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

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.

1) Sweet Fanny Adams and Exchange Alley

The grave of Fanny Adams, whose murder in 1867 shocked the nation and inspired the phrase Sweet Fanny Adams. Picture: Peter Trimming / Flickr
The grave of Fanny Adams, whose murder in 1867 shocked the nation and inspired the phrase Sweet Fanny Adams. Picture: Peter Trimming / Flickr

Exchange Alley, off Bowlalley Lane, runs in an L-shape around the back of the old Barracuda pub, and was once the site of several houses. One story connected with the little alleyway goes that a young girl called Fanny Adams was murdered here, inspiring the famous phrase “Sweet Fanny Adams”.

However, eight-year-old Fanny Adams was actually murdered in Alton, Hampshire, by a man called Frederick Baker, in August 1867 (depicted at the top of this article in an image published by the Illustrated Police News). How the tragic victim became associated with Hull is unclear, but the brutal murder caused a national outcry at the time and would have been long remembered. Baker was hanged at Winchester on Christmas Eve, in front of a crowd of 5,000 people.

2) The Headless Boy who never lost his head

Barmston Drain is crossed by a series of low bridges on its route through Hull.
Barmston Drain is crossed by a series of low bridges on its route through Hull. Picture: Paul Johnson

The Beverley and Barmston Drain, or Barmy Drain as it is known locally, was established as part of a drainage scheme in 1798. The drain had to go under several small bridges before flowing into the River Hull beneath a bridge and via a sluice gate, all of which makes the next story rather odd. It is claimed that a ship sailed up the River Hull and into Barmston Drain, where it beheaded a boy (or his sister, or their parents, depending on who is telling the tale). Despite the drain being landlocked and ships being unable to pass up it, the story continues to be told.

3) The Polar Bear of High Street

A polar bear in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Picture: Alan D. Wilson - naturespicsonline.com
A polar bear in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Picture: Alan D. Wilson – naturespicsonline.com

One of the most unusual claims in recent years is that a polar bear died in Hull and was buried under High Street. This is a great example of local storytelling in which a real nugget of history is twisted into a juicy myth.

Hull was well-known in the late Victorian period for being the home of several polar bears, which lived at the Botanic Gardens, off Spring Bank. However, those animals that did die were certainly not buried on High Street, and the newspapers of the period usually included notices of their deaths.

Interestingly, High Street was, at one point, one of the busiest streets in Hull, even until the 1940s, when it suffered great bomb damage. You would think someone would have documented such a unique burial!

4) The Lipless Lady

Dock Office Row, Hull, in the 1980s. Picture: Bernard Sharp / Geograph
Dock Office Row, Hull, in the 1980s. Picture: Bernard Sharp / Geograph

In Dock Office row, at the northern end of High Street, stands a lovely red-brick building with an ornate, wooden cupola. This is the former Dock Offices, built in 1820 for the Hull Dock Company, when what is now Queens Gardens was the old Queens Dock. The building soon became too small for purpose and was replaced in 1871 by what is now the Maritime Museum.

A myth suggests that a fire swept through the building, killing a lady, who was trying to escape when she fell and bit her lip. I looked into the story and, after a thorough search of newspapers from 1820 to the present day, discovered that no such fire occurred.

5) The fire that wasn’t

According to another tall tale, there was once a devastating fire at the former Barracuda building in Lowgate. This was, in the 1980s, a juvenile court and the story goes that the blaze killed between 40 and 60 children, who were in holding cells in the basement. However, a search of the historical newspapers, the Hull Daily Mail archives, the Hull Times, and the Hull Packet, and their various incarnations, all fail to show any such fire.

The Hull Watch Committee minutes of meetings, which include the cases of the Hull Police and the Hull Fire Brigade, including notable fires, also fails to include a report of any such incident.

6) A game of arrows at the George

The George Hotel, Hull, with the World's Smallest Window (bottom left). Picture: Jonathan Clitheroe / Geograph
The George Hotel, Hull, with the World’s Smallest Window (bottom left). Picture: Jonathan Clitheroe / Geograph

One of the most charming stories I have heard tells how men would stand within the confines of the George Hotel, armed with a bow and arrows, ready to fire from the “smallest window” at customs officers on their way to investigate tales of smuggling, or press gangs who wanted to take away drunks to sea.

Throughout the entire recorded history of this lovely public house there is no mention of bows or arrows being fired from the little window, and if such a case did exist it would be recorded. The smallest window was actually used by the boot boy, who would await the carriages of customers who had been deposited at the original entrance on Whitefriargate.

7) The Alexandra’s beer garden that isn’t

The Jewish cemetery in Hessle Road, Hull, next to the Alexandra Hotel. Picture: David Wright / Geograph
The Jewish cemetery in Hessle Road, Hull, next to the Alexandra Hotel. Picture: David Wright / Geograph

The Alexandra Hotel and Public House on Hessle Road is a lovely ornate pub with a lush green piece of land attached to the pub on the eastern side, but alas, this is no beer garden, but a Jewish Burial ground.

In 1812 the land was taken on a seven-year lease by Henry Levy, Samuel Levy, Lyon Levy, and George Alexander, all Jewish men. In 1819 a freehold was purchased under the names of Alexander, John Symons, Bethel Jacobs, Ephraim Jacobs, and Barnard Barnard, who in was first to be buried there in June 1821. Interestingly, Abraham Samuel, who died in Scarborough, on Friday July 23, 1830, was also brought to Hull to be interred here.

8) Hands-on experiences

St Mary’s Chambers sits down the side of St Mary’s Church, Lowgate, and was once a vicarage for Mrs Scott, the wife of the Rev John Scott. The story goes that the ghost of Mrs Scott can be seen at the window of the former vicarage and if a person places their hand on the window, she in turn will place her hand on the window.

The story originates in the 1970s, when the Hull Times reported that the property was haunted, but made no mention of a woman or the window. Instead, it mentioned that the property was prone to cold draughts and was haunted by a lady in black, who had been seen in a doorway inside the property.

9) Warm hands and spectral spinsters

The 'haunted' building in Chapel Lane, Hull. Picture: Google
The ‘haunted’ building in Chapel Lane, Hull. Picture: Google

Just around the corner from St Mary’s, in Chapel Lane, is a cream building with a red door and two windows. The story goes that at one of these windows can be seen a spectral lady who will warm your hands should you be brave enough to tempt fate by touching the glass. If she doesn’t like you, however, your hand will go cold. It is claimed that she was killed in a fire at the site, which was once home to Harrison’s Hospital, a privately run hospital for the sick and dying. However, at no time in its history was the building the site of a fire.

Of course, simple science tells us that putting our hands up in the air will result in the blood flowing from the extremities and turning them cold!

10) Who murdered German George?

Ye Olde Black Boy is a lovely pub that has a long history of its own mythical stories and tales. One revolves around a pugilist, known only as “George”. George was allegedly a German, who came to Hull in the 19th century to try his hand at fighting the dockers who frequented Hull pubs. It is claimed that “George” had won a fight at Ye Olde Black Boy but was later murdered.

Despite this wonderful story of Victorian fisticuffs, there is no evidence to support it. No newspapers reported on the case, and no death entry or death certificate has ever turned up. I also have to point out that poor old “German George” is also missing a surname, which is always withheld with every telling of the story!

Mike Covell is a Hull-based author and expert in all things paranormal. For his ghost walks, visit his Amazing Hull Tours Facebook page. The latest Mike Covell Investigates books are available on Amazon.co.uk

Read more: Mike Covell on the 1801 Hull UFO

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