“From Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us!” That memorable farewell phrase employed by 16th century thieves was quoted at me just two weeks ago when I told a friend that I planned to take a day trip to Hull. “Why would you want to go there?” he asked, forgetting that “there” is the nominated City of Culture for 2017 (or he may have been simply incredulous of the nomination). The point is that Hull’s reputation has been sullied in perpetuity by the fact that it once had a notoriously nasty gaol – and a wickedly good catchline with which to advertise it: there must have been other towns with equally awful gaols at the time but who remembers them?
Hull, or King’s Town upon Hull as it was originally named in the 13th century (such was its importance as an international trading port), has seen its fortunes wax and wane over time. In recent decades the decline of its once prosperous fishing industry has been the cause of unemployment and deprivation. Civic pride was also bruised by the subsequent loss of identity and the impression of Hull as a miserable place thus perpetuated. The idea of a day-trip would not have sprung readily to my mind then. Like so many other cities, it has discovered the need to rejuvenate itself by establishing new industries for its economic base: and cultural tourism may turn out to be an important part of that. After all, history oozes from the Georgian bricks of the Old Town, as it does from the grand architecture of the late 19th century buildings sitting gracefully in the wide streets of the adjacent City Centre, where they accommodate some of the numerous museums.
And what of Halifax? It too has impressive city-centre architecture and, most remarkably, the magnificent Piece Hall, the famed market place built in 1779 by its cloth merchants and manufacturers and now a monument to 800 years of hand-woven textile production in the area. However, the part of Halifax to which thieves referred was the public square in which was erected a gibbet, an early form of guillotine, for the purpose of beheading those who stole more than 13 pennies worth of the precious textiles produced thereabouts. I suppose clever thieves would have taken care to steal less valuable lengths of cloth but, since the gibbet was operational for more than a hundred years, it seems there were not many attentive learners. Cromwell eventually put a stop to its use, though a replica is still in situ – more a curiosity than a deterrent, I suppose. I haven’t been to Halifax lately but the Piece Hall, having undergone restoration, is soon to open as a visitor attraction containing boutiques, cafes etc. From little acorns...
Reputations are difficult to shake off: the passage of time does not necessarily erode them. Sometimes they just become entrenched in the psyche and nothing will dislodge them. Manchester, for example, is known as Rainy City despite the fact that there are seven other British cities with higher average rainfall. Some people like to believe what suits them, regardless of fact, as the recent election of Donald Trump seems to show: and a catchy slogan, such as make America great again, as has been demonstrated, only helps to reinforce their belief. I guess it’s a lazy substitute for thinking.
Where there is evidence of change, we ought to look again at our preconceptions. Hull and Halifax have changed and their reputations deserve serious re-calibration, especially given their historical importance to the commercial foundations of modern Britain. As for Hell, however, there is no evidence that it even exists, so I am quite happy to leave its dreadful reputation in the hands of the believers.