Death on the River Hull – the Brewhouse Wrack ferry disaster

The River Hull in winter. Fourteen people died not far from here when their ferry capsized.

On a dark December day 170 years ago, an east Hull street was in mourning.

At number 12, Hood Street, the Durr family was trying to come to terms with the loss of three girls – Mary, Catherine and Maria – drowned just yards away in the River Hull. Next door, 21-year-old newlywed William Smith had also been lost.

All four had been on their way to work at the giant new Kingston Cotton Mills, when tragedy struck. ¹

They had caught a popular early morning ferry, known as the Brewhouse Wrack, which crossed the river from the Groves – an infamous district of tightly packed slums – to Wincolmlee. ²

As the crowded boat reached the middle of the fast-flowing river, it capsized, throwing about 30 people into the water. Fourteen drowned.

In the days to come, thousands of people would turn out to mourn the dead and watch their funeral processions.

But despite the disaster being one of the worst in the history of Hull, little was done to improve safety in its wake. For the authorities, the blame was to be placed on the unfortunate victims themselves. Continue reading “Death on the River Hull – the Brewhouse Wrack ferry disaster”

Mike Covell investigates Sweet Fanny Adams and other tall tales about Hull

The abduction of Fanny Adams, as depicted by the Illustrated Police News.

A few years ago, I was taking a party on a ghost walk around Hull when they asked me about a number of stories that I had never heard of.

Intrigued, I discovered that a so-called “psychic” was responsible for these tales and had told them to a lot of people.

I decided to look into the stories to discover whether there was any truth behind them.

Hull has more than its fair share of myths and tall tales. It is a city full of weird and wonderful stories that are, nevertheless, nonsense, historically speaking at least.

So join me for a quick-fire tour of murders that didn’t happen, headless people who didn’t exactly lose their heads, lipless ladies, and the story of a polar bear being buried under a Hull road. Continue reading “Mike Covell investigates Sweet Fanny Adams and other tall tales about Hull”

The 1801 Hull UFO revisited – with a Wokingham link

Moon occluded by clouds over San Diego, California (Picture: Rufustelestrat via Wikimedia Commons)

What was the strange, unexplained phenomenon seen above Hull in 1801: a rare weather event, or perhaps a UFO?

The supernatural sighting was described in newspapers of the time as resembling an “immense moon with a black bar across”, which then split into seven “globes of fire”. During the time it was visible, a faint blue light fell on the surrounding area.

Mike Covell, local historian and expert in all things strange and unexplained, discovered the obscure reference a few years ago and, during a former life at the Hull Daily Mail, I was lucky enough to collaborate with him on an article about it.

Our report, published in November 2015, soon went viral and was picked up by several national newspapers, which branded it, with admirable hyperbole, “Britain’s first UFO sighting”.

Unfortunately, our original is no longer online (the HDM lost much of its archive when it moved to a new website last year) but I recently came across a copy on and was as intrigued as ever. Continue reading “The 1801 Hull UFO revisited – with a Wokingham link”

A deadly trek across the Great Silence of Russia’s White Sea

A seal-hunting ship navigates a semi-frozen White Sea in 1931 (National Archive of Norway)

The three men stumbled across the frozen surface of the White Sea. They were freezing, starving and close to exhaustion.

Through snow drifts, whipped up by cruel winds, they could occasionally see the dim beacon of a lighthouse. Desperately, they trudged on towards it, across the rough and treacherous ice, conscious that to stop might mean their deaths.

They were the last survivors of the crew of the SS Sappho, a Hull steamship which was sailing home from the Russian port of Archangel, when it became stuck fast in ice, miles from the safety of land, in December 1915. 

What happened next is one of the most tragic tales of courage and endurance in the history of Hull. Continue reading “A deadly trek across the Great Silence of Russia’s White Sea”

10 of the most daring Hull prison escapes

A scene from the Buster Keaton film Convict 13 (1920).

Harry Ogle cut his throat while breaking out of a Humber Street jail but ran as far as river bank before he died.

From that day, according to an old legend, the prison – part of the town walls – was known as Harry Ogle’s Tower.

It is hardly surprising he would want to escape: For centuries, Hull’s jails were notorious places, helping to inspire the famous line, From Hell, Hull and Halifax, May God Preserve Us.

The main town gaol has occupied several sites since the 18th century, in Fetter Lane (now the site of the magistrates’ court), Castle Street (1785), Kingston Street (1829) and, finally, in Hedon Road (1870). Not one has been escape proof.

Some prisoners had little to lose. In December 1789, four men made a break for it while awaiting transportation. They included mariner William Gill, about 22 years old; a “good-looking fellow” called William Muschamp, about 26; Joseph Kershaw, commonly called York Joe, and William Townes, about 35, who had a scar on his right cheek. In the days before an organised police force, a bounty of 10 guineas per man was offered for their return.

As security and the professionalism of prison guards improved, escapes became harder to pull off, but this only led to inmates becoming more ingenious, whether fashioning homemade keys, ropes and ladders, planning elaborate distractions, or wearing convincing disguises. Continue reading “10 of the most daring Hull prison escapes”

This flying car was invented in Hull

The flying car invented by Thomas Walker, from Hull. His plans were published in 1810.

