Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Freedom: Hull and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

This installment of the City of Culture blog looks at the issue of 'freedom' through the lens of the end to slavery. The 23rd August hosted the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed on 25 March 1807 that outlawed the British Atlantic slave trade and in 1833 Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, ordering the gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies. However, it was not until 1888 when slavery was finally abolished, Brazil being the last country in the Western world to do so.

Part of the Slavery Collection at Hull History Centre

Hull as a city will be forever associated with the abolition of the slave trade primarily due to William Wilberforce’s leadership in the parliamentary campaign. Wilberforce was of course not Hull’s only Member of Parliament to address the slavery issue. David Hartley (MP for Hull 1774-1780 and 1782-1784) formally brought the slave trade to the attention of the House of Commons and in 1776 introduced a debate “that the slave trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men”.

Until emancipation, slaves were considered the property of their owners, which meant that they were subject to the whims of their owner and local slave laws. Families could be split up, and people could be sold, gifted and inherited as property. The sale and trading of human beings as property seems an incomprehensible act. And yet at the History Centre we have found deeds and mortgages within our collections that show property and people grouped together as if they are one and the same thing.

Mortgage of an estate in Westmoreland, Jamaica, listing c.300 slaves [C DDX/35]

A collection that is currently being listed and will soon appear on our online catalogue at reference C DDI consists of deeds relating to properties in Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere. Held within the collection is a mortgage for £3,000 for the repair of damage caused by a hurricane to a plantation in the island of Barbados. This gem of a document also provides details of the slaves working on the plantation, giving their name, sex, employment, country, age, and in some cases even their date of birth. Similarly a mortgage is held at reference C DDX/35 that includes a list of approximately 300 slaves at a Lincoln estate in Westmoreland, Jamaica, which provides their names, colour, age, whether African or Creole, and in some cases it even gives the name of their mother.

Documents such as these are of international importance; they not only enhance our understanding of the slave trade but record the very existence of individual slaves. At the Hull History Centre we also house a special collection of over 1100 books relating to the history of slavery and its abolition from 1492 until 1888. It is important to remember the past in order to have the wisdom to prevent the same mistakes in the future.

Laura Wilson, Librarian/Archivist

Monday, 21 August 2017

The Gold Nose of Green Ginger

On Saturday 19th August we welcomed a very special treasure, given to the city for safekeeping and on display in our arcade until 11 November..

In 1967, foundations to lay the first houses on the Bransholme estate were being laid.  During the excavations, workmen were puzzled when they came across a small casket buried deep within the crowd; pulling it out and brushing the dirt away, they opened it to reveal a strange gold object inside.

Described as ‘looking like a ginger root…roughly in the shape of a warty nose’, it had two nostrils and braided silk ties, indicating it was perhaps worn ceremonially at some point.

The Gold Nose of Green Ginger, as we now know it is called, has been mentioned throughout the annals of history, but has always been considered an urban myth. Shortly after its discovery on Bransholme, it swiftly disappeared again – no one knows quite why, but some reports claim that those who came into contact with it were blessed with unexplainable and plentiful good luck, so it was hidden from public interest until it could be fully understood. 

Others say it was stolen by someone who wanted to be exclusively imbued with fortune, while others believe it was quite simply lost.

There is no evidence to suggest when and/or where The Gold Nose was first documented. 

Some theories suggest a boar, long considered a magical creature and deeply connected to the earth’s energies, had been foraging for food in the water meadow that became Bransholme and unearthed it (the name Bransholme coming from the old Scandinavian phrase meaning ‘wild boar water meadow’). Other variations on this story tell of the boar having special powers and turning the root gold itself. 

But what exactly is it? One popular theory relates to the discovery of excavations in the 1970’s in Wroxeter, Shropshire, where a set of Roman-period gold eyes - believed to bring healing to those suffering from ophthalmological conditions - were discovered. It is thought they were an offering to the gods; could The Gold Nose be something similar? What we do know is Roman discoveries have been made across the region, including Roman coins found at Castle Hill and across Bransholme, so it’s possible.

