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Historian Dr Charlotte Tomlinson looks back on the history of Queens Gardens and its maritime links.

Almost one hundred years ago, in 1927, Hull woman Esther Baker walked through Hull’s city centre on her way to work. Esther worked at a bakery on Dagger Lane, and alighted a tram close to the city’s Paragon Station before walking eastwards into the Old Town, passing Hull City Hall, the newly-opened Ferens Art Gallery and Hull's Dock Offices (later the Hull Maritime Museum) on her way:

“The working day began at 6 a.m., and I can remember taking the tram to Osbourne Street, walking over Monument Bridge and down Princes Dock Side in the early morning gloom. In those days, of course, Queen’s Gardens was still Queen’s Dock, and Monument Bridge would open periodically to allow barges to pass through. As the city’s bridges do to this day, it provided an ideal excuse for lateness!”i

Stories like Esther Baker’s remind us that not so long ago, the green space we now know as Queens Gardens was a working dock at the very heart of Hull’s maritime story. The dock opened in 1778 as the first public dock in Hull, and for a time it was the largest of its kind in the entire country – a not entirely surprising fact considering that Hull itself could be considered the third port of Britain at this time.

Hull City Archives, Hull History Centre, C DMX.39

At first named simply ‘The Dock’, and later renamed ‘Queen’s Dock’ after Queen Victoria’s visit to Hull in 1854, the dock enabled a huge expansion in trade into and out of the city. Whereas ships had previously arrived via the ‘Old Harbour’ along the congested River Hull, where wealthy merchants owned a great number of private staithes and warehouses, ‘The Dock’ ushered in a new, centralised and more controlled system. Historical images and maps from the 1800s depict a thriving dock, full of ships and surrounded by timber and slate yards, corn and tobacco warehouses, a hearty handful of taverns and more.

Hull Museums Collections, Frederick Schultz Smith, KINCM:1981.415.49

By the time Esther Baker passed by Queen’s Dock on her way to work in 1927, however, she was witnessing the end of its life as a working part of Hull’s maritime industry. By the early 1900s trade in the city had evolved, and large docks along the River Humber were now serving larger ships, rendering the old Queen’s Dock obsolete. Local authorities faced a familiar, important question – what to do with unused areas of the urban industrial landscape – and set up the Queen’s Dock Special Committee in 1929 to decide what came next.

In September 1935, Queen’s Gardens was officially opened to great excitement and acclaim. Film footage from the time captures enormous crowds gathered around the new grassed lawns and elegant walkways, waiting eagerly to see Queen’s Gardens’ majestic fountain switched on for the first time.

The fountain included a beautiful terrazzo floor created by local artists Messrs Toffolo and Son, with a state-of-the-art electrical system of water and coloured lighting effects. The full sequence was to play on a loop of 37 minutes and be illuminated at night-time (although high winds prevented it from being enjoyed in full flow on the opening day!).

The gardens themselves included sixty flower beds, two large rockeries, and a broad pedestrian boulevard leading from west to east, flanked by a mix of maple, prunus, cherry and pyrus trees. While a beautiful sight to behold, the thousands of plants and shrubs embedded in the gardens were expected to take at least four years to settle and mature. Two years after opening, the visitors who came to Queen’s Gardens were described as ‘those who sit there [in their] lunch-hour break, the old folk who dream there on any sun-warmed day, the lovers who hold hands there when the lamps are lit, and every passer-by who has found relief in its flower scents’.ii

Hull City Archives, Hull History Centre, C DMX.39

To turn the space into a public park the ‘old dock’ had been filled with tonnes upon tonnes of recycled materials, including silt and sand from the construction of new docks along the Humber, as well as bricks and rubble from demolition projects, particularly around Ferensway which was also being developed at this time. It took four years for workers to fill the enormous space of the dock (and we’ve even heard rumours that radiators, telephones and typewriters were tipped in to fill it - though we’ve found no firm evidence of this!).

Hull City Archives, Hull History Centre, C DMX.39

A few days before the official opening, hundreds of those who had been regularly engaged on the Queen’s Gardens project were invited to a celebration event at the Guildhall, where there was tea, music, and the presentation of a special photograph album depicting the transformation which is now in the collections of the Hull History Centre. Alongside Queens Gardens, the area around Monument Bridge was also redeveloped to ease congestion as car use increased rapidly, and the city’s monument to William Wilberforce - after which the bridge had been named - was moved to its new home at the eastern end of the gardens, where it has stood ever since.

Photo shared with the kind permission of Alec Gill.

