Hessle - the East Riding town that's a mixture of ancient and modern


Chris Titley takes a tour of the East Riding town of Hessle with an expert on its history and we invite local photographer Ivor Innes to give us his view in pictures

It may not have the maritime heritage of Hull, its brash neighbour to the east, but the quiet town of Hessle has a distinct history of its own. Settled in Saxon times, it grew into the modern town we now know when transport improved in the 19th century. One of the experts in its development is Pat Howlett, who was a founder member of Hessle Local History Society. He’s lived in Hessle for almost all his 80 years and vividly remembers how the war affected the town.

‘There were four air raid shelters in Hessle Square. I know where most of the dropped in Hessle,’ he said. ‘There was only one direct hit on a house and only one registered casualty – a lady died in an air raid shelter.’One of the biggest changes over his lifetime has been the de-industrialisation of the town.

‘We’ve lost the shipbuilding industry, we’ve lost the chalk industry. Immense changes – all the railway yards went,’ he said. ‘There was a caravan industry. They built a lot of caravans down on the foreshore before they all moved in the 1970s and 1980s. The shipyard itself closed in 1994. It was three years short of being there for 100 years.’

Hessle is now dominated by the epic Humber Bridge and its country park – something that previous generations could hardly have imagined.Pat said: ‘The country park was the old quarry, down on the foreshore. There is still a mill there, albeit it hasn’t got any sails, but it was a five-sailed mill. We knew it as Little Switzerland.

‘We used to walk across a path which is actually now where the anchor of the Humber Bridge is.’

While the ordinary folk lived in small houses, some much grander homes were built for wealthy Hull families looking to live in a leafier spot.Hesslewood Hall, for example, was built for the Pease family, and Tranby House – which later became Hessle High School – was originally the home of the Barkworths.

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Algernon Henry Barkworth returned here after surviving the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. In his account of the disaster he recalled watching the women and children board the lifeboats before realising he had to get off the sinking ship.

‘With my two best friends, I climbed up on the boat deck railing and dropped about 30ft into the sea,’ he recalled. ‘I had on a fur coat with the life belt strapped on the outside. When I came up, I swam for all I was worth to get away from the sinking ship.

‘Coming across a floating plank, I rested upon it. Looking over my shoulder I saw the Titanic disappear with a volley of loud reports so I swam slowly around and came luckily up on an overturned lifeboat.’

Another ‘famous figure in Hessle was George F Holmes, of the tannery family,’ said Pat. ‘He lived on the foreshore, and he was an avid member of the Humber Yawl Club – he designed and made his own boats. He went sailing in Germany and different place.’

John Ellerthorpe, the ‘hero of the Humber’ also lived in Hessle for many years. The son of the town’s ferryman he became a superb swimmer – a skill he honed in his teens in the waters of Hessle Haven – and saved no fewer than 39 people from drowning over a 40-year period. Among them were his father and son. When John died in 1868, a huge crowd attended his funeral in Hull.

As the 20th century progressed, Hessle changed significantly.Its centre, the Square, was only created with the demolition of some buildings in 1921, and Boothferry Road – an early example of a bypass – followed about six years later.

‘Prior to the building of Boothferry Road in 1927, all the traffic that came through Hessle came down Ferriby Road, round the corner into Prestongate – you could imagine the stagecoaches coming down there years ago,’ Pat explained.

Before the Square, all that existed ‘was an open space outside what is now the church hall between the Marquis of Granby pub and the church. That is where the stage, then the horse buses, then the motor buses, used to stand.’

The people of Hessle have always enjoyed their food.If you look on the local history society website, you’ll find details of such specialities as Hessle Spice Cake, the Hessle Biscuit and the Hessle Pear.And for many years the town staged an annual feast. Held in spring, it was a time when the residents let their hair down. ‘There are several reports of lewd, licentious and drunken behaviour having taken place,’ writes Michael Free of the history society.

‘In 1808 the Rev Garwood and churchwardens placed an advertisement in the Hull Advertiser warning against such behaviour and by their efforts peace reigned for 20 odd years. The sequence was, however, broken in 1836 by what was “justly ascribed to the influx of loose characters from Hull”.

‘These characters believing themselves to be immune from apprehension wreaked havoc on the Sunday but were thwarted on the Monday when the Lord Mayor of Hull despatched a force of constables who dispersed the vagabonds.’

The feast was revived in the 1990s and became a popular annual event again. So far there has been no need for Hull’s mayor to dispatch his constables again.

Pat has recorded much of Hessle’s history in books and newsletters and he’s thinking of writing another to showcase his many old photographs. The place is in his blood. ‘I just love it,’ he says.

Getting there - Hessle is five miles west of Hull. You can reach it via the A63 from the west or the A164 from the north. It takes a little over an hour by train from Leeds, or a few minutes from Hull station.

Where to park - There is parking available at the Square and Swinegate.

What to do - Take in the history – you can download a Hessle Town History Trail from the council website, hessletowncouncil.gov.uk. Enjoy something to eat and drink at one of its pubs, such as the Marquis of Granby or Top House