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Jack Sparrow is sentenced to hang in a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In Hull, the harsh treatment handed out to felons was legendary.

The meaning of From Hell, Hull and Halifax and why you would have feared all three

From Hell, Hull and Halifax, May The Good Lord Deliver Us.

The famous line originates in the Beggars’ Litany, an old saying popular in the 17th century.

It is best-known from a poem by John Taylor, who visited Hull in 1622 and wrote a description of the town in verse. However, it may already have been well known in Taylor’s time.

James Joseph Sheahan, in his history of Hull (1864), suggested the line was of “ancient date”.

He wrote: “In it he (Taylor) alludes to the well known line in the beggar and vagrants’ litany – ‘From Hell, Hull, and Halifax, good Lord deliver us;” and also to the “Hull cheese … the mightiest ale in England.”

The proverb had taken its origin “from the severe measures adopted by the magistrates of Hull and Halifax, at various times, to suppress vice,” Sheahan said.

A replica of The Halifax Gibbet is on display in the town. (Picture Paul Glazzard / CC BY-SA 2.0)
A replica of The Halifax Gibbet is on display in the town. (Picture Paul Glazzard / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Four-hundred years ago, the Halifax Gibbet was among the most feared instruments of execution in the whole country. The machine looked and worked like a proto-guillotine, with an axe head mounted on a heavy wooden block, attached to an upright wooden frame. Petty criminals could find themselves strapped to the gibbet for stealing as little as 13-and-a-half pence. No wonder Halifax had such a frightening reputation.

Men do not wish deliverance from the town. The town’s nam’d Kingston, Hull’s the furious river, And from Hull’s dangers I say Lord deliver.

Why Hull was included in the litany is not so obvious. Most modern accounts suggest it was because of a notorious old gaol, but in Taylor’s telling, the line is connected primarily to the river:

“Men do not wish deliverance from the town. The town’s nam’d Kingston, Hull’s the furious river, And from Hull’s dangers I say Lord deliver.”

He may have had in mind an old tradition that in Hull, felons were tied to gibbets at low tide and left to drown as the river rose. Alternatively, the line may allude to the terror brought about by navy press gangs, which snatched young men from the town’s streets and bars and pressed them into service onboard ships. In 1597, Parliament passed the Vagabonds Act, which promoted press-ganging as a suitable punishment for vagrants.

A sketch by Wenceslas Hollar of Hull's 17th century defences, including the South Blockhouse and Hull Castle.
A sketch by Wenceslas Hollar of Hull’s 17th century defences, including the South Blockhouse and Hull Castle.

As Howard Peach writes in Curious Tales of Old East Yorkshire: “Hull had its vagrants whipped and stocked, and some of its prisoners drowned on gibbets in the flood tide, or lost and tortured in the Tudor block house … then came the press gang. There was plenty in Hull to promote anxiety.”

Taylor was known as the Water Poet, because he spent much of his time as a boatman on the Thames. His poem is called Part of this Summer’s Travels: Or News From Hell, Hull and Halifax.

In a section called, A Very Merry-Wherry-Ferry Voyage, he writes:

There is a Proverb, and a Prayer withal,

That we may not to three strange places fall:

From Hull, from Halifax, from Hell, ’tis thus,

From all these three, Good Lord deliver us.

This praying Proverb’s meaning to set down,

Men do not wish deliverance from the Town,

The towns nam’d Kingston, Hull’s the furious River:

And from Hull’s dangers, I say Lord deliver.

At Halifax, the law so sharp doth deal,

That whoso more than 13 Pence doth steal,

They have a jyn that wondrous quick and well,

Sends thieves all headless unto Heav’n or Hell.

From Hell each man says, Lord deliver me,

Because from Hell can no redemption be.

Men may escape from Hull and Halifax,

But sure in Hell there is a heavier tax,

Let each one for themselves in this agree,

And pray, from Hell good Lord deliver me.

Jack Sparrow is sentenced to hang in a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In Hull, the harsh treatment handed out to felons was legendary.
Jack Sparrow is sentenced to hang in a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In Hull, the harsh treatment handed out to felons was legendary.

Over the past 400 years, the saying has retained its popularity but lost its terrifying quality. According to Peach, on one occasion during the 20th century, citizens in Bond Street had fun pointing out the juxtaposition of a church, a pub and a building society, translated as “Heaven, Hell and Halifax”.

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