Kingston on Hull has a long and illustrious history. It was founded in the late 12thC when the monks of Meaux Abbey needed a post where the wool from their estates could be exported. They built a quay at the junction of the River Hull and Humber.
At one stage Hull was one of the most important ports on the east coast and part of the Hanseatic Trading league.
Gradually the docks expanded and Hull became the base of an important fishing and whaling industry. This history is told in the impressive Maritime Museum in Queen Victoria Square in the centre of Hull. In fact the building is as important as the story it tells as it was the offices of the Hull Dock Company, who wanted a building worthy of their importance and standing. And that is what they got.
Built on a triangular patch of land between Queen’s and Princes Dock, it has an impressive classical frontage with three circular towers. There are pillars with carved capitals, carved panels above the windows, balustrades and an impressive triangular portico above the main entrance.
The ground floor has exhibitions on whaling and fishing. Upstairs covers the history of the building, the docks, as well as shipping and trade.
It must be 15 years since I last visited the museum and in many ways it hasn’t changed much in that time. As always I started with the whaling galleries which I find the most interesting. Whaling was at its peak between 1815-25 when Hull was the biggest whaling fleet in Britain with 2000 men and 60 vessels.
The corridor takes you under a skeleton of a whale suspended from the ceiling and at the end is a most unusual seat with a carved wood base with a lion and a unicorn and the back made from the rib bones and intervetrebral discs of a whale.
There are more whale skeletons including one from a right whale which was hunted off the coast of Labrador in huge numbers. There is a massive blubber pot and examples of the different types of harpoons used as well as spurs attached to shoes to help men walk over the slippery skin of the whale during flensing. There are beautifully hand written journals with pen and ink sketches and examples of scrimshaw with amazing detail of rowing boats and sailing ships. Prize of place must go to that of the small rowing boat with harpoon gun on the bow. It made me realise just how vulnerable it was against a whale. There is also a crows nest lookout with only a small canvas hood providing protection from the elements.
Don’t miss the formidable joke razor. Whalers usually reached the edge of the Arctic Ice on May day. King Neptune appeared on board to shave greenhands on their first voyage.
There is a small display on Inuit culture with seal skin kayak and float used with the harpoon to keep an animal afloat after it had been killed. There is a seal skin parka and underpants. There are examples of harpoons made from narwhale tusks and fish hooks as well as bows and arrows used for hilling birds. I was struck by the ingenuity which went into making the weapons with any material available. There was a knife blade made from a recycled barrel hoop.
There were some lovely dolls, toy kayaks and even a toy sled and dog team. There was a large stuffed polar bear and the skeleton of a young polar bear.
The fishing galleries cover the different forms of fishing and have a lot of beautifully made models of boats. There was also a video of memories of an old man who had been fishing in the arctic for 27 years. I enjoyed the video but found the rest of the display uninteresting – possibly because this is something I don’t know a lot about and it doesn’t fire the imagination. I’m afraid I also find model boats a bit boring.
Much more interesting is the Arctic Corsair, Hull’s last side winder trawler which is now berthed behind the Streetlife Museum on High Street. There are free guided tours of it during the summer months.
An impressive double staircase with cupola above and an elaborate wrought iron banisters leads to the first floor. Round the top of the walls are monogram HDC in laurel leaf wreaths. There are three large frosted glass windows. The centre one has the crest of the Hull Dock Company and the windows on either side have the monogram.
There were more model ships and paintings which I skimmed past. There was a 60minute video showing men at work in the docks in 1960. There was information about the development of boats from the Ferriby boats discovered in the mud of the Humber estuary and believed to be the oldest plank built boats in Europe and dating from around 1500BC. (These are similar to the Brigg raft dating from about 800BC and on display in the Brigg Heritage Centre.)
A large map showed all the ports Hull traded with, reaching as far as Riga and Oslo. There was also some information about the most important mercantile families including the de Poles, Maister and Bladen families.
