Last edited 12 Dec 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website


Hull’s fight-back in the face of the collapse of its fishing industry has made the most of its historic buildings, its reputation for food and its formerly neglected status as a city of culture.

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A restaurant at the Fruit Market (Photo: Neil Holmes).



Kingston upon Hull, more commonly known as Hull, is a city with an incredibly rich history, having developed a legacy of resilience and adaptation. It stands on the north bank of the Humber estuary, where the River Hull joins the Humber, giving water access to the North Sea and inland destinations. This led to the well-known fishing industry, which dominated the narrative of Hull for centuries. There were several major docks in Hull, with St Andrew’s being the fishing dock since the end of the 19th century.

The city’s industrial past led to it becoming a major target for air raids in both world wars. There is still a bomb-damaged site, once an old cinema on Beverley Road. Despite the extensive bomb damage, from the second world war Hull gradually recovered with the building of many modern retail, domestic and industrial properties. However, pockets of derelict Victorian dwellings and infrastructure continued to decline, to be replaced gradually with new social housing estates.

Fish and more

At the turn of the 20th century, until its decline, one of the city’s primary employers was the fishing industry, alongside considerable supporting commercial businesses. The residents of Hull had access to some of the freshest fish available in the UK, much of it being caught in the seas around Iceland.

From fresh fish for consumption, the fishing industry had adapted a naturally sustainable process. Any fish waste and condemned fish would be carted from what was known as the ‘wetside’ of the fish market, through to the Hull Fishmeal and Oil Company, which processed this by-product. This business would end up taking up to half the weight of all fish caught, converting it into sterilised animal feed, and other by-products such as soaps and oils.

Because of the connections between Europe and Hull via the North Sea, other food stuffs, such as fruit and vegetables were also imported. Fruit markets have had a presence in Hull since the 16th century; an area called the Fruit Market adjoined one of the docks. This market came into its own in the 19th century with the progression of imports and the storage of fresh produce. Fruits previously unseen in the UK became accessible to more of the population. This was a popular area, full of life, with a variety of architectural designs adding uniqueness and diversity to the area.

The Fruit Market area, like much of the city, suffered bomb damage during the air raids, and many of the smaller domestic buildings were replaced with larger buildings in the 1940s and 50s. The Fruit Market continued to prosper and remained a hub of communal spirit until its gradual decline, around the same time as the loss of the fishing industry. Joe Morizzo, an architect who grew up in Hull, speaks of the role of the Fruit Market. ‘It was once a thriving hub of multiculturalism, the place where exotic fruits and vegetables were sold at wholesale to retailers across the city and further afield,’ he says. ‘After its heyday the boarded-up wholesale warehouses were old, cheap and available. Some argue that Castle Street amputated that particular limb of the city centre, although the economic climate would have done it sooner or later’. Morizzo’s comments reflect on the desire, for a while, for Hull to become a shopping and tourist destination, without thinking of the consequences of all those whose skills remained in industrial activities.

Despite the excellent access to the sea and Europe, the prosperity of the city and its fishing trade following the second world war was to be short lived. In what was often referred to as ‘the cod wars’, in 1972 Iceland extended its fishing boundaries to 100 miles from its coast. Any foreign boat willing to break this new boundary would by threatened by gunboats. This crisis peaked in 1972 and Hull’s fishing trade eventually collapsed.

The end of the city’s main industry, combining with pockets of deprivation that had never recovered from the second world war, led to severe deterioration in employment, prosperity and even population numbers. Swathes of the city were left to decline, particularly the fish docks, where large numbers of buildings became derelict and dangerous. The city was losing its identity.

The conservation movement

Amid the city’s depression, small numbers of faithful Hull residents, often referred to as ‘Hullites’, were looking to reverse the decline. One of those who joined the movement in the early 1990s was Professor Graham Chesters, recipient of Hull’s ‘Remarkable East Yorkshire Tourism Passion Award’ in 2019. ‘The 1980s saw the evolution of a new conservation movement,’ Chesters recalls. ‘While historic buildings were being torn down, locals were fighting for their protection. The old town had huge potential and there was a growing sense of pride in what we had versus what had been lost. A small group of us formed to support the cause of regenerating the city.’

