Hull is rightly proud of its heritage as a regional, national and international maritime centre for over 800 years. Its location and entrepreneurial outlook enabled a safe anchorage to evolve from a small hamlet to an international trading hub where traders, mariners and diverse communities that followed them gave the port a unique quirkiness still evident in her accent today. Though her commercial profile expanded internationally during the late eighteenth century to include trade with the Americas, Africa, India and Australasia, it was her proximity to Northern Europe that continued to provide expanding commercial opportunities which still shape the port city in the 21st century. A by product of the infrastructure – rail and sail links – that underpinned the goods transhipped through the port was her growing influence in the business of passenger travel. Though many migrants and businessmen settled in Hull or her hinterland, a growing number from the 1830s travelled through Hull on the rail route to Liverpool, Glasgow, London and Southampton and from there to a new life in North America, South Africa and Australasia.
The trade in passenger shipping bolstered the fortunes of local companies including the Wilson Line of Hull and the North Eastern Railway. The archaeology of this commerce still adorns the city – from the Minerva on the waterfront, to the former Headquarters of the Wilson Line (now the home of Viking FM) on Commercial Road, to the emigrant waiting room (now the home of the Tiger’s Lair) on Anlaby Road. Since my own researches at the University of Hull began in 1998 the city fathers – the council, civic society and communities with a link to Hull’s migrant past – have supported the erection of heritage markers showcasing the city’s proud role in the so-called peopling of America, Canada, South Africa and Australia. It has been inspiring to play a role in shaping the words and location of these plaques, statues and walking trails. All help remind those living in or visiting Hull of this often forgotten role in handling what I estimated to be over 2.2 million transmigrants – with a further 800,000 transiting Grimsby and Goole. The trade was important to the port, but each migrant brought their own cultural heritage that collectively shaped our identity.
Now as the city sets to be the 2017 UK City of Culture Huw Morris Jones and Paul Dennis – important actors in Hull’s burgeoning cultural community – and I have joined forces to remind the ports and cities that also facilitated the Great Migration that we are long established cultural partners in this shared global story. The one thousand blank cases bound for all the key nodal points where emigrants originated in Europe and then eventually settled in North America will be invited to shape the look and direction of every case. Mimicking the millions of bags, cases and precious keepsakes carried through Hull to the New World over a century ago our city will be a pivotal cog in a cultural journey from St. Petersburg in the East to Chicago in the West. Where once loved ones followed the individual journeys of each migrant so we hope people around the world will follow the individual journey of each case. Where once those travelling with luggage were bowled over by the sheer size of maritime commerce and cosmopolitan life at England’s third largest port, we hope those following the art installation will be drawn to the scale of cultural activity and positive welcome to strangers that Hull in 2017 will offer. Like the transmigrants arriving in Hull’s past whether the cases and their followers visit for hours or weeks we hope it inspires a legacy that will bolster Hull’s fortunes once more.
Dr. Nicholas J. Evans is currently finishing a book entitled ‘Embryonic Americans: The transmigration of Europeans through Britain, 1836-1924’ due to be published in 2016.