Monday, 14 August 2017

The sinking of the SS Neptun, Part 1

On the 3 November 1937 the Humber Conservancy Board (HCB) was brought before the Admiralty Court charged with negligence in undertaking its duties as a buoyage and beaconage authority. How had the HCB come to find itself in this situation?

The answer to this question can be found amongst the records of the Engineer’s Office, which maintained files on wrecks within the Board’s jurisdiction; the Board had been empowered to remove obstructions to navigation by the Humber Conservancy Act, 1899.

The previous year on 27 June, the SS Neptun, a Danish vessel owned by J. Lauritzen, was proceeding from Goole to Kiel with a cargo of coke breeze. The vessel was under the command of Captain Metsen, and Humber pilot John William Fielder was on board.

The Neptun was sailing without the benefit of the high tide, but using information obtained from the tide gauge at Whitgift, the pilot calculated that it would be safe to proceed if thirteen feet was to subsequently register at Blacktoff. As the only suitable stopping place between Goole and Hull was the moorings at Blacktoff, the Neptun would be committed to her voyage once she passed this point. The tide board at Blacktoff showed thirteen feet, and following the pilot’s advice the Master opted to proceed. It was a decision that would have serious consequences.

It was whilst navigating through the Whitton Channel that the Neptun met with disaster. At 2:20pm, shortly after passing the Middle Whitton Lightship, the ship quietly grounded. Efforts were made by the crew to free the vessel, but even attempting to utilise the wash of two passing steamships could not free her. By the time tugs had arrived at the scene the tide had fallen further, and they could not get close enough to assist.

The crew of the Neptun remained optimistic, and no danger was anticipated; it was fully expected that the vessel would float clear once the tide began to rise. This optimism would prove ill-founded, as the falling tide placed further strain on the ship. Around 6:15pm a series of loud bangs was heard as the Neptun began to split amidship. Water immediately flooded the hold, stokehold, and engine room. It was at this point the Captain gave orders to abandon ship.

The evacuation of the ship was an orderly affair, and the crew had plenty of time to collect personal belongings. The crew of fifteen, and the wives’ of the Captain and the Steward, were safely excavated to the Middle Whitton Lightship where they remained until they could be brought to Hull. By 9:30pm the Neptun was completely abandoned.


Illustration of the Lower Whitton Lightship. The Middle and Lower Whitton lightships
(Lv. 9 and Lv.10) were sister ships of identical design.
The Hull Daily Mail reported two days later that the crew had been in good spirits during the evacuation, ‘[the crew] had with them their mandolin and ukulele, and were singing and playing. The pilot said that he had never seen so lighthearted a ship wrecked crew’. The Cook however lamented all the overtime recently spent by the crew re-painting the vessel…only for her to become ‘food for the fishes’.

The Neptun’s masts and funnel remained visible during all states of the tide, but her hull was submerged during high water; it had become a hazard to navigation. The HCB acted quickly, moving the Middle and Lower Whitton lightships in order to mark a navigable channel clear of the wreck. Two green lights were placed on the vessel to mark her at night, and mariners were warned that only two feet of water could be expected during low ordinary spring tides in the Whitton Channel. The Lincoln and Hull Water Transport Company were subsequently employed for the sum of £1600 to disperse the wreck.


The HCB’s system of wreck marking.

Thankfully no lives were lost. However, the story does not end here. On 8 October 1936 the HCB was informed that the ship owners considered the Board responsible for their loss, and that they would pursue a claim for compensation.


Was the HCB held responsible for the sinking of the SS Neptun? This cannot be answered here, and so will need to wait for another post.

To be continued!

Robert Astin, Project Archivist

Monday, 31 July 2017

Freedom: Yorkshire Day

This History Centre City of Culture blog explores the anniversary of 'Yorkshire Day'... 

Created by the Yorkshire Ridings Society, it was first celebrated in Beverley in 1975. Yorkshire Day was initially conceived as a protest against the Local Government reorganisation of 1974, during which the county of Humberside was created. Humberside was never universally popular and many believed that the name change did not recognise the cultural, social and economic differences between the opposite banks of the Humber. In short, both sides felt that the creation of Humberside removed the areas's ancient and historic associations with Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. The East Yorkshire Action Group (EYAG) was formed in 1974 and campaigned for the return of the East Riding of Yorkshire and the abolition of Humberside. 