A century before the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered flight, a Hull man invented a flying car.

Thomas Walker was so confident that his mechanical plane would work, he envisaged building a fleet of thousands.

He hoped that his machines would one day criss-cross the United Kingdom and beyond, delivering letters and mail at the speed of 40 to 50 mph, rescuing mariners in distress and exploring newly discovered lands. Continue reading “This flying car was invented in Hull”

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

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.

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. Continue reading “The meaning of From Hell, Hull and Halifax and why you would have feared all three”

East Yorkshire had nuclear missiles powerful enough to destroy a city

The American Ivy Mike hydrogen bomb test in 1952.

RAF Catfoss is long forgotten. Today, the runway is home to an industrial estate and the old station houses make up a quiet hamlet.

But half a century ago, this peaceful corner of Holderness was on the frontline of the Cold War.

In the late 1950s, Catfoss was one of five bases in East Yorkshire chosen as launch sites for Britain’s first nuclear missiles.

American Thor IRBMs, which carried warheads big enough to destroy an entire city, were installed here in 1958.

Bases in Driffield, Carnaby, Full Sutton and Breighton, also received the ballistic missiles, as part of a programme codenamed Project Emily.

Four years later, as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Thor missiles were placed on full standby and could have been launched within 15 minutes. Continue reading “East Yorkshire had nuclear missiles powerful enough to destroy a city”

Witches and black magic died hard in superstitious East Yorkshire

Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins in the 1968 film, Witchfinder General.

Some time in the middle years of the 19th century, an East Yorkshireman had grown sick and his horse had died. One night, when the afflicted fellow and his wife were sat by the fire, the kitchen clock began to moan.

Terrified, and convinced they had been bewitched, they called a wise man, ‘J.S.’, who was brought to the house by a coachman.

At midnight, J.S. began a ritual to defeat the witch; he read the Lord’s Prayer backwards, tore the heart from a still-living black hen, punctured it with pins and buried it. Then, as he chanted to evil spirits, he performed a conjuring trick with some “fizzing stuff” that made water boil furiously, an effect so impressive that when he offered to summon the prince of darkness himself, the coachman begged him to stop.

It may read like a scene from a Hammer Horror film, but there is reason to believe the tale is at least partly true. The events, which happened in the ancient village of Kirkburn, were recorded a few years later by a Dr Wood, of Driffield, who had heard it from the coachman. The mysterious ‘J.S.’, from Haisthorpe, was renowned as a faith healer with magical powers. On one occasion he “healed” a woman at Speeton who had been bedridden for years. The grateful woman, gripped by a religious frenzy, led her friends singing and dancing through Bridlington. Continue reading “Witches and black magic died hard in superstitious East Yorkshire”

A cannibal werewolf ‘lived on Read’s Island in the River Humber’

Le Werwolf, by Félicien Rops.

Look out Old Stinker: an obscure legend suggests Hull’s infamous werewolf may have a rival.

The story goes that, many moons ago, a vagabond set up home on lonely Read’s Island, in the Humber Estuary, and scraped a living as a ferryman.

At that time, scores of people from the district went missing in mysterious circumstances.

The vagabond came under suspicion and, acting on information from his passengers, the authorities raided his pitiful shack and discovered piles of skeletons and bones.

He was arrested and accused of cannibalism, but at his trial he transformed into a howling werewolf. Continue reading “A cannibal werewolf ‘lived on Read’s Island in the River Humber’”

The Bible in East Yorkshire dialect – God meead heaven an’ ath oot o’ nowt

The Creation, by Lawrence W Ladd, 1880.

If the Bible had been written in the East Riding, how would it read? In The Folk Speech of East Yorkshire, published in 1889, Hull author John Nicholson has a go at finding out by rewriting Genesis in the North Holderness Dialect.

1. I’ beginnin’ God meead heaven an’ ath oot o’ nowt.

2. An’ ath was wi’oot shap, an’ emty: and dahkness was uppa feeace o’ deep. An’ sperit o’ God storred uppa feeace o’ watthers.

3. An’ God sed, Let ther’ be leet: an’ ther’ was leet. Continue reading “The Bible in East Yorkshire dialect – God meead heaven an’ ath oot o’ nowt”

The Hull man killed by his shaving brush

An advert for shaving cream from the Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1839.

Hull man Joseph Taylor was enjoying a holiday in Scarborough when he cut himself while shaving. A few days later, he was dead … from anthrax.

An inquest into his death, held in September 1924, heard how a shaving brush was the likely cause of death.

Taylor, a clerk at Reckitt’s, who lived in Thoresby Street, had been in perfect health when he left for the seaside with his wife.

He bought the brush in Scarborough, for one shilling and sixpence, and used it while shaving every day for a week, before cutting a spot which bled profusely. After a few days the cut got worse and Taylor became sick, but a chemist told him he had “barber’s rash” and suggested an ointment. Continue reading “The Hull man killed by his shaving brush”