We also know that an amulet known as a ‘Bulla’ was given to male children in Ancient Rome nine days after birth. Meant to protect against evil spirits and forces, these would often be made of different materials depending on social status; usually lead or leather, but gold in wealthy families. There have been suggestions that The Gold Nose could be a variation on this, but this is so far unproven. Laboratory analysis does however confirm it is made of real gold.

It may also be significant that Meaux Abbey – which in the Middle Ages owned the land on which Bransholme was built – is known to have had a magnificent collection of golden objects; perhaps the Nose is a rare survival.

But how did The Gold Nose come to Hull History Centre? 

Back in April, a local group of experts was called in to investigate the discovery of a large cache of crates found in a previously unknown vault beneath the city. During their extensive investigations, The Green Ginger Fellowship was drawn to a crate that smelled unmistakably of ginger; upon opening it, they discovered The Gold Nose lying within. 

After much public interest in this unexpected rediscovery, The Gold Nose began a momentous two-month residency from Saturday 17 June 2017 at North Point Shopping Centre in Bransholme, Hull, displayed for the public to view at close quarters and make wishes on. It has now been handed back to the City of Hull for safekeeping, residing with us until it continues on its adventure. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

World Photography Day

To mark World Photography Day, our Transforming Archives Trainee Francisco Castanon, looks at photographs of Hull during the Blitz from the collections held by Hull City Archives at the Hull History Centre. 

It is 8th May 1941 and the night is coming. The city sleeps and is quiet, but you can hear in the distance a sound carried by the breeze of the Humber bay. It is the turbine wheels of Nazi Luftwaffe aircraft. The city was then illuminated by distant lights in the darkness. This happened seventy-seven years ago and the radio and newspaper reports did not reveal Hull by name but referred to it as "a North East Coast Town."

Destruction of the Prudential Building in King Edward Street (Ref: C TSP.3.387.27)
One of the most iconic photographs of Hull during the war is ‘the destruction of the Prudential Building in Queen Victoria Square’. The archives have thousands of similar photographs showing the damage inflicted on Hull during the blitz. The day after the raid, the Prudential Building had to be demolished for safety reasons.

Hull suffered its worst nights of bombing during the May blitz of 1941. In total the city was subjected to 86 raids - making it one of the most heavily bombed British cities. Many of Hull’s Victorian-era buildings including the Infirmary, elegant shops and thousands of houses were destroyed and the city centre never looked the same again. By the end of the war, it was estimated that 1,200 people had been killed. The complete truth was not broadcast, however, so as not to reveal any tactical or confidential information to the enemy.

Spotters on top of Guildhall watching out for enemy planes across the city skyline on the 21 Nov 1940
(ref C TSP.3.325.12)

In 1941 under the Fire Prevention Order, factories and businesses were required to appoint employees to watch out for incendiary bombs dropping in the city. ‘Spotters on top of Guildhall’ is another photograph that shows the effort of these patriotic volunteers. It was not a popular job since those involved sometimes had to spend seventy-two hours a week on duty. However, it was an essential aspect of Civil Defence and became part of a national campaign to encourage volunteers to sign up for the service.  

Soldiers inspecting the destruction of the air raids damage
(Ref: C TSP.3.354.12)
Photographs and original archives held at the Hull History Centre bear testament to the extent of the devastation and provide an insight into how the City coped under war time conditions. Most records created during 1939-1945 contain information relating to the war, but our source guide provides details of all the official records created in Hull as a result of the war.

Photographs give us an insight into the serious damage caused by the bombing, along with experiences of some of the people who helped to ensure that daily life continued as much as possible. They provide us with a unique understanding of the difficulties the people of Hull faced and what they endured to maintain their country’s freedom. 

Francisco Castanon
Transforming Archives Trainee

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