Hull is my home city, I was born and bred in Hull, and as a child in the 1970’s, I spent many weekends around the Hull Docks area, which is a very historical area close to the city centre, with outstanding views across the Humber Estuary. I had no idea at the time, that less than 30 years previously, large boats and ships carrying Baltic and East European refugees from the Second World War, had docked there. Hull’s historical importance as a transit point for refugees is depicted in the statue at Hull Docks of a refugee family, which memorialises the 2.2 million refugees from Northern Europe who passed through Hull on their way to the United States of America, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Statue is located on the reclaimed land at “The Bullnose” where the ships waited for high tide before entering Humber Dock.
Neil Hadlock’s sculpture depicting transmigrants from Northern Europe arriving in Hull
Humber Dock, now known as Hull Marina
Hull’s status as a arrival and transit port for refugees and migrants was also depicted in a film projected on the opening night of Hull’s celebrations to mark its status as City of Culture 2017. The film by Hull University lecturer, Dr Nick Evans, was projected onto the sides of The Deep, Hull’s aquarium, and was seen by an audience of more than 100,000 people. The film showed how Hull’s prosperity grew as migrants arrived by sea, train and air since the 1800s.
Despite growing recognition of Hull’s pivotal role as a key city in migration movements from East to West, the story of Hull, as an important arrival point for the Baltic and East European refugees who came to Britain as part of the European Volunteer Worker schemes from 1946 to 1950, has yet to be told.
During these post-war years, tens of thousand of Baltic, Ukrainian and East European refugees landed at Hull at the end of long and tumultuous journeys, when they were uprooted from their homelands, and experienced arduous and often traumatic, travels across Europe. Some had been recruited to fight on the side of the Germans (the majority forcibly), while others had fled in advance of approaching Soviet armies. Others had been forced labourers in Germany, and a few who made it to Britain, had been forcibly recruited into the Russian army. After the war, hundreds of thousands of these refugees found themselves stranded in Displaced Persons Camps in Europe. As a solution to the ongoing refugee issue, and growing manpower shortages in critical areas of the British economy, the British Government introduced the European Volunteer Worker Schemes, as part of which, over 80,000 refugees came to Britain. Over third of them arrived via the port of Hull, the rest arriving via southern ports of Tilbury and Harwich.
The arriving refugees included thousands of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian men, women and later, children. My new book Rebuilding Post-War Britain: Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Great Britain, 1946-1951, describes the refugees experiences which led to their arrival in Hull, and their initial impressions as they approached the city:
“Many of the newcomers arrived via the Port of Hull, sailing down the River Humber before docking at Hull’s historic docks, long used as a transit point for European migrants. Often arriving in the morning after a night-time crossing, their view of Hull was a very different scene to the vistas of the pre-war, often rural, landscapes of their homelands. Early morning sea mists lifted from the brown muddy waters of the Humber estuary, to reveal a war-ravaged scene. Collapsed shells of buildings lined the shore and smoke rose from chimneys standing tall on the skyline. The grey-brown palette submerged all colour and was a stark contrast to the lush green fields and natural panoramas of home. However, the refugees had seen worse in Germany, and were grateful finally to be given the opportunity to start a new life in a safe country.”
As they travelled to Hull, in cruise liners and British navy ships along the River Humber, notorious for its shifting mud and sand banks, the boats were guided by small tug boats, and the route lit by boats like the Spurn Lightship. in use at the time as a navigational aid at the approaches of the Humber, near Spurn Point. Today, this boat sits proudly in Humber Dock with decades of use behind it, and can be visited as a museum.
The Spurn Lightship originally built in 1927
Rebuilding Post-War Britain notes that:
“The boat trip was usually overnight and after disembarkation in the morning, the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian men and women were met by women from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS), who welcomed them, gave them cups of tea and snacks and chatted to them about the next stage of the journey. Astrid Radze-Constable, a second generation Latvian in Britain, described how her Latvian father had felt sick after eating the fish and chips provided for the EVWs when they stepped off the boat in Hull, unused to the heavy, fatty food after years of scant rations in the DP camps.”
The Humber Estuary as viewed from Hull Docks.