I headed for the room giving some history of the building which was opened in 1871. The rooms in the circular corner towers were used by senior members of staff, solicitor and also the drawing offices for the engineers. The whaling gallery was the office of the wharfage department and dealt with visiting merchants, ship owners and captains.
The Hull Dock Company worked closely with the London and North Eastern Railway who was responsible for all shipment from the docks. The LNER took over Hull Dock Company in 1893. When the Docks were nationalised after the second world war, the British Transport Docks Board continued to use the building until the early 1970s.
I was wowed by the splendid courtroom at the back of the building with views over the Princes Dock gardens. It was used for important meetings and entertaining share holders and VIPS. The red mock marble pillars on the walls are scagliola and have gilded capitals. Above the windows and doors are two cherubs holding different shields representing all the different ports Hull traded with as part of the Hanseatic league. (There is a large map in another room marking all of them.) The splendid ceiling has three large central lights surrounded by gilded carving. There is a carved and gilded cornice round the top of the walls.
Beyond the courtroom is a small memorial gallery to all those who lost their lives at sea. Beyond this in the round tower is the solicitor’s room which has information about the development of the docks in Hull. The original quays were around the mouth of the River Hull. Growth in size and number of ships created chaos in the cramped tidal berths. The intense pressure of mercantile and shipping interests lead to the formation of the Hull Dock Board to build an enclosed dock in 1774 where ships could load and unload in sheltered water with lock gates providing a constant water level. Queens Dock was opened in 1778 but was soon not big enough and was rapidly followed by Humber Dock (1809) Princes Dock (1829) and Railway Dock (1846).
Further expansion took place both up and down the river Humber as ships were getting bigger. Victoria Dock (1850), Albert Dock (1869), William Wright Dock (1880) and Fish Dock (1883) were all administered by the Hull Dock Company and were dependent on the London and North Eastern railway to mov traffic to and from the docks.
Alexander Dock (1885) had been opened by the Hull and Barnsley Railway and was a new venture to try and break the monopoly of the LNER. It didn’t prosper and joined the LNER in 1899.
The King George Dock was opened further down the Humber in 1914 and was extended as the Queen Elizabeth Dock in 1969.
There was a display room with a large chart of the River Humber marking sandbanks and the position of navigational beacons, buoys and floats. The Spurn Lightship berthed at the mouth of Hull Marina is now a museum.The chart made me realise just how tortuous the channel is to negotiate and the need for pilot boats. The big sandbank which the Hull to New Holland ferry could get stuck on at spring tides was very clear. There was also information about dredging and the need to keep the channels clear of mud.
I liked the large figure head of a Newfoundland dog from the pioneer transatlantic paddle steamer Sirius built in 1837 for the St George Steam Packet Company, Irish Sea Services. In 1838 she was chartered by the American Steam Navigation Company to make two Atlantic crossings in competition with Brunel’s Great Western. Sirius took just under 19days to cross from Cork to New York, and arrived in New York a day ahead of the Great Western. She was the first vessel to make the voyage entirely under steam, although when coal ran low, the crew burned cabin furniture, spare yards and one mast. Afterwards she returned to work in the Irish Sea and was wrecked off the Irish coast in 1847. The figure head which originally held a star in the paws was salvaged from the wreck and acquired by a Hull ship owner before being donated to the museum.
This is a fascinating museum with a wealth of detail. In many ways it is a very old fashioned museum and doesn’t follow the trend for touchy-feely high visual content with little information. There is something to cover all interests. I enjoyed my visit.
The shop sells a range of maritime gifts from shipping posters to enamelled pictures of boats and glass ships in bottles. There are shell trinket boxes, model boats and small polar bears, penguins and dolphins. There are mugs, cotton tea towels and key rings as well as some books.
There is no tea room but for those wanting a cup of tea, there is the Loggia Cafe in the Ferens Art Gallery opposite.
Although entry is up a flight of stairs, there is level access to the building by ringing the bell near the main entrance to attract the attention of staff. There is wheelchair access to all the displays and a lift to the first floor. Entry is free.
I didn’t have a camera with me, but there are some excellent pictures here.