The tide was turning, with the council approving the Princes Quay Shopping Centre. This innovative and bold design, cleverly turning one of the old fishing docks into a shopping and entertainment centre, was completed in 1991. And new tidal surge barriers were constructed to protect the Old Town from frequent flooding.

The movement developed with a group called the Action 90s emerging in the 1990s. This provided a platform for the council to take interest: the new CityVision spending budget aimed to rebrand the city. The consultancy Wolf Ollins was commissioned to prepare a report which confirmed that Hull should set its sights on becoming a ‘top 10 British city’. Chesters and the team of willing local residents were the catalyst to the change in culture, despite the fears of many senior figures who felt that it was impossible.

Celebrating identity

Hull’s ambition grew as its people began to see its potential. The 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act was celebrated in 2007 as the year-long Freedom Festival. The movement behind the regeneration of Hull had to build on the momentum of those celebrations. Following their success, Graham Chesters came up with the idea of celebrating the life of Philip Larkin, the poet, novelist and librarian of the University of Hull. The programme received £200,000 of funding from the council to develop a series of celebrations. Many local businesses supported the idea, and £750,000 was raised for the festivities, demonstrating the pride that many businesses and residents had for Hull.

The city spirit and momentum that developed between 2007 and 2010 led to Hull being awarded the national accolade of City of Culture 2017. There was a concern of what the lasting effects of City of Culture would be, but it led to areas of the city receiving heavy investment. The Fruit Market is one of those areas where things have really taken off.

‘For years establishments worked in unison to make the street a destination, a hub of culture with the crescendo being the 2017 City of Culture,’ Joe Morizzo says. ‘There have been festivals and events down there for years now. It grew with the City of Culture funding: an art gallery has popped up, and there are some quirky shops and restaurants.’

Start-ups include the Humber Street Distillery, which makes its own gin, and Thieving Harry’s restaurant, which has over 8,000 followers on Instagram. Ali Hubbard, owner of Thieving Harry’s, appreciates the Fruit Market’s architecture. ‘The building itself is why we started Thieving Harry’s,’ she says. ‘I can’t imagine doing what we do anywhere else, and I think a lot of people feel the same way about the building.’ The city continues to support its own, with local artist Joe Cox providing illustrations for the renovated Fruit Market.

Other investment has followed with the flagship aquarium The Deep, arguably the single most powerful regenerative force in the renaissance of Hull. Other projects include the Scale Lane swing bridge, which provides better pedestrian access to the Old Town, and the new scheme for the Prince’s Quay bridge. Many of the buildings in the Fruit Market and the Old Town have been saved, thanks to the people of Hull. Their ambition and drive to change the city have led to regeneration and new businesses, including big business such as Siemens’ renewable energy plant at Alexandra Dock.

Ali Hubbard agrees that the area has benefitted from the new start-up businesses. ‘There wasn’t a whole lot in and around the Fruit Market when we started, just us, Fruit and three galleries,’ she says. ‘The area became a bit of a go-to destination due to the proximity to the water and boats, and the development that has happened in the last four years has been significant.’

Hull still has a long way to go, with parts of the heart of the city still needing investment and regeneration, but with the Hullites’ grit and spirit anything is possible.


Thanks to Graham Chesters, board director of the Deep; Joe Morizzo, director at Morizzo Architects; Ali Hubbard of Thieving Harry’s; photographers Paul Gibson and Neil Holmes; Janey Revill at Meehan Media; id architecture; and local artist Joe Cox.

This article originally appeared as ‘Buildings, food and festivities’ in Context 165, published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in August 2020. It was written by Louise Priestman, a conservation architect at Arup, working in their heritage sector.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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