Hull has historically enjoyed successful trade links with most of the ports of Northern Europe, from Antwerp in the west, to St. Petersburg in the east, Le Havre in the south and to Trondheim in the north. Between 1836-1914, 2.2 million people, mostly from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia and Sweden, passed through Hull, on their way, to America, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Some of these people stayed in the City, adding to its commerce and culture. Hull was at the peak of its prosperity in 1914, but the First World War, would change and damage Hull’s shipping and trade for decades.
Hull’s foreign trade declined from 4.7 million tons in 1913, to just 1.6 million tons, in 1917. The tonnage of shipping entering Hull ports in 1914 was a record of 6.6 million, a figure not matched until 1923. Hull’s coal exports in 1914, were never again equalled, and the imports of wheat which reached a peak in 1912, did not reach the same level until 1931. The King George Dock had been opened in June 1914 to cater for this expanding trade. It was the largest and deepest of Hull’s docks, designed to compete with the Great Central Docks of Immingham. Before the war, two thirds of Hull’s trade came from Russia, Scandinavia, Denmark and Holland. However, 11.6% of this trade which came from Germany, ended immediately when war began. The wool trade with Australia, which had been built up before the war, collapsed entirely when war began.
Many Hull ships were arrested or stranded in foreign ports, when the War started. They were unable to return to Hull, through the German naval patrols. For example, only 40 ships arrived in Hull from Russia in 1917, compared to 757 in 1913. The Government also diverted cargo away from Hull, particularly after the bombing of Scarborough in December 1914 and in May 1915.
While Hull compensated with some increased trade with neutral countries, like Sweden and Holland, this too reduced in February 1917, when Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on any shipping helping the Allies. Losses to shipowners were also severe. The Wilson Line, Hull’s largest merchant shipping company, had lost 15 of its 79 ships by 1916, and by the end, over 40 of its 84 vessels and some 300 crew members. The tonnage of shipping registered in Hull Ports fell from 230,000 ton in 1913 to 182,000 by 1917. Therefore, from probably it’s most prosperous period in 1914, Hull declined through the war, and took decades to recover. With so many Hull people dependent on the docks for work, the War had an immediate impact on livelihoods and acted as an incentive for young men to enlist.
Much of Hull’s economy was turned towards winning the war. It’s existing Industries and trades were mixed and varied. Its’ shipyards built modern minesweepers, anti submarine patrol boats and Tugs. It’s well established factories at Fenner’s, Needler’s, Rank Hovis and Reckitt’s, were expanded and adapted towards the war effort. For example, Smith & Nephews’, based at Neptune Street in Hull, grew from 50 to 1,200 employees, and supplied field dressings and surgical equipment for the Allies, throughout the war. One particular order, for the French Government, in October 1914, was worth £350,000 (£108 million), and was delivered in just 5 months. Every British soldier carried two field dressings, and with the millions of casualties caused, no doubt Hull helped save many lives. Joseph Rank Ltd, of Clarence Street, employed nearly 3,000 women in flour production and Joseph Rank himself was asked to join the Wheat Control Board due to National food shortages. Reckitts expanded at the outbreak of the war by buying two German companies based in England – Rawlin’s & Son and the Global Metal Polish Company. They employed 4,761 in 1915 which rose 5,609 in 1917. By the Armistice 1,100 Reckitt’s employees were serving in the armed forces and 153 had lost their lives. Being Quakers, Reckitt’s factories, produced non combative war goods, such as cleaning materials, gas masks, and petrol cans. Rose, Downs and Thompson’s, on Cannon Street, which manufactured general engineering equipment, converted to shell production for the war. In July 1914, it employed 276 people, including just 3 women. By October 1918, Rose, Downs and Thompson, employed 938 workers including 359 women (3 under 18 year old girls) with 212 employees leaving for war service. The Needler’s sweet factory, employed 1,700 workers, mostly women, to make Confectionaries and ‘Military Mints’ for soldiers at the front.
By the end of the war, there were 115 major factories in Hull. Of these, 25 were involved in seed crushing and oil cake manufacture, eight in oil extracting and refining, 11 in paint and colour making, three in the manufacture of soap and two in the production of margarine. Grain warehousing was carried out in 10 factories and there were six flour mills. The fishing industry accounted for three premises for cod liver oil extraction and two factories produced fish manure. There were 13 saw mills, four ship yards and six marine and mill engineering works. Other large factories were engaged in the manufacture of starch, blue and black lead (6); tar distilling (2); the making of tin cannisters and paint drums (4); tanning and leather production (3); canvas and sack making (1); and sweets and confectionaries (1). In addition to these larger factories, a total of 1,169 workshops were registered with the City Council. The trades with the largest number of workshops were bakers (83), boot repairers (77), cabinet makers (24), coopers (39), cycle repairers (49), dressmakers (118), fish curers (62), tinsmiths (20) and watch and clock makers (27). The largest number of employees in these workshops was in the fish curing trade (407 men and 535 women), with dressmaking second (10 men and 849 women) and tailoring (271 men and 326 women) coming third. Approximately, 700 men and women were employed as outworkers, the vast majority of people being engaged in bespoke tailoring and the making of fish nets. The above details reflect the many facets of life in Hull, suits and dresses made to measure, leather boots and shoes which could be repaired, craftsman-made furniture etc. The number of bicycle repairers also indicated the large number of cycles used in the city, and it was said that only Coventry could match Hull for its number of cyclists.
Life on the home front was hard and the work often dirty and low paid. By 1919, there were at least 30 premises in Hull involved in ‘dirty’ processes, such as tripe boiling (6), cod liver boiling (5), gut scraping (3), fish manure production (3), tanning (3), fat and candle melting (2), soap boiling (2), bone boiling (2) horse slaughtering (1), hide preparation (1), cod liver oil extraction for medicinal purposes (1), and ammonia producing works (1).
The widespread use of coal for industrial power and also heating the home caused considerable smoke pollution. Public health and safety was in its infancy and there many unrecorded industrial accidents. There was also a limited welfare state, to support those unemployed or affected by the war. All this made life and work on the ‘Home Front’ particularly tough, especially for women and girls who were essential to maintain war production.
Hull’s contribution during the First World War was remarkable. Probably the complete story of Hull’s contribution in the Great War will never be known, so extensive and so diverse were the ways in which its thousands of workers toiled. While it is possible to measure actual industrial output, such as shells and other munitions, it is more difficult to assess the value of all the repairs and alterations made to hundreds of ships used by the Navy, the actual construction of war ships, how Hull’s oil, paint and colour trades helped, the manufacture of food stuffs and the contributions of all the many small trades and services carried out during the war. While Hull’s economic output undoubtedly increased during the war and assisted the nation to victory, there was little to show for the huge expenditure of labour, wages and material. Most of the unused munitions after the war were destroyed and surplus equipment became scrap. The increased production was remarkable considering the youngest and strongest of workers were away overseas. Retired men, women and girls volunteered for duties, often shortening their lives by long hours of work and increased worries and duties. (Below. Photo of three Hull Munition workers)
A female worker preparing paint casks in the works of Sissons and Co. Ltd., Bankside, Hull, November 1918.