After arriving in Hull, the refugees boarded a bus to Priory Road Camp, which was a Reception Centre for the refugees, where they were registered by the National Service Hostels Corporation, given an ID card and provided with the basics they needed, including a towel and soap. They were also given a small amount of money on arrival, and provided with suitable clothes if they did not have them. Priory Road also served as a longer term camp for some of the refugees who were employed mainly in agriculture in the area, but many of the newcomers would only have spent one or two nights there, before going onward to another camp in Yorkshire or further afield, depending on their work placement.
Many of the interviewees for this project arrived via Hull, especially those who were employed in the northern areas of England. Priory Road Camp was just a few streets away from where I grew up, but again, I had no idea of the importance of the former army barracks which had earlier housed POWs in wooden buildings.
The Hull Daily Mail reported the visit of George Isaacs, Minister of Labour And National Service, to Priory Road Camp in Hull, on 23 September 1947. After the inspection, the Minister described the camp as ‘A first Class Job’. The Hull Daily Mail reported that:
“The Minister’s visit was part of a tour he is making of such camps throughout the country. He was particularly pleased with the Hull Camp for it had cubicles for the workers, as opposed to the dormitory system elsewhere. In the canteen. Mr Isaacs, accompanied by his wife, saw workers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland eating their evening meal after returning from a day’s work on local farms. Later he listened to a concert by the workers who wore their national costumes. He gave a short talk which was translated in Germany – the common language of the camp – and they were delighted to hear that he hoped to be able before long to re-unite families. “Many of these people have had to leave their children or parents on the continent”, he told a Hull Daily Mail reporter. “I am quite satisfied with the way these people are being treated” he said, “these camps are palaces to some of the places I have seen them living in. We are hoping to bring the families together. this is the only worry these people seem to have. I have had many letters from them and they are most touching in the gratitude they express to the British peoples”.
In 1948, a scheme to bring over dependents was introduced and by then, many of the refugees had been moved out of the camp and into either private accommodation or camps in other areas. In 1949 and 1950, a significant number of Polish refugees came to Priory Road, after long and difficult journeys, as a result of recruitment by Russia during the war, the so-called Anders Army. (See: Norman Davies, Trail of Hope, information below)
Relations between the newcomers and local Hull residents were not always smooth. The Hull Daily Mail printed letters from members of the public who gave their opinions about the newcomers, the main gripe being that it was felt that they were taking the jobs of locals. But despite some animosity and caution from the locals, by and large, relations were good. Guy Martin, the prolific motorbike rider and TV celebrity, noted that his Grandfather Walter had stayed in Priory Road Camp to work in agriculture and met his wife, a local Hull girl called Lillian on a blind date at Hull fair, before settling in Grimsby.
In recent years, Hull has again become a popular destination for post-EU arrivals from the Baltic countries, as well as for Polish and other Eastern European migrants. The city has been invigorated by the arrival of these newcomers who have followed the earlier refugees to work primarily in undermanned areas of the economy, such as food production, hospitality, agriculture and factory work. One of every ten residents in Hull has now been born outside the UK, with the majority originating from the countries in the Baltic and Eastern Europe areas of Europe. What many of these newcomers may not realise is that they are following in the footsteps of thousands of other Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians some fifty years before them.
- I would love to hear your memories of arriving at Hull, or those of your family members as they told it, and any memories of Priory Road Camp, or any of the other camps nearby. I wonder how the refugees felt when they neared the banks of the Humber looking towards Hull, which had suffered some of the worst bombing in the Second World War?
- For anyone interested in visiting the place where their parents or family member first arrived in Britain, I would highly recommend a visit to the Hull Docks area, it is very atmospheric and standing there staring out at the endless water of the wide Humber Estuary, you can almost see the boats sailing down with the refugees in them. The area exudes history and many parts are largely unchanged, with the Old Town of Hull undergoing very sympathetic restoration, albeit now with art galleries and trendy bars and cafes, in the old Fruit and Fish Market areas. Hull is the 2017 City of Culture and it is time that its important role in welcoming the arriving EVWs is recognised.
Emily Gilbert, author of Rebuilding Post-War Britain: Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian Refugees in Britain, 1946-1951, published by Pen and Sword in 2017, November 2017
Featured image of a bombed street in Hull is copyright free and available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-13282836
All other photographs by Emily Gilbert
Film by Dr Nick Evans
The statue by Nick Hadlock:
Trail of Hope by Norman Davies