The 1801 Hull UFO revisited – with a Wokingham link

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 archive.org and was as intrigued as ever.

Here is the original report from the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, on Saturday July 4, 1801:

“On Friday night, June 19, between the hours of twelve and one, a most beautiful phenomenon was observed here towards the S.W. of the horizon, resembling, on being first seen, an immense moon with a black bar across; it seemed then to gradually form itself into seven small distinct moons, or globes of fire, which disappeared for the space of a few seconds.

“Its reappearance was equally brilliant, at first showing itself like what we are told of the face in the moon; afterwards into five circular balls, and lastly like several small stars, which gradually faded away, leaving the whole atmosphere beautifully illuminated and clear.

“During the time of its being visible, a faint blue light fell upon the surrounding objects, like that of distant torches; but when entirely gone the appearance was serene like a fine summer’s morning.”

The report also appeared in the Hull Packet and was syndicated to many other newspapers around the country.

The lunar corona effect. Can the sighting be explained as a natural event? (Picture 阿爾特斯/Wikimedia Commons)
The lunar corona effect (Picture 阿爾特斯/Wikimedia Commons)

As Mike said back in 2015: “The common misconception is that UFO sightings began in America in 1947, when Kenneth Arnold saw some unidentified objects flying over the Cascade Mountains. The famous Roswell incident – when an alien craft supposedly crashed in New Mexico – happened the same year.

“But in Hull we can trace the phenomena back to June 1801, when Hull and the Humber was the scene of one of the earliest sightings of an unidentified flying object. It featured in the local and national press and science periodicals.

“Whatever it was came from the south-west towards Hull. There was a great deal of discussion about it at the time. Could it have been a celestial object – a comet or a meteorite – or was it something else?”

Can it be explained? There is no record of an eclipse at the time and according to a lunar calculator on timeanddate.com, the moon would have been in the first quarter.

Various weather and atmospheric phenomena have been described as creating similar effects – last year The Sun carried a report about “eerie blue skies” and “bizarre patterns” being visible across northern Europe in the middle of the night – but could that explain the fiery globes or the disappearance and reappearance of the moon-like object?

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Interestingly, at around the same time, there is a similar sighting, apparently at Wokingham, which was reported in the Reading Mercury on July 20.

It reads: “A correspondent from Wokingham, says, “About two o’clock this morning, a Star of uncommon magnitude was observed in the East, some distance above the horizon; it was remarkably brilliant and bore the appearance of a cluster of six or seven Stars in conjunction, pointed all round, emitting a variety of extraordinary vivid flashes of lustre. An appearance in the window like the reflection of the moon caused the person who first saw it to arise, and awaken his family, six in number, to behold it, who all viewed it with awful astonishment.”

This brief snippet directly follows reports of a violent thunderstorm, in which three men were struck dead by lightning, “a very heavy storm of hail fell”, and large oak tree was shattered in places “as if from an explosion of gunpowder”. However, it appears the two events were not connected.  

The actual date of the Wokingham sighting is left vague and, with little more information to go on, we can only speculate about a link between the two.

Since our report first appeared in 2015, Mike has lectured on the topic at the Hull UFO Conference. His most recent books feature many other Hull legends, including the infamous Beast of Barmston Drain.

An artist's impression of a UFO above 19th century Hull, from the original Hull Daily Mail article (Picture: Hull Daily Mail)
An artist’s impression of a UFO above 19th century Hull, from the original Hull Daily Mail article (Picture: Hull Daily Mail)

He retains a large file on local UFO sightings, from the “scareships” craze of 1909-1913, when many people saw mysterious airships hovering over the city, to the Longhill UFO of 1967.

“The story goes that on Wednesday, November 15, 1967, a group of Hull children saw a cigar-shaped craft descend and hover over the park, leaving burn marks on a hill,” said Mike.

“Two police officers on duty visited the ‘landing site’ and noticed burn marks on the hill but no sign of any such craft. Initially they thought the children had been up to no good but their stories were very consistent.

“Other eyewitnesses across Hull described seeing a cigar-shaped object flying over the city, while another eyewitness claimed it was a helicopter from the Yorkshire Electricity Board. The matter was never fully resolved.”

Another unexplained sighting was included in our original article, one that was particularly unusual because it was witnessed by several police officers.

Salt End in winter at dusk (Picture: Andy Beecroft / Geograph.org)
Salt End in winter at dusk (Picture: Andy Beecroft / Geograph.org)

On October 17, 2002, these officers reported an object above Salt End, about the size of a “normal” bright star, which changed colour and shape and moved fast. Lights were seen for about 45 minutes, beginning at 3am, and one Hull resident said they appeared to be “communicating” with each other.

And in Bransholme, on September 8, 1985, a round object about the size of a house, with a ring of red lights around its base, was seen rising from the ground, out of a spinning beam of light. It was then seen heading east across fields, flying at a height of about 50ft.

The truth may or may not be out there, but after two centuries of UFO sightings, one thing we can say for certain is that the mystery will go on.

Read more: A ‘cannibal werewolf’ lived on an island in the River Humber

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

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