Personalities and projects under the Bridge’s Shadow

Words by:
Stephen Wade
Featured in:
February 2011

Barton-upon-Humber’s past is a gallery of personalities and creativity, and that tradition continues today.
Six years ago, Judy Theobald explained Barton-upon Humber as a place of ‘bricks, boats and barley.’ That is still true, but taking a fresh look, what stands out is its history in terms of illustrious people, many of whom played major roles on the stage of world history. Walking the streets today, a visitor soon realises how important the buildings have been in the past, and I intend to describe these, but the Barton story is very much one of individuals who excelled, who strived to achieve and who made their mark on the world.

One of these was Isaac Pitman, who was appointed as a master at the British school in the town in 1831. He was knighted in 1894 and lauded as ‘the inventor of phonography’ after inventing the celebrated shorthand system, achieving national celebrity after leaving Barton for Bath where he established his Phonetic Institute. He started work at the age of twelve in a cloth factory and then went to the Normal College of the British and Foreign School Society before coming to Barton.

The Methodist chapel in the town will be forever linked with another notable figure: the Reverend Richard Roberts. At his death in 1909 the obituaries pointed out that he had preached anniversary sermons for forty-nine consecutive years at Pontypool, Barton and Howden. He gave his first sermon in 1840 when he was just seventeen, and in his obituary in ‘The Times’ some more arithmetic was applied to this remarkable man when it was stated that from that first sermon to his retirement he had preached 16,000 times ‘in more than 700 Wesleyan circuits in England and Wales.’

If we really start to examine Barton in terms of its past personalities, we have to mention the Hogarth family. In the mid-Victorian years, the Reverend George Hogarth, who was a cousin of the wife of Charles Dickens, was incumbent in Barton. His son, Dr D G Hogarth, was to become a scholar and leading light in the Arab Bureau, mixing with Lawrence of Arabia and Sir Mark Sykes; and his sister, Mary, was to become a celebrated artist. It has been pointed out that D G Hogarth was the man who saw the potential in T E Lawrence when they met at the Savoy Hotel, and saw in him, as one writer put it, ‘an ideal leader of irregulars.’ He was certainly right there.

Mary Hogarth was, according to one friend. ‘a woman of striking appearance and remarkable energy and enthusiasm.’ She moved in the highest circles of British art in the 1920s, with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, and exhibitions of her work were held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at the Independent Gallery. She died in 1935 after working hard on an exhibition of modern English embroidery at the Leicester Gallery.

Apart from scholars, explorers, preachers and artists, Barton has produced people who have been massively influential on the growth and identity of the town, and Frederick Hopper has to be high on that list. He founded the Elswick-Hopper Cycle and Motor Company, starting out in Barton apprenticed to a blacksmith and then returning to Barton after working in Hull. He established the company in 1880. Fred Hopper basically moved from mending bikes to making them, and he started with a cycle called the ‘Ajax.’ By 1905 the firm had 400 employees and more expansion followed as new premises were made at Marsh Lane, and then wrapping and packing was done at a Brigg Road depot. After Fred’s death, the company of Elswick Hopper continued expanding and thriving, and by 1982 Elswick Hopper Cycles and Falcon Cycles merged to become Elswick-Falcon.

We then have tiles and bricks, also a crucial part of the Barton story along with the cycles; in 1900 there were fifteen working tile yards and the bricks and tiles were sold and used across the land. As with so much in our industrial archaeology, all that remains are the vestiges of the productive centre – in this case, the pools where the clay pits were. But as with all change in the topography, a decline often creates a new centre of interest and so Barton clay pits are attractive to the county’s bird-watchers.

Of course, Barton has a long history as a ferry crossing-point, and there was a market and ferry there when Domesday Book was complied in 1086. In 1926, W F Rawnsley explained the situation when the ferry was in full use: ‘ The ferry is still used and the Hull cattle-boats mostly start from Barton landing-stage, but most of the passenger traffic is from the railway pier at New Holland.’ The New Holland to Hull ferry started in 1826, but for centuries before then, the main route from the south to East Yorkshire had included Barton.

By 1851 the Great Grimsby and Sheffield Junction Railway monopolised the route to Hull market from Lincolnshire and Barton declined. The various dreams, schemes and plans involving Barton since Rawnsley wrote have included proposed tunnels under the estuary, assorted bridges and even a dam on which one person argued that a road or rail route could be built. As local historian Charles Watkinson has written, the 1920s chronicle of the town includes a bill to Parliament for approval and finance for a ‘multi-span toll bridge to be built from Barton to Hessle.’ Mr Watkinson explains that: ‘The estimated cost was £1,725,000. Other options were railway tunnels, £4,600,000. Road tunnels, £7,200,000 and a combination road/rail, £4,000,000. Test bores were carried out along the Barton side, lots of water was found at 25ft and I feel sure the depth of the silt and clays gave the consultants pause for thought.’

