmills or horse mills. The oil was used in making paint and soap. There was also some sugar refining in Hull.

In the 18th century, Hull grew very rapidly. The population grew from around 7,500 in 1700 to around 22,000 in 1800. Meanwhile, Maister House was built in 1744. In the last part of the century, suburbs grew outside the old town. North of the town development spread to Sculcoates. In the 1790s new houses were built west of the town.

In 1755 an Act of Parliament set up a body of men with responsibility for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets of Hull. Five more acts were passed in the next 60 years adding to their powers. A similar improvement act for Sculcoates was passed in 1801 and another for Trippett and Myton in 1810.

In 1735 a statue of King William 1688-1704 was erected. Hull had a theatre by 1743 when one stood in Lowgate. Hull Royal Infirmary opened in 1782. In 1759 William Wilberforce, who campaigned against the slave trade was born in Hull. His house is now a museum. He is also commemorated by a monument by Hull College.

Hull in the 19th century

In 1801, at the time of the first census, Hull had a population of over 22,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town. By 1900 it had grown to over 10 times that number. At the beginning of the 19th century, the last part of the wall south of the town was demolished. Wellington Street, Pier Street, and Nelson Street were laid out in 1813.

In 1809 a new dock, the Humber Dock was built. A third dock the Junction Dock was built in 1829. Hull grew rapidly and many new houses were built in North and South Myton and Sculcoates.

In 1814 a dispensary was opened in Hull where poor people could obtain free medicines. The same year a lunatic asylum was opened.

In the 19th century, the whaling industry in Hull declined and finally ended in the 1860s. But the fishing in Hull boomed. So did shipbuilding. Oil milling and the manufacture of paint continued. There was also a cotton-weaving industry in Hull in the 19th century.

A fish

In the 18th century, the streets of Hull were lit by oil lamps during the winter months. However, Hull had gas street lighting from 1822. An electricity generating station opened in 1893 but it was decades before electric street lights replaced gas. The first telephone exchange in Hull opened in 1880. In the 18th century, there were night watchmen who patrolled the streets at night but from 1836 Hull had a modern police force. From 1887 there was a volunteer fire brigade. (It became a professional one in 1938).

The first public park in Hull was Beverley Park, which opened in 1860. West Park opened in 1885.

In 1832, in common with other towns, Hull suffered an outbreak of cholera. A second outbreak followed in 1849. Victoria Hospital for Sick Children opened in 1873. In 1881 an outbreak of smallpox in Hull killed 689 people. An infectious disease hospital opened on Hedon Road in 1885.

A School of Art opened in Hull in 1861. A Technical School followed it in 1894. The same year the Central Library opened. Hull was made a city in 1897. Meanwhile, the church of the Holy Trinity was restored in 1869 and again in 1907.

Hull in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Hull was 239,000 and it continued to rise. Meanwhile, City Hall was built in 1909 and the Guildhall was built in 1916. During the First World War, Zeppelins (airships) bombed Hull. One raid in June 1915 killed 24 people.

During the 20th century amenities in Hull continued to improve. Ferens Art Gallery opened in 1927. A new theatre opened in 1939. In the 1920s and 1930s, slum clearance began in the center of Hull. Many new council houses were built on the West, North, and East of the city.

In the early 20th century many houses in Hull did not have flushing toilets. Instead, they had ‘earth closets’ (Basically a pail with a container of ashes of loose earth over it. When you pulled the lever ash or earth covered the contents of the pail. Men came at night to collect the contents and emptied them into a cart). As well as building council houses Hull council converted earth closets to flushing toilets in the early 20th century.

In 1929 the boundaries of Hull were extended to include Sutton and part of Anlaby. In 1935 Queens Gardens were laid out on the site of a filled-in dock.

However, Hull suffered severely in the Depression of the 1930s. Many Dockers were unemployed so were many men in the shipbuilding industry. On the other hand, there were some more modern industries such as engineering. During the Second World War about 5,000 houses were destroyed in Hull as well as 14 schools and 27 churches.

