Making a present of the past
Lockdown and flood struck the Hull Fishing Heritage Centre at the same time. But the folk behind the city’s newest museum are back on course – BRIAN W LAVERY paid them a visit.
Upon entering the reopened Hull Fishing Heritage Centre, you are met by a man wielding what looks like a small ray gun.
‘It’s to take your temperature,’ explains the gunman.
But it’s more “Hands out!” rather than “Hands up!” as his shipmate thrusts out a sanitiser and fires two blasts onto my palms.
What struck me at the Hessle Road museum was their enthusiasm. It is almost as infectious as the virus against which they are guarding. It is abuzz with socially distanced punters firing questions at volunteers.
All visitors had to put their contact details in the visitors’ book before taking the tour.
Model trawlers in glass cases are dotted among pictures of ships and characters of the past. A video of twentieth century disasters plays on a loop providing a nostalgic backdrop to visitors moving through the one-way system guided by a volunteer.
Committee member Ray (I wish I could report his surname was Gunn!) meets me with an elbow bump at the first exhibit. He had just finished talking to a customer seeking details of a trawler on which a relative had served. It is just after 10.30 am on Wednesday, September 9 and the Centre has been open for around half an hour.
‘It’s been a labour of love, but a labour nonetheless getting this back on course,’ said ex-trawler skipper Mr Ray Hawker, 73.
‘It was the day lockdown was called, on March 23, and the centre was closed due to lack of footfall. I thought I’d come in with my wife to fit a shelf that I had been meaning to get around to.
‘As soon as I opened the door, I noticed the place was flooded. All the exhibits, books, models of ship and on were affected. I got in touch with our chairman Jerry Thompson and we decided there and then that the place would be open again. We just weren’t sure how.
The Hull Fishing Heritage Centre is at the core of a revival of interest driven by the Hessle Road community. It opened on April 6, 2019 and proved an overnight success.
The committee of Ray Hawker, Ray Coles, his wife Jan Coles, Jerry Thompson, Dave Smith, George Gibson and other volunteers were responsible for a burst of community culture.
In just six months the Centre reached out throughout the area with 23 pieces of public art. Benches dedicated to the Triple Trawler Disaster of 1968 and the loss of the Gaul are alongside ‘bethel boards’ (from the old Fishermen’s Bethel) showing the names of hundreds who left this great port never to return.
Murals adorn gables up and down this four-mile stretch of West Hull. The Centre and its volunteers certainly made an impact. This is real city culture, brought to us by men who lived and not just guys, who write about it!
Mr Hawker and his mate Ray Coles join other volunteers and go into schools to keep their maritime history alive.
Ray Hawker said, ‘I say to these schoolkids that we visit, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could speak to William Shakespeare or Henry the Eighth or talk directly to people from history? Well we’re people from history and we’re still here – so make the most of it!”’
Kids across the city have done projects of the fishing industry and they have been “marked” by and given prizes from the Hull Fishing Heritage Centre.
‘We need to keep this history alive,’ says Ray as he sits among walls adorned with newspapers cuttings and framed photos covering a century of the most dangerous industry on Earth.
The “two Rays” have known each other for years, both being Hessle Road fishing lads since the 1960s. Ray Coles built the model trawlers that adorn the museum. As you enter you see the St Romanus and the Kingston Peridot, two of the three ships to perish in 1968.
The model of the third ship, the Ross Cleveland is yet to be completed. Ray Hawker said, ‘We refer to Ray Coles’ house as our shipyard!’
Chairman Jerry Thompson is another piece of living history. He survived the Christmas Day sinking of the Hull trawler Ian Fleming when he was just a sixteen-year-old deckie learner. He spent Christmas night 1973 in a lifeboat before being rescued with his seventeen of his twenty shipmates. The mate, the wireless operator and the second engineer perished. He is writing a book about his experience.
Mr Thompson, 62, not only knows the reality of history up close, but also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his former industry.
Over the years he has built up a massive photo and cutting archive which he uses almost every day to answer question from people seeking knowledge of ancestors who have worked in trawling.
‘I have more than 80,000 photos from across the century and have gone through millions of newspaper pages over the decades. I also have an extensive record of every trawler to have sailed from this port – many never to have returned.
‘We have had people in tears here when I have found perhaps the only photo, they will have of a relative gone by. It is vital we keep this heritage alive.’
Jerry and Ray Hawker joined with other volunteers and over the past six months and have worked alongside builders to ensure the museum at the heart of Hessle Road could open its door once more.
Ray said, ‘I’m 73, so I’m just a lad compared with George, who at 85 is our oldest trustee. He calls me son!
‘And like the rest of us he got stuck in. We have put up all the metal racks for the exhibits and framed and put up all the photos and paintings. It’s been a great effort from everybody. We live for this place.
‘I didn’t sleep last night because I was so excited. It was like Christmas Eve.’
An apt line to end on as the Hull Fishing Heritage Centre continues to make a present of our past for the future citizens of the maritime city they love.
Brian W Lavery is the author of The Headscarf Revolutionaries and The Luckiest Thirteen (Barbican Press) two books about Hull’s fishing community.