The town will be forever linked to the Humber Bridge; drivers on their way to cross from the Lincolnshire side are reminded that Barton is an ‘historic town’ and that the Barton exit is the last before the bridge, which was completed in 1981, with a total length of 2,430 yards, with cycle paths and walkways.

The arrival of the new bridge did not necessarily create immediate and streamlined communication across the area. One report from August 1981 gives us a humorous sidelight on this magnificent innovation. The chairman of the Yorkshire Area Transport Users Consultative Committee took a bus ride from Hull to Barton on the Humberlink bus and rail service. He was in for a shock. ‘It was like going round Brands Hatch,’ he told the press, ‘Corners were a nightmare, passengers and luggage slid about all over the bus. We went through a pedestrian cross-road crossing and caught the kerb at speed… I don’t blame the driver. If he had not put his foot down we would probably have missed our rail connexion at Barton.’

As I said at the beginning, Barton is also a place of ‘projects’ – none more adventurous and exciting as the Ropewalk Heritage Project based at the Ropery. The story of rope-making in Barton goes back to 1767 when the Hall family of Hull started their ropery in the town. Hall made ropes, sailcloth, twine and tarpaulins, and later imported raw materials for the rope-making technology. By the early decades of the twentieth century the ‘Hall Mark’ ropes were famous across the globe; later, with large-scale changes in the fibres used in the industry, synthetic ropes were made. Then, in 1989, the rope-making ended.

But today we have the Ropewalk – containing a museum, artists’ studios, the Fathom Works (with the new Fathom Press) and other visitor attractions. The Ropery Hall has become a vibrant centre for performance, offering theatre, comedy and film. The Unravelling Barton Ropery Project has included the establishment of the Fathom Press, which has published on local topics, including ‘Family Ties’, and the magazine, ‘The Article’.

What about the architecture of this forward-looking town? It is difficult to miss the buildings here, and anyone wanting to walk the streets and learn about the buildings of the past only has to consult the ‘Virtual Walk’ of Barton at to appreciate the richness and diversity here. From the mid-Victorian years we have the Wesleyan Chapel, designed by W Alfred Gelder, a place long since closed as a place of worship but which has had many uses in recent years. On Waterside Road there is also Waterside House, once the Waterside Inn, dating from 1715. This was clearly an important point on the route north in past centuries; the Royal Mail coach passed that way in the Georgian period, and we can appreciate the scale of the business when it is noted that there was stabling for over a hundred horses there in the nineteenth century.

Naturally, no profile of the town is complete without mention of the two churches. St Peter’s has its fine Saxon tower; it was restored in 1898 and its most remarkable feature is the so-called ‘stone carpentry’ – the use of external strips of stone going well into the walls. Yet once again we have a link to a very famous person: Chad Varah’s childhood home was at the old vicarage by St Peter’s. Chad was born here in 1911, and the great humanitarian and reformer was named after St Chad, the founder of the parish. The church itself attracts great interest and in 1960 Niklaus Pevsner described St Peter’s as ‘Really two churches, one small and Anglo-Saxon of which two-thirds stand, the other fully grown and of the thirteenth century and later…’

St Mary’s is indeed rich in history and character. There was originally a seventh century church here, and later a Norman chapel was built, and from 1115 when Walter de Gaunt granted land, the place began its life as a monastic church and today has a multitude of attractions to cater for the English love of church history and embellishment, including arcades, doorways, pinnacles and battlements of great interest.

Some years ago, local historian Geoffrey Bryant was asked why there are two such wonderful churches in Barton: ‘ .. nobody quite knows why the two churches should have been built, particularly as they only had one vicar,’ he told Lincolnshire Life then. We have a situation in which St Mary’s is very much a working church, and St Peter’s is daily open for visitors and continues to attract anyone having a fascination with history.

There is something entirely typical of Barton-upon-Humber in the reverence for the past balanced by the energy and enterprise needed to press on into the future. The faded industries still live on in memories, publications and art, while the latest projects have proved that new uses may be found for the remains of the past.

Barton may be under the shadow of the bridge, but it has also made its own bridges into the past, and is working hard to move with the times.

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