Three ships

Former Hull & East Riding Co-operative store, Three Fishes mosaic, Hull (2016)

The Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society, having lost its flagship store in the severe blitz of 1941, was determined to rebuild in the city-centre as soon as it could.

A temporary “pre-fab” store opened in 1947, and the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s in-house architect, E P Andrews, prepared ambitious plans for a prestige building at King Edward Square, the intersection of Jamieson Street and King Edward Street.

It took from 1955 to 1964 to complete – five retail floors and on the roof the Skyline Ballroom and restaurant, where Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd played beneath the dome.

The store’s signature feature, filling the corner façade, was a ‘Three Ships’ mural by Alan Boyson (1930-2018), 66 feet × 64 feet, consisting of over a million glass tesserae, completed in 1963.

It depicts three trawlers to commemorate the city’s fishing industry, their masts spelling the name “HULL”, over the motto “Res Per Industriam Prosperae” – “Success through Industry”.

There are heavy ironies here, because the fishing industry collapsed in the 1970s [https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/business/fish-being-landed-hull-first-2016086] and the Co-op has lost its way in the face of a succession of revolutions in retail.

The Jamieson Street store was closed in 1969 and the front part sold to British Home Stores – a brand that itself came to a sticky end in 2016.

When BHS folded Hull City Council bought the building for redevelopment, with the expressed intention of retaining the ‘Three Ships’ mural if possible, along with two rediscovered interior murals by Alan Boyson, ‘Fish’ and ‘Sponge-Print’.

Though the building had been added to the Council’s non-statutory local list in 2007, and was placed on the Twentieth Century Society’s Buildings at Risk list in 2017, Heritage England declined to list it Grade II in 2016 because it “falls short of the high bar for listing post-war public art”.

In April 2019, Hull City Council firmly committed to retain the three Boyson murals, but six months later, reversed their decision to keep ‘Three Fishes’ because its concrete sub-structure contained asbestos and would “pose a risk to public safety” if dismantled for restoration.

Apparently, the Health & Safety Executive would require the entire building to be wrapped for demolition and the rubble taken away as contaminated waste.

Then, in a sudden turnaround at the end of November 2019, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport awarded the mural Grade II listing. 

Hull City Council was not pleased, having resolved to recreate the image photographically on the replacement structure.

Hull Heritage Action Group, which had campaigned in support of the Boyson murals since 2016, hoped that the Council “will do the right thing”.

Such U-turns often show long-term benefits.  Chesterfield would have lost its fine market place if the Peacock Inn hadn’t turned out to be a fifteenth-century structure rather than a grubby Victorian pub.

And politicians who “do the right thing” can expect to gain satisfying amounts of political capital.

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