Monday, 3 July 2017

Roots and Routes:Crossing the Humber

In this last instalment of our 'Roots and Routes' quarter of the History Centre's City of Culture blog, we take a look at how people have attempted to cross the Humber. As we explore this topic, we 'bridge' our way into the 'Freedom' quarter of 2017...

The Humber has long being a natural barrier and has defined the north. It once separated the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria from those of the south, whilst today it separates East Yorkshire from Northern Lincolnshire. This, however, has not prevented people from crossing the river, which has been traversed by boat and foot. 

The Romans were thought to have crossed the Humber on foot between Wintringham and Brough, this being possible because the river used to be wider and its flow, therefore, slower than present. However, the crossing was more likely made by boat, from a possible Roman jetty near Wintringham, which would have been revealed by low tide. Some of the earliest documented evidence of boat crossings can be found in an Edward II charter (1315), which states that a ‘ferry be established and forever maintained from Kyngeston upon Hull across the water of Humbre unto the County of Lincoln… for conveying and carrying… men horses, carts, corn and other things’. 

Barton Ferry, Waterside, 1801 [L.386/6(92)/2]

In the 18th century, the journey was 5-6 miles and, if the wind and tides were favourable, took around 1.5 hours. Conditions were not always favourable however, and in 1787 Charles Dibdin recalled his journey from Barton to Hull which took four hours and saw a customs officer fall overboard: ‘I am sure I shall endure nothing in my voyage to India that will exceed what I then experienced’. The last official ferry service across the Humber ceased at 16.30 on 24 June 1981, when the paddle steamer ‘Faringford’ made a final return journey from New Holland to Hull.

The Industrial Revolution enabled the Victorians to develop their own ideas of how to connect the north and south banks. In 1872 a railway tunnel under the Humber costing £960,000 was proposed but got nowhere. 

OS Map showing proposed rail link between Hull and North Lincolnshire, 1914 [C DMX/153]

Another railway tunnel was later suggested to connect Welton and South Ferriby. Like the earlier proposal, this came to nothing. With the drive of the industrial revolution, railways became the most convenient method of transporting goods, so in 1914 a railway link was again proposed, this time from Paull to Northern Lincolnshire. 

Whilst some Victorian engineers believed tunnelling to be the way to go, others proposed constructing a bridge. In 1883, the first ideas for a bridge were proposed. It was to be 5900ft long and 900ft high. It would be almost century later before the Humber was finally bridged. Opening on 24 June 1981 the Humber Bridge was, at the time, the longest suspension bridge in the world. It held this title for almost 17 years before being eclipsed by the Akashi Kaiky┼Ź Bridge in Japan in 1998. Today it is the world’s eighth longest suspension bridge.

Humber Bridge proposed design, 1931 [L.624.1/84]

For some, the Humber has provided an opportunity to test human ability and endurance. Among this group was Irwin Hales. He swam the estuary three times whilst taking part in the ‘championship crossing’ held from 1906-1913. The course ran from New Holland to Hull pier, and his 1913 swim was done in a then record-breaking one hour and one minute. Pete Winchester, known as ‘King of the Humber’ for his record breaking 68 swims, is said to be the only man to have completed a swim from Hessle Foreshore to Grimsby Dock Basin. 

The Humber may have been one of the last of the UK’s great estuaries to be bridged, but efforts to cross have been made for almost 1000 years. And so, even without a bridge, enthusiasm alone has been connecting the north and south banks for centuries.

Neil Chadwick, Archives Assistant

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