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August 1, 2019

Is Hull really in Yorkshire?

A brief history of the boundaries and identity of God’s Own Country.

By Chris Sharp

I’ve argued the case previously that Yorkshire will always be consumed by in-fighting, and that to be united it needs a common enemy. On this great day last year, CityMetric stress tested my theory, publishing, from the safe distance of London, its official ranking of the Great Cities of God’s Own Country. This improvised explosive device ripped through Twitter leaving chaos and mayhem in its wake, just at a time when a Chris Grayling had united us.

But among all the “My city is better than yours” comments there was actually a thread of unity. An editor’s note at the bottom of article informed us that its author was based in London and was originally from Hull, neither of which facts did it any favours. Nor did the inclusion of Grimsby in and exclusion of Middlesbrough from the ranking: Grimsby has never been in Yorkshire while ‘Boro has. Including Hull in the listing was controversial enough, but ranking it number 1 was the final straw.

All this got reader Bob Melling so wound up he felt the need to draw a map explaining the geography of Yorkshire.

(His tweet about the article was too sweary to include here.)

The prominence of Hull at the top brought back to mind one of the most controversial questions of my life time. Is Hull actually in Yorkshire?

Historically, Yorkshire was a huge county so large that it was split into three sections, known as “ridings”. (Told you we don’t get on.) The west was the largest, and contained all the big cities, as well as the Pennines all the way up to Sedbergh. The North Riding was a little smaller and a much less populated region of the Dales, the Moors and the Vale of York. Middleborough was the only conurbation. The East was the smallest of the Ridings, covering the land between York and the North Sea; its sole city was Hull. The Ridings met in York, the city at the heart of the county, which stood separate from all three.

In the 1970s, the Ridings were put out to pasture, and the county of Yorkshire was carved up yet again. Three counties emerged with Yorkshire in their names: North, West and South. At the same time, fat was trimmed off the edges. Saddleworth went into Greater Manchester, Sedbergh into Cumbria. Lancashire made a land grab win the west, and to the north Durham expanded its borders over the River Tees.

These were small tweaks in low population areas: bigger occurred along the North Sea coast, where a lot more people live. Two new counties, Cleveland and Humberside, were created. Their aim was to create local authorities that would bring together the industrial towns and cities around the Tees and the Humber.

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This worked well around the mouth of the Tess, where the towns of Hartlepool, Billingham, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Redcar were brought together to form Cleveland. They were geographically close and the old natural barrier of the river was served by multiple bridges, liking the communities together in to a single economic area.

Humberside was less of a success. The industry around the Humber mirrored the Tees with ports, steelworks and petrochemicals. But these were more dispersed along 40 miles of wide estuary, which wouldn’t be bridged until Humberside was 7 years old. Its borders strayed far from the river, enclosing over 3,500km2 – 10 times of the size of Cleveland with only half the population.

Cleveland became a pseudo metropolitan region; Humberside was just another, nondescript county and the locals weren’t happy. North of the river, they didn’t like being ripped out of Yorkshire and lumped with the Lincolnshire yellow bellies.

The rest of Yorkshire, the bits that got to keep the name, couldn’t give a toss. Yes they had lost their four corners: Saltburn, Spurn, Saddleworth and Sedbergh were gone. But the heart of real Yorkshire continued on proudly without them. To this day supporters of Yorkshire football teams remind Hull and Boro fans with chants of “Yorkshire Rejects, Yorkshire Rejects”.

Eventually the 1974 boundary changes were revisited, and in the late 1990s Humberside was divided up into four unitary authorities. Hull went independent; the rest of the north bank became the “East Riding of Yorkshire”, which is laying it on very thick if you ask me. The south bank did something else. I don’t really know what because it isn’t Yorkshire so, frankly, who cares?

The shame of the Humberside years were over. Hull’s relationship with the rest of Yorkshire was restored.

Except it wasn’t.

It was like that occasion your long term girlfriend thought it was time your relationship took a break. Then four weeks later she decided that she really wanted to get back together, and you thought that this wasn’t a good idea, yet a fortnight later you were a couple again which you had apparently agreed to, but you have no memory of doing so.

…what do you mean that never happened to you?

Anyway, Hull shook off the shackles of Humberside expecting to be greeted with a warm welcome, only to find a cold shoulder. Speak to people in North, West and South Yorkshire and many of them probably won’t even recognise Hull as in Yorkshire.

If this all sounds a bit odd, even petty, it’s because it is. But there may be an underling cultural reason for this failed reunification.

I blame the BBC.

Go on, admit it, you didn’t see that coming.