In the 20th century, Hull imported wool from Australia and New Zealand. Wheat was also imported. So was petrol and wood. Coal and cotton were exported. Fishing boomed. Hull was the third-largest port in Britain and its main fishing port. It was also a major passenger port. In 1970 160,000 people travelled to or from Gothenburg in Sweden or Rotterdam in Holland.

In the late 20th century industries in Hull included flour milling. Oil cake was made in Hull. So were metal boxes, plastic bags, excavators, and caravans.

Hull University was founded in 1954. Then in 1980, a Tidal Surge Barrier was built across the River Hull. The Humber Bridge opened in 1981.

In the late 20th century retail and tourism became major industries in Hull. Prospect Shopping Centre was opened in 1975. The Princes Quay Shopping Centre opened in 1991.

Meanwhile, the Streetlife Museum of Transport opened in 1989. Hull and East Riding Museum opened in 1997. In 1999 a trawler, the Arctic Corsair was opened to the public, after being refurbished.

Hull in the 21st century

In 2001 an aquarium, The Deep, opened in Hull. Furthermore at the beginning of the 21st century parts of Hull were regenerated. Among the new developments in Hull St Stephens Shopping Centre opened in 2007. Vue Cinema, the first digital cinema in the UK also opened in 2007. Meanwhile, a new business district, Humber Quays, was built on the waterside. The World Trade Centre Hull & Humber opened there in 2008.

In 2017 Hull became the UK City of Culture. In 2023 the population of Hull was 267,000.

A Timeline of Hull

c. 1193 About this time monks found a port where wool from their estates can be exported. It was called Wyke on Hull.

1279 Hull is granted the right to hold a market and a fair

c. 1285 The Church of the Holy Trinity is built

1293 The king acquires Hull. It is renamed Kingston on Hull.

c. 1300 A mint is established in Hull

1331 Hull is given a charter (a document granting the people certain rights)

1349 The Black Death devastates the population

c. 1365 A weigh house where bales of wool are weighed is built

1536 The Pilgrimage of Grace. The rebels enter Hull.

1537 Plague strikes Hull

1541 Henry VIII improves the town’s defences

1575-75 Plague strikes Hull again

1602-04 Plague strikes Hull again

1637 Another outbreak of plague in Hull

1642 King Charles I is refused entry to Hull. The royalist lay siege to Hull but fail to capture it.

1643 The Royalists besiege Hull again but again they fail to capture it

1700 The population of Hull is about 7,500

1743 Hull has its first theatre

1744 Maister House is built

1755 Improvement Commissioners are given powers to pave, clean and light the streets of Hull

1759 William Wilberforce is born in Hull

1778 A dock opens in Hull

1782 Hull Royal Infirmary opens

1800 The population of Hull is about 22,000. New houses are being built west of the town.

1809 Humber dock is built

1814 A dispensary where the poor can obtain free medicines opens in Hull

1822 Hull gains gas street light

1829 Junction Dock is built

1832 Cholera strikes Hull

1860 Beverley Park opens

1880 A telephone exchange opens in Hull

1881 Smallpox kills 689 people in Hull

1885 West Park opens

1893 An electricity generating station in Hull

1894 A Central Library opens in Hull

1897 Hull is made a city

1901 The population of Hull is 239,000

1915 A zeppelin raid kills 24 people in Hull

1927 Ferens Art Gallery opens

1935 Queens Gardens are laid out

World War II About 5,000 houses are destroyed by German bombing

1954 Hull University is founded

1975 Prospect Shopping Centre opens

1976 Streetlife Museum opens

1981 Humber Bridge opens

1990 Princes Quay Shopping Centre opens

1997 RED Art Gallery opens. Hull and East Riding Museum opens.

1999 The Arctic Corsair opens to the public

2001 The Deep opens in Hull

2007 St Stephens Shopping Centre opens in Hull