But the story of Queens Gardens doesn’t end there. Just a few years later Esther Baker’s life once again crossed paths with the gardens’ transformations when, like the rest of the city, they were caught up in the course of the Second World War. By the early 1940s, Esther Baker had become a volunteer for the war effort. She had signed up for the fire service as part of Hull’s Civil Defence services, and was trained to process critical messages during air raids:

“We were visited by Miss Swift who taught us how to use the control room telephones correctly and how to accept and relay the messages which would come to Central Fire Station from Hull Control which was situated alongside Queen’s Gardens – even the gardens themselves were geared for war, I remember, with shelters sunk into the middle.”iii

‘Hull Control’ in Queen’s Gardens was at the centre of Hull’s response to air raids – this is where all reports and information on air raid ‘incidents’ arrived and were passed on to the various response services needed. Into ‘Control’ came messages of bombs dropped, fires raging, casualties that needed attending to. From ‘Control’ messages were sent to the rescue, demolition, emergency, and fire services, where ordinary citizens like Esther Baker were ready and waiting to help. Records held by the Hull History Centre tell us the names of some of those who served at the Queen’s Gardens Civil Defence Headquarters during the war. Among them were Colin Charles Graves, a telephonist from Margaret Street, Elsie Reed, a clerk living on Barrington Avenue, Brenda Radesk, a shorthand typist from Beverley High Road, and Joseph Edward Houghton, a shelter marshall who in his day job was a foreman on the docks.

Hull City Archives, Hull History Centre, TSP.3.525.25

Throughout the war, the gardens played a range of different roles. On one occasion, for instance, the local Women’s Voluntary Services organised for an open cooking demonstration to be held on the site, through which members of the public would be taught how to construct temporary kitchens and cook emergency meals of meat, potatoes and vegetables using ‘blitz wood’. And, at the close of the war in May 1945, the Gardens were once again the scene of celebration, as they had been when they first opened a decade earlier. Oral histories paint a rich picture of the atmosphere in the Gardens on Victory in Europe day:

“On VE Day I went with two pals to Queen’s Gardens as that is where a lot of the celebrations were going on. It was fairly crowded when we arrived there. I can remember some American servicemen buying us soft drinks and buns. I can remember everyone was happy and some of the crowd were dancing. Some of the people were in the fountain in the square.”

VE Day celebrations in the city centred around Queen’s Gardens, beginning with a speech by the Lord Mayor to the crowds of local residents who had gathered there. In the following days the park played host to band performances, light displays, a children’s fancy dress contest, an official Victory Parade, and lots of impromptu dancing. A film of the day, now held by the Yorkshire Film Archive, can be viewed here.

A Plan for the City and Country of Kingston Upon Hull, prepared for the City Council by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Patrick Abercombie, 1945

The post-war landscape presented an opportunity for reimagining Hull and its city centre. Second World War bombing raids had changed the shape of the city forever, with many lives, homes, and much-loved buildings lost. To address the challenge of what to do next, Hull appointed two of the country’s most eminent planners and architects, Patrick Abercrombie and Edwin Lutyens, who re-designed the blitzed city with the 'magnificent’ Queen’s Gardens as a nucleus around which a ‘civic and cultural centre’ would revolve.

The Abercrombie Plan, as it became known, envisaged the Gardens as the ‘heart of the city’, surrounded by civic buildings including the Guildhall and a new Municipal Museum, as well as a Technical College, Art School and Library.

An Assembly Hall and Winter Gardens were to be added, whilst the gardens themselves would be extended to the east and the south, reaching out towards the Old Town and the River Hull. In addition, Queen’s Gardens would also provide the focus and guiding principles for the rest of the city centre. For example, a new shopping district between Prince’s Dock and the railway station would follow the east-west axis of the gardens and be shaped by curved, semi-circular buildings radiating from the Rose Bowl.

Hull City Archives, Hull History Centre, C DIVD 1

Although the plans set out by Abercrombie and Lutyens were not fully realised, they did shape how Queen’s Gardens was adapted and revitalised in the 1950s and 1960s. For this Hull brought in another nationally renowned specialist for the works, the architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, whose modernist refurbishment was considered to ‘combine usefulness with grace and grandeur’ and create a space ‘which the citizens of Kingston Upon Hull may well be proud of and where they can gather in their leisure moments for recreation; to stroll and converse’.iv

The works were approached in stages: Stage One comprised the redevelopment of the eastern end of the gardens, including the creation of a new pool and fountain overlooked by a set of concrete relief panels by Robert Adams (now said to be one of the only examples of English modernist sculpture in Hull). On the north side of the gardens, Gibberd also commissioned a series of stone reliefs by Kenneth Carter, at that time a lecturer at the Hull College of Art. Stage Two focused on the western end of the Gardens, close to the Rose Bowl fountain, introducing more pools to reflect the Garden’s former maritime function as well as new paved areas and paths linking the north and south. While essential structural works also comprised a major part of the redevelopment scheme, including works to drainage, telephone and electricity cables, it is the social spaces and public artworks of the gardens which are best remembered by local people:

“The thing I love about Queens Gardens the most is the variety of sculptures and murals which I’ve visited and photographed many times over the years… in the gardens themselves I adore the 1959 mural created by Robert Adams on the pond nearest Hull College… I also like the abstract concrete panels by Kenneth Carter (near the former police station)…which I used to think looked like elephants as a child” (Esther).

Photo shared with the kind permission of Esther Johnson.

The gardens officially reopened in May 1961 and the much-loved fountains were switched on once again. The diagonal pathways, water features, and public artworks all remain landmark features of the gardens today.