Sticking with the name Radio Humberside for the BBC local station hasn’t helped. The station opened in 1971 thus predated the county by three years, which was reason enough for them to keep the name. If you actually listen to the station the presenters talk of broadcasting to “East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire”, but you still hear national BBC broadcasters refer to Hull as in “Humberside”, because that name is still alive in the corporation.

Then there’s cricket. The glue of Yorkshire’s sporting culture is the mighty Yorkshire County Cricket Club. The BBC provide coverage on every game and Jonathan Doidge, their commentator, is kept very busy providing updates to the county’s local radio. The five station names the fans hear every hour are Leeds, Sheffield, York, Tees and Humberside.

TV has had an even bigger impact. Until early this century, the BBC’s regional television broadcasted to West and South Yorkshire, Humberside and Lincolnshire, which mapped directly with the ITV regions. The output all came from Leeds. However, in 2002 the BBC announced that it was building a new whizzy internet-ready studio in Hull, and forthwith it’s region would be split in half. Two versions of it regional news programme Look North would be broadcast, from Leeds and Hull respectively.

The great fanfare that came with this new venture was contained within its broadcast area: the rest of Yorkshire didn’t notice. The absence of news from Grimsby, Hull and Lincoln did not register. No one stopped to wonder why the big Rugby League derby between Hull KR and Hull FC wasn’t covered. The county’s main source of news quietly stopped talking about Hull.

In 2017 Hull was the UK’s City of Culture. I live in York, 40 miles away, and there was nothing – zero – about it on my BBC regional news. I kept track of what was going on there and mentioned it to friends. None of them had any idea what was happening in Hull.

To the vast majority of Yorkshire, Hull is out of sight and out of mind.

ITV can also be dragged into this argument. Back in the days of three channel telly, the non BBC station was highly regionalised with strong local broadcasters which created a regional identity. Yorkshire Television (YTV) was a powerful cultural force which gave us Emmerdale and Countdown, not to mention Richard Whitely, so we’ll pretend I didn’t. The evening news programme Calendar presented by the erstwhile Whitely, was far more popular than the BBC’s equivalent. Yorkshire TV felt like our telly. It was a uniting force even though its broadcasting area included the whole of Lincolnshire.

Yet this unifying force did not reach the north of the county. Middlesbrough has never received its local TV from Leeds: their feed is from Newcastle, and their ITV channel was the brilliantly named TyneTees. This formed a region and gave it a local and national identity.

TyneTees first broadcast in 1959. The concept that Middlesbrough and Teesside were culturally in the North East rather than Yorkshire was firmly in the public conscious by the 1974 boundary changes. This goes some way to explaining why the questions of Middlesbrough’s status within Yorkshire is less contentious than Hull’s.

The ITV regional TV companies started to buy each other or merge after legislation changes in the 1990s permitted it. Eventually, the result was one company, and the old brands lost their on-air identities in 2002. TyneTees and Yorkshire TV were no more – coincidentally at the same time as the BBC split its Yorkshire region in two.

It’s easy to underestimate the cultural power of regional TV. Last year my TV automatically retuned itself to a different transmitter. Rather than receiving my signal from Leeds, I found myself watching Newcastle’s output, and being too lazy to do anything about this, I became familiar with events in Hexham, Haltwhistle and Hartlepool.

This had an impact on me. I visited the Great Exhibition of the North a 100 miles away in Newcastle and Gateshead solely because I saw it on regional TV. How many more of Hull’s City of Culture events would I have attended if I was repeatedly seeing them featured on the news?

With the demise of local TV broadcasting and the rise of worldwide streaming services, it will be interesting to see whether the cultural identity of our regions can be maintained in the coming years. Will anything provide a region-wide cultural glue? A One Yorkshire devolution deal would certainly help. Sport has the potential to do this, but sports teams often represent cities, and even the traditional county-based game of cricket is foolishly trying a city based tournament in 2020.

However, cycling has given Yorkshire’s identity a shot in the arm through the visit of Tour de France in 2014. Creating the Tour de Yorkshire as a legacy event in 2015 built on that success. Since then, the race has crisscrossed the county with huge crowds of locals turning out to cheer on the riders. It has reached almost every city and town in Yorkshire, with one notable exception. You guessed it: Hull.

In the last 20 years Hull has done a fine job of raising its profile on the national and international stage, mainly through the remarkable success of its football team Hull City, whose meteoric rise began when they moved to a new stadium built by the City Council. But locally, within Yorkshire, they will continue to be viewed as the black sheep of the family.


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