Morden's map showing the East Riding of Yorkshire, 1695

The date of 1st August was chosen to celebrate Yorkshire Day because it is the anniversary of the Battle of Minden (1759) and the end of slavery within the British Empire (1834). With these things in mind its easy to see how Yorkshire Day can also be conceived of as a celebration of freedom: freedom of expression; freedom of identity; and freedom of person. 

Battle of Minden

The Battle of Minden was a military engagement in the Seven Years War, fought between the French and an allied force comprised of Prussians, Hanoverians and British regiments. One of the five British infantry regiments involved in the battle was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. As the story goes, whilst marching to battle the British soldiers passed through rose gardens and stopped to place white roses on their headdresses and coats. The allied army was victorious and so, in commemoration of the victory and to remember the fallen, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, now part of the Yorkshire Regiment, wear a white rose in their caps on 1st August.

Emancipation of Slaves

The emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1834 was the culmination of a decades long struggle for which Yorkshire MP, William Wilberforce, had campaigned tirelessly. The British slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but Wilberforce and his fellow campaigners had to fight another 27 years to see the end of slavery within the British Empire. Wilberforce died only three days after hearing that the Slavery Abolition Act had been passed by Parliament. William Wilberforce was born in Hull and many items relating to him and the abolition movement are now displayed at his family home, Wilberforce House, on High Street in Hull. The Hull History Centre also maintains a Special Collection of books relating to Wilberforce, slavery and the abolition movement. Many of the books in the collection can be borrowed using a Hull Libraries card.

Recent Yorkshire Day Celebrations

The county of Humberside was eventually abolished in 1995, returning Hull and the surrounding area to Yorkshire proper. However, this didn't mean the end to Yorkshire Day. In recent years, the Yorkshire Society has organised an annual gathering on 1st August of Lord Mayors, Mayors and other civic notables from across Yorkshire for parades and other festivities. The host town or city changes each year and Hull has played host twice, in 1999 and 2007. The unveiling of the Yorkshire flag as an official emblem, recognised by the Flag Institute, was also conducted in Hull on 29 July 2008. 

Hull History Centre's Yorkshire Collections

Pamphlet produced by the East Yorkshire Action Group [U DEY]

The History Centre holds various books and archival collections relating to Yorkshire and its history. We provide free access to many Yorkshire newspapers via our microfilm collections and through access to the British Newspaper Archive Online website. Our local studies book collection contains many titles on the history of Yorkshire. Amongst our Yorkshire-related archival material, the East Yorkshire Action Group Records [U DEY] are a key collection documenting protest against the creation of Humberside and the loss of identity this was seen to cause. All this material and much more, can be accessed for free here at the History Centre.  


From all of us here at the Hull History Centre, we hope you have a very happy Yorkshire Day!

Verity Minniti, Archives Assistant (HUA)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Freedom: Hypocrite - The Real Story?

This contribution to the History Centre's City of Culture blog marks the first in our 'Freedom' series.....

Earlier this year you may have seen Richard Bean’s play The Hypocrite at Hull Truck Theatre (or our more far-flung readers may have seen its transfer to the RSC at Stratford upon Avon). The play is a farce telling the highly fictionalised story of Sir John Hotham, Governor of Hull at the start of the English Civil War. The Sir John of The Hypocrite is a rather hapless figure, bullied by a harridan of a wife and acting out of craven self-interest, before meeting his end on the executioner’s block.

Hollar's plan of Hull showing how the town looked during the 1640s

Our current exhibition at the History Centre, Plots, Intrigue and Treason: Hull in the Civil War, tries to show something of the real story of Hull and Sir John Hotham using some of the documents held here. We’ve also borrowed Sir John and Lady Hotham’s costumes from The Hypocrite, and we have an incredible model of Beverley Gate which you can also see on display.

