Last edited 03 Dec 2023

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Grimsby's Kasbah

Perceptions about the future of Grimsby docks’ historic buildings have been transformed, even if the origins of the conservation area’s exotic name are shrouded in mystery.

Grimsby's Kasbah.jpg
One of the last remaining dockside smokehouses in the Kasbah conservation area (Photo: Patrick Salmon).

The Kasbah is the name given to a conservation area located within the port of Grimsby, designated in 2017. It is on a small peninsular of reclaimed land built in the mid-to-late 19th century between Royal Dock (listed Grade II) to its west and Fish Dock 2 to its east.

The Kasbah is bookended by three impressive landmarks. To its south is the Great Grimsby Ice Factory (Grade II*). To its north, on the edge of the Humber estuary, are Grimsby’s two dock towers. Royal Dock Tower (Grade I) was built in 1851 and stands at 93 metres. Modelled on Sienna’s Palazzo Publico, it was designed by JW Wild. The second, less decorative, is its successor, the Hydraulic Accumulator Tower (Grade II*), built in 1892 and standing at 24 metres tall.

The port was purposely built at Grimsby because it sits on the tip of the Humber Estuary, giving quick and easy access to the North Sea. Grimsby’s position on the south bank of the river Humber also offered advantages over its closest rival Hull, as it benefits from more direct land routes to major markets in the midlands and south of England.

The creation of this new dock estate was driven by the railways, particularly following the merger in 1845 of the Grimsby Dock Company and the Greater Grimsby and Sheffield Junction Railway Company. The newly invigorated network enabled Grimsby to compete on the global market as never before. In 1848–9 the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway linked Grimsby in stages with Sheffield and the major rail networks in the midlands and the north. At the same time the East Lincolnshire Railway began operating a south-bound service from Grimsby to Louth, which soon became a direct route to London Kings Cross. The new dock, now Royal Dock, was completed in 1851, followed by Fish Dock No 1 in 1857, which doubled the weight of fish landing in Grimsby in its first year.

By 1865 the port had become the fifth largest in the UK, and by 1869 20,000 tonnes of fish were moving by rail from Grimsby, triggering an extension of the existing fish dock. Expansion continued towards the end of the 19th century with the opening of Fish Dock No 2 in 1877, which itself was later extended to cope with the increased demands of steam-powered trawlers from the 1880s onwards. A further dock, Fish Dock No 3, was built in 1933–4.

Fishing in the North Sea had become less secure in the first half of the 20th century due to overfishing, and by the middle of the century fishermen needed to travel further and for longer periods to find their catch, making fishing more expensive and more dangerous, and stirring up tensions with neighbouring countries over territory. These eventually led to the decline of the fishing industry in Grimsby and the abandonment of many of the buildings in the Kasbah area. This culminated with the closure of the Great Grimsby Ice Factory in 1990. In the years which followed, many of the buildings on the Kasbah were left to decay and many were demolished. All this stopped in 2017 with the creation of the Kasbah conservation area.

The area is commonly referred to by locals as ‘down dock’. Indeed, many Grimbarians (like me), when asked, have never heard of Grimsby’s Kasbah, and do not know where it is. Often when it is explained they even object to it being called the Kasbah, as if the name is alien to them. Even many of those who worked there at its peak say that they have never heard the docks called by that name.

Kasbah is an Arabic word used to describe an area, usually a marketplace, with narrow, darkened streets. This would certainly have been a true description of the area’s character in the 19th and early 20th century.

It is sometimes suggested that a black-and-white film was once shot here, with the area doubling as the Kasbah in Marrakesh. Another suggestion is that there may have been a cafe in the area which was referred to as the Kasbah due to its cuisine. When writing the conservation area statement of significance I found no solid evidence that the docks were ever formally referred to as the Kasbah before the 21st century.

Historically, the layout of the entire dock area was influenced by the space which remained after the requirements of transport. The principal functions of the area, the storing and processing of fish, required little natural light, resulting in a dense network of streets dominated by smokehouses, warehouses and shops. The buildings are broadly consistent in scale, typically of two to three storeys. Within this broad pattern lies a huge amount of localised variety. This reflects the considerable variety of building types and of the multiple functions relating to all aspects of the fish trade. It is possible to see in a number of cases how plots have developed over time, either through rebuilding, using materials abundant at that time, or showing multiple older units knocked through to create larger ones. Each building reveals something of its original use, overall reflecting the diversity and dynamism of the area’s commercial activity.

The word Kasbah no longer describes the character and appearance of the conservation area. In the 1990s many streets deteriorated and were demolished. Perhaps this was done to help maintain hygiene, health and safety for those few stoic businesses that clung on. Chiefly those were businesses whose livelihood relied on the unique buildings found only here, such as those that produce Grimsby traditional smoked fish (which has protected geographical indication status). Other buildings in the area were demolished to allow greater access for HGV transport, to provide more parking or quayside storage, and no doubt more often to avoid the cost of business rate payments on empty properties.

The conservation area itself was only supported because, when permission for the demolition of the northern side of Fish Dock Road was granted in 2016, SAVE Britain’s Heritage had called for a judicial review on the grounds that the setting of listed buildings had not been taken into consideration. Designation resolved the problem as planning permission would now be required for demolition as part of a conservation area. But given the dire state of the 91 remaining buildings, further loss seemed inevitable without immediate significant investment. In 2017 over 80 per cent of the remaining buildings were vacant, most uninhabitable.

Shortly after the conservation area was designated, Great Grimsby was awarded heritage action zone (HAZ) status. The Kasbah then became one of a number of projects, spread over four conservation areas in the heart of Grimsby, identified for targeted investment. Shortly after the creation of the HAZ, which itself had no financial commitment, the HAZ projects were used to form the Greater Grimsby Town Deal. It was at this time that North East Lincolnshire became a priority area for the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council funding, having been identified as previously underfunded.

In 2019 Historic England and North East Lincolnshire Council took the first steps towards conserving the Kasbah, launching a £1 million partnership scheme in conservation areas (PSICA), open to businesses looking to take on empty units, with additional support from the port operator Associated British Ports agreeing substantial rental holidays as a further incentive.

Alongside the PSICA, the Great Grimsby Ice Factory Trust was successful in achieving £947,000 funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Architectural Heritage Fund to restore two further buildings on the Kasbah, including Peterson’s Smokehouse, from which the project takes its name. The PSICA and Peterson Project were delayed by the pandemic but are currently on site and hope to complete by the end of 2023.

Further to these, North East Lincolnshire Council has also secured £3.2 million from the Cultural Development Fund, administered by Arts Council England, to restore three more buildings on the Kasbah to create creative workspaces. The aim is to reach a critical mass of buildings occupied to drive footfall and catalyse further occupancy.

All of this comes at a time when sky-high construction costs are adding to our challenges. But as I write this, I am listening in to a virtual presentation by the new owner of the Ice Factory, showing off his £55 million plan to transform the entrance to the Kasbah. While that is a story for another day, it is clear that five years have transformed public perceptions and that there is a renewed belief that the Kasbah is well on its way to being preserved.

I strongly believe that its name the ‘Kasbah’ is largely responsible for this renewed interest in the port. When you hear Kasbah, you immediately ask ‘where’s that?’. Would it have gained such investment if it was just ‘Grimsby docks’?

For more information, and if you are interested in taking a space on the Kasbah see

Further reading

This article originally appeared as ‘The Kasbah: where’s that?’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 176, published in June 2023. It was written by Emilie Wales, heritage manager at Boston and East Lindsey District Councils, branch membership secretary for IHBC East Midlands and a trustee of the Great Grimsby Ice Factory Trust.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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