Secret life of Hull: Gateway to the world

Hull is sometimes overshadowed by Yorkshire's supposedly more illustrious cities. But it is no less important.

HULL was among the places worst affected by the summer floods that devastated large tracts of Yorkshire. But the ensuing media scrum stopped short of the Humber, focusing instead on Sheffield and Toll Bar, which led to Hull residents describing their home as the "forgotten city".

The same could be said of its past, because if not entirely forgotten Hull's historical importance is often overlooked – dwarfed by the achievements of, say, York and Leeds. And yet Hull was vital to their prosperity.

As a port, it was the gateway to northern Europe, making it a focal point for imports and exports, though it was raw materials from the land, rather than the sea, that established its strategic importance.

"Hull started because of the need to import timber and oil seed from the Baltic, which it still does today," says city archivist Martin Taylor.

"You've got the Maizecor works up the river and the timber yards down at the docks, and these industries were here 600 years ago.

"Before the railways, everything went by river because it was the cheapest and easiest way of transporting goods. Timber was off-loaded from ships at Hull into the inland waterways that went to York, Selby, down the Trent to Nottingham and across the Midlands."

In this pre-Industrial Revolution era, timber was crucial to the nation's economy.

"It was used for all sorts of things, houses, furniture and particularly ships, and of course The Bounty was famously built in Hull."

As industries developed so did the port, and the first dock in Hull was opened in 1778.

Today, the docks look unremarkable but 100 years ago the sprawling, inter-locking docklands covered hundreds of acres of land along the estuary bank.

Hull became the biggest port on the east coast between London and Newcastle and its trading links with Europe gave it a cosmopolitan air.

"People came from all over the Baltic states, from the Low Countries and Sweden and Denmark. Amy Johnson's ancestors came here from the Danish island of Fyn.

"If you look back at 19th century directories there was a large number of foreign consuls based here," he says.

According to David Smith, senior local studies librarian, this was a two-way migration with timber merchants from Hull establishing themselves abroad in places like Riga and St Petersburg.

There was also a huge migration of Jews who travelled from Europe via the east coast on their way to a new life in the United States. Between 1850 and 1914, about 1.5 million Jewish people arrived in Hull and Grimsby, and many will have landed at Victoria Dock before taking the train to Liverpool. Most of them continued their journey to America, but some stayed to begin a new life in Yorkshire.

Mr Taylor says that like any city, Hull has experienced cycles of prosperity.

"It had a good Middle Ages and then in the 16th and 17th centuries it fell away and revived in the 18th century and continued growing until around the time of the Second World War."

Its isolated location on the northern bank of the Humber estuary has always given it a distinct identity, something evident in its architecture.

"Hull was the Milton Keynes of medieval towns," says Mr Smith. "It was a brick-built town because there was no local stone, but there was lots of clay and lots of water."

Hundreds of years ago, the idea of building a town using brick was quite radical, especially when so many of Yorkshire's towns and cities used stone.

Holy Trinity Church dates back to 1300 and, along with St Mary's Church, on nearby Lowgate, is the oldest building in Hull. It also has some of the finest medieval brickwork in the country.

"Holy Trinity is unusual because it's partly built of brick. It is one of the biggest parish churches in England and at one time it was probably the biggest brick structure in the country," says Mr Smith.

"The town halls were also originally built of brick and of course in Leeds and York they were built from stone."

There are some extraordinary brick buildings in the city, such as the Old Grammar School and Crowle House.

The latter was home to a prominent family of merchants who produced several city aldermen and mayors and created the now demolished Crowle's hospital.

Maister House, once home to another of Hull's elite families and now an architects office, is the city's finest surviving Georgian building and its only National Trust property.

The reason there aren't more is due to the fact that about 95 per cent of buildings in the city were either damaged or destroyed in bombing raids during the Second World War.

Hull was crucial to the British war effort and some historians claim it was the most bombed city in the country outside London.

"It was very heavily bombed because it was a port and there were also factories given over to munitions production. We are still living with that legacy to the point where nearly all the pay-and-display car parks you see in Hull were former bomb sites," says Mr Smith.

The worst of the bombing occurred during 1941. Little was known about this destruction by the rest of the country at the time since most of the radio and newspaper reports didn't reveal Hull by name but referred to it as a "North-East" town.

Hull was also bombed during the First World War and while these Zeppelin raids were much less damaging, not everyone escaped.

"The Edwin Davis department store got bombed in both wars.

It took a direct hit from a Zeppelin and then it later moved on to Albion Street and was completely flattened," says Mr Taylor.

Hull's military links can be traced back to 1299 when Edward I, who wanted a supply base for his campaigns in Scotland, founded the borough of Kingston-upon-Hull.

And it was here, in April, 1642, where the seeds of the Civil War were sown.

"Hull was the first place to refuse Charles I entry at Beverley Gate," explains Mr Smith. "The town elders decided not to let him in and the reason he wanted to get in was because of its massive arsenal and that's what sparked it all off."

Because of the city's strategic importance and its vulnerability to attack from the sea, an army garrison was stationed here until the late 19th-century.

"We also played our part in the Napoleonic wars with sailors going off to fight, and there was a guard ship stationed in the Humber to make sure the French didn't invade," says Mr Taylor. "I think it's fair to say Hull has a colourful history."

And one that shouldn't be overlooked.