Castle St dig 2
The archaeological dig taking place as part of the Castle Street improvement scheme

Jails, bombs and map mysteries – explosive insight into the history of Hull

A 235-year-old prison, a suspected Second World War bomb explosion and mysterious buildings that don’t appear on any maps could shed new light on the fascinating history of Hull.

Archaeologists have started piecing together intriguing clues from the past as part of Highways England’s A63 Castle Street project. The 70-strong team are carefully excavating at Trinity Burial Ground, which lies partially in the area where the scheme improvements need to be carried out.

The £355 million Castle Street scheme will usher in an exciting new era for the city, creating a much better connection between the centre of Hull and the retail and docks area. It’s a key part of Transport for the North’s strategic transport plan, and will see the creation of a new junction by lowering the level of the A63 at the Mytongate junction.

Two large tents have been erected at the burial ground to ensure they can operate in privacy and the work is being done with the utmost sensitivity and care.

Highways England assistant project manager Fran Oliver said: “Our experienced team of archaeologists are hoping to find a wealth of information about the lives of Hull society at a time when the population was rapidly expanding, as commercial and industry activity intensified in the 18th and 19th century.

“For some it may be possible to find historical records but for many, their remains will be the only document they left behind, which speaks to the impact of the harsh living and working conditions some endured.

“This excavation will take around a year, after which we’ll restore the remaining area of the burial ground and rebury the remains.”

The burial ground, which sits on the south side of Castle Street, is close to the busy Mytongate roundabout. It’s associated with Holy Trinity Church, now better known as Hull Minster, which can be found in the Market Place in the heart of Hull Old Town.

Fascinating information has already started to present itself even at this early stage of the year-long process. An 18th century jail – or gaol as it was known then – stood at the north-east corner of the burial ground at a time of prison reform when the likes of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry promoted the need for better conditions, productive labour and religious instruction.

This building, which featured six large rooms and 13 smaller individual cells, appears to fit the new model proposed by Howard. It was referred to as the New Gaol and housed men and women awaiting trial for minor offences including debtors, as well as those awaiting transport to penal colonies like Australia. It closed in 1829, with the plot later becoming a sawmill in the 19th century and a brass and copper works and lead plant in the early 20th century.

Fran said: “It’s hoped that excavation of this area will reveal the plan and internal organisation of the gaol, while historical research may offer a revealing profile of the inmates themselves.”

Castle St dig 5

Some of the historic items uncovered as part of the dig

And what of the apparent wartime explosion? A sawmill can be seen on the site adjacent to Commercial Road, and there are several large timber yards in the area. Early 20th century maps show a large warehouse built to the west of the burial ground, which was serviced by a network of railways associated with the railway dock.

Rows of substantial pine timbers from the warehouse were discovered during the preliminary dig and the timbers have been clearly burnt, something that’s thought to have occurred when the site was hit by an incendiary bomb in the Second World War. Aerial photographs and maps show the building was rebuilt in the aftermath.

Meanwhile on the east side of the Commercial Road site the team have discovered partial footprints of two buildings which don’t show up on any post-medieval maps, which means they are likely to date back to medieval or early post-medieval times. They extend beneath the wall of the burial ground and below deposits linked to the bombed building.

One of the buildings, constructed in limestone, was associated with a single fragment of a vessel made in Beverley in the late 13th or early 14th century. The other was built on top of the deposit that contained 13th to 14th century pottery. It had limestone elements and the remains of a brick sleeper wall. Brick has been used in Hull since the early 14th century.

While their date and purpose remain unknown, the buildings could be significant for the history of Hull. They are well constructed and would have been expensive to build because stone would have been brought into the area.

Stephen Rowland, project manager for Oxford Archaeology North, added: “It’s just possible the buildings are connected to the poorly understood settlement of Wyke, documented in the 12th and early 13th century. At that time the course of the Old River Hull flowed along what’s now Commercial Road and Manor House Road. This would’ve been a prime focus for settlement and economic activity.

“Some time during the 13th century the Old River Hull appears to have become blocked, and its importance was overtaken by the current course of the River Hull. This led to a refocusing of settlement so that, by the later 13th century, when Edward I took a keen interest in the town and it was named Kingston upon Hull, the main settlement focus was Hull’s Old Town.”

While the excavation is in its infancy and there is undoubtedly more to be revealed, interesting items have already been unearthed including a bone domino piece and a decorated clay pipe bowl, as well as various bits of pottery and tile.

The dedicated team on the ground will continue their meticulous work in a delicate and respectful manner within the private walls of the tents.

Highways England is working closely with Balfour Beatty, Oxford Archaeology, Humber Field Archaeology, Hull City Council, Humber Archaeology Partnership, Historic England and Hull Minster.

All Highways England sites have strict safeguarding measures, in line with Public Health England guidance, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and none of the sites are open to the public.

Find out more here.