For 20 years historian Dr Nick Evans has been seeking to tell the often forgotten story of the working hands that helped build Hull. ‘Arrivals and Departures’ brought his work to life
Migration has been a constant feature of life in Hull. Over the years Cornish, Irish, Welsh, Germans, Chinese, Kosovans and more all came seeking work and shelter – each group transforming the city in their own way.
With Britain’s exit from the European Union driving migration issues to the front of the political agenda, Nick Evans’s work has never been more relevant and resonant. And so it was “overwhelming” and “heart-rending” for him to see his findings brought to life in the spectacular visual show ‘Arrivals and Departures’, which was projected onto The Deep and witnessed by an emotional audience of more than 100,000 people as part of the City of Culture’s opening event, ‘Made in Hull’. This powerful and emotive story showed how Hull’s prosperity grew as migrants arrived by sea, train and air since the 1800s. Nick says: “It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, but in an amazing way. I had the chance to hear responses to my work that were immediate and visual and emotional – three things you don’t necessarily get with academic work. After each performance there was an enormous uplift of applause.”
‘Arrivals and Departures’ visualised Nick’s chapter for a forthcoming City of Culture edited collection entitled Hull: Culture, History, Place, which explores Hull’s acceptance and absorption of outsiders throughout its past. Nick’s research shows how the cultural, religious and linguistic influences of foreign merchants, artists and refugees are far from a modern phenomenon. In fact, they have given Hull its outsider character and unique linguistic identity for over a millennium. “‘Hullness’ has been shaped by the continual influence of outsiders throughout the port’s long history,” says Nick. “It can be argued that the continual presence of new aliens has been an enduring feature of Hull’s maritime identity, a symbol of her entrepreneurial vigour. The ebb and flow of every high tide brought people with new skills that have enriched the expanding conurbation.
“Hull would arguably be nothing without the continental migrants who expanded her commercial and cultural horizons, the transmigrants who for decades made Hull one of the most important transport hubs in the world, and latterly the economic migrants, refugees and university students who have made Hull a truly global city.”
‘Arrivals and Departures’, which was produced by touring theatre company imitating the dog, drew people from all backgrounds, cultures, creeds and ethnicities to The Deep with thousands of people watching each performance, every 15 minutes, over seven nights.
“People might not normally read my words, they may not look at the data, but they could connect with and enjoy these images,” says Nick. “To get a sizable number of people from BME [black and minority ethnic] audiences engage with the installation was quite powerful and moving. The reaction of members of the Hong Kong Chinese community made me particularly proud. Five decades of their hard work had never been acknowledged. This was an enormous watershed because everybody in Hull finally knew they were part of this story.”
Nick lectures on migration history and is based in the Wilberforce Institute. His PhD student Sam North helped source the right images for the piece. Sam says: “In terms of my career, the City of Culture is a good brand name to say you have done paid work for. Hopefully, people will take note.”
Nick says: “The advantage for me as an academic is that I can be critical of some of the responses to migrants in the past and the present and give a frank view that at times prejudice has grown. Though undoubtedly some people have resented Hull’s emergence as a global city, the ebb and flow of communities and travellers has sustained Hull’s population and prevented further post-war economic deprivation.
“The curator, the filmmaker Sean McAllister, wanted this story to be told very carefully. By pitching the longer-term view of this story we see that all of us are migrants and, therefore, what is Hull without migration? Migration is not a thing that divides us all in the present, it is a thing that united us all in the past. Everybody appeared to like that fact it was a celebratory message of how we are all diverse. And for a university trying to recruit students from all over the world it is incredibly important that we are shown to be positively telling this global story.”
Deep city connections
Linda Lai’s Chinese grandparents moved to Hull and in 1958 established the city’s first Chinese restaurant – Hoi Sun – a favourite spot for Philip Larkin. Her family name was among those projected onto the The Deep. This was her reaction:
I work for the NHS supporting staff with accessing university courses, though I’m on maternity leave at the moment. My husband, whose family originated from Hong Kong, China, got a Physics degree at the University and then followed the tradition of his mother and father and became a chef in his own business. My parents had their own takeaway too. We’ve always been in the industry, it’s in our blood.
We felt really proud, happy and emotional that we were able to contribute some information and photos for the installation. My maiden name is Chan but my married name is Lai and we weren’t expecting to see it projected onto The Deep. We found it very special because we got married there in 2012 and we took a video to show my dad. We also have a six-month-old son so we’re bringing a new generation of Lais to Hull to carry forward the name.
It was great to see the BME community represented in such a positive way as they have helped to make Hull the diverse cultural city that it has become. I think it’s a shame to see in the news that there has been some bad press and social attitudes towards migrants recently, but this installation brought a lot of positivity to Hull and gave that recognition that Hull has such a diverse community. It’s great to be included in that story of the city.
Between 1946 and 1950 thousands of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians also landed in Hull, refugees from the war between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, their story is told in my new book which starts in Hull – Rebuilding Post-War Britain: Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian Refugees in Britain, 1946-1951 (Pen and Sword, 2017)
One of those who passed through Hull en route to the US in the early 1900s is the Swedish IWW activist, songwriter and cartoonist Joel Emmanuel Hagglund (1879-1915), who wrote under the name ‘Joe Hill’ and was executed in Salt Lake City for a crime he didn’t commit.