The story of Hull in the English Civil War (now more properly known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms) sits rather nicely within the Freedom strand of the City of Culture year. Ideas of freedom run throughout the wars. The Scottish church fought for its freedom when the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury attempted to reform it in 1637-1640. The Irish Confederate Wars began in 1640 as the Irish people tried to free themselves from the English policy of plantation, whereby Irish Catholics’ land was confiscated and given to English or Scottish Protestants to settle. In England, Parliamentarians fought for freedom from a tyrannical monarch, while Royalists fought for freedom from a Parliament overreaching its bounds.

Illustration of Sir John Hotham on horseback [LP.920 HOT]

In Hull, Sir John Hotham famously refused to allow King Charles I to enter the town of Hull on St George’s Day 1642, closing Beverley Gate against him. Was this an expression of freedom against a despotic king, or an act of political self-interest?

Illustration of Charles I [L CWT/1]


Charles proclaimed Sir John a traitor, but Parliament backed his actions. Just 14 months later, though, Sir John was arrested on charges of treason against Parliament. After a court martial, he was executed in 1645. How did this happen? Why not visit the exhibition to find out!

Sarah Pymer, Assistant Archivist (HUA)

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Alexandra Dock

On 16 July 1885, the Alexandra Dock was opened for traffic. It was constructed by the Hull, Barnsley, and West Riding Junction Railway (H&BR) using powers obtained by Act of Parliament in 1880. It was named after Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII). Sadly both were unable to attend the opening ceremony. James Abernethy had been appointed to design the Dock. It was constructed by the Hull firm of Oldham and Bohn, and A. C. Hurtiz was appointed Resident Engineer. Despite financial problems the Dock was built in the space of four and a half years. 

Fresh water from the Holderness Drain was used to fill the Dock. The hope being that this would reduce the need for expensive dredging operations. While this measure may have slowed the process of silting, this hope was dashed and the H&BR would acquire three dredgers for clearing the Dock. 

The formation of the H&BR was prompted by a shortage of dock and railway accommodation for handling imports and exports. Prior to the construction of Alexandra Dock, all the docks were in the hands of the Hull Dock Company, and all the railways connected with Hull were controlled by the North Eastern Railway (NER). These companies were viewed by many – whether fairly or not – as not being responsive enough to the needs of the City. The opening of this Dock, and its associated railway, broke both of these monopolies; it was thus a source of rejoicing to many.
Illustration of proposed Alexandra Dock, 1880.
When built it was the largest dock on the East Coast. This was no vain attempt to impress, but a response to a pressing need for larger dock accommodation at Hull; the late nineteenth century saw the widespread adoption of steam motive power at sea, and this had resulted in the advent of much larger ships.

Alexandra Dock was instrumental in the development of Hull as a coal port. The H&BR Railway was well connected to the developing coal fields of South Yorkshire, and the expansion of this industry called for additional distribution facilities. The coaling facilities established at Alexandra Dock facilitated this growth.

Illustration of Alexandra Dock.
The dock was very successful with its modern facilities. By the twentieth century shipping links had been established with Australia; Egypt; India; Cuba; the West Indies; Russia; and North, South, and Central America.

Not all was rosy for the H&BR however, for the company would find itself engaged in a ruinous price war with both the NER and the Hull Docks Company. This price war would lead to the amalgamation of the NER and the Hull Docks Company in 1893. It would not be until the end of the 1890s that an understanding was reached with the NER, and the two companies would collaborate towards the construction of King George Dock.

On 25 July 1899 a small extension of seven acres was opened. Despite its small size, it managed to increase the amount of quay space by thirty percent and added four additional coal hoists to the Dock. In 1911 dock accommodation was further increased by the addition of a pier, which was built to handle perishable goods, general goods, and passengers. The Pier included electric cranes, two additional coal hoists, and two transit warehouses were provided for storage.

Alexandra Dock became the property of the NER when the H&BR was merged with its rival in 1922, which brought all the Hull docks and railways under the control of a single company once again. The following year it became part of the London and North Eastern Railway, which remained in control of the Port of Hull until nationalisation in 1948.  On the 30 September 1982, the Port closed to commercial traffic. However, following demands for additional dock accommodation it was re-opened in 1991 with the rail connection having been removed. 

Alexandra Dock remains in use to this day and is operated by Associated British Ports. The last few years have seen the establishment of offshore wind turbine manufacturing facility as part of Green Port Hull.


Robert Astin, Project Archivist