Hull Holy Trinity in sources, Part II: the long 18th century (1700-1837)

by Michael Free and Stephen Lonsdale

In our previous article, we turned our gaze to the written and pictorial sources of the 16th and 17th centuries, to the age of the Tudors and Stuarts, when Hull began to mature as an important North Sea port and centre for Royal administration; a time when its chapel became a church and much of its structure came to resemble the church we see today, inside and out. The sources reveal a complex and rich picture of a church torn between the secular and the religious, faith and politics, and almost from inception a building and institution in flux. Unsurprisingly, the more extensive and numerous sources from the long 18th century demonstrate that far from settling down the church remained vital, influential, and much admired.

That said, the sources for the period clearly shift in content and focus; whereas earlier sources were much fragmented and commonly informal in content, these late Stuart and Georgian sources tend towards substantial, published, formal architectural and historical analyses, written in the present tense. The later, early 19th century examples embody this form, particularly Frost (1817) and Cragg (1827).

Elsewhere, in line with the sophistication of media production during this period, the number and quality of visual sources depicting Holy Trinity increases drastically; a flurry of the etchings and sketches are available throughout the long 18th century in a way impossible for earlier periods. This naturally increases the amount of data we must work with, but also boosts the accuracy and specificity of our interpretations of changing attitudes.

As before, we will give the source in full as transcribed. Let’s dive in.

Anonymous, 1733

‘The Church is very large, built Cathedral-wise, the Tower in the middle; there is a handsome Altar-Piece of the last Supper in the Choir, and a Library contributed for by the Gentlemen of the Town, and open to Strangers, wherein is a curious Vellum Manuscript of St. Austin’s Works, the Gift of Archbishop Sharp; the Pillars of the Church are remarkably small, considering the weight of the Fabrick they sustain.’ 

This short and somewhat arbitrary work reveals some interesting details of the 18th century church. This anonymous source (let’s call him ‘the Visitor’ for ease) picks up on several of the more modern aspects of the church; the Parmentier painting for one and the library for another. The somewhat random mentioning of St Austin’s works is an indication of the Visitor’s interests- and suggests that he is a member of the clergy, or at the least a educated gentleman with a strong interest in theology. The Visitor’s comment on the church pillars is very interesting; by the 1730s Gothic architecture as a living tradition was largely dormant (beyond the ‘Gothic Survival’ of restoration and modification work), and with it, much of the understanding associated with Gothic buildings. In Britain, Neoclassical structures tended to be elegant but monolithic, their essential design and structure relying on chunky, often simple components; the spatial logic and technological approach was different and distinct from Gothic. The Visitor’s response to the size of the piers may well reflect this change in internalised spatial logic between the Medieval and the Georgian.  

Fleming, for Thomas Gent, History of Hull, 1735 

‘NO doubt, Divine Service was perform’d, almost from the Beginning of the Town’s Foundation’ tho’ perhaps in little Chapels of Wood or Chambers set apart for that Purpose. But as People began to flourish, their Thoughts were insp’d to raise a Building, in which it was more fitting to serve the Divine Architect of the World. The late King, their Benefactor, Who had he but liv’d ‘till the Foundation of this Structure was laid would without doubt have been a great Contributor to the Design. However, his Son, was not in this Respect wanting in his Royal Beneficence; whose Example was follow’d not only by the rich Merchants and Tradesmen of the Town, but also by the Gentlemen and Inhabitants round about it. … Their names are buried in oblivion, excpt Mr. John Scales’ 

Thomas Gent was one of the most influential Yorkshire printmakers in the 18th century. The text shows little, but the image, far more. Gent’s engraver, Thomas Fleming, does an excellent job here of conveying the proportions and overall feel of Holy Trinity. Indeed, the image is a mostly faithful interpretation of reality. That said, there are a few inaccuracies which are quite revealing of the 18th century mindset, primarily and foremost the window tracery.  

Unlike in later prints and etchings, there is little attempt to correctly model the tracery of the building, which is surely one of the most visible- and to modern eyes- one of the most beautiful aspects of the church. Hull Minster’s walls, both then and now, are over 85% glass; it gives the impression of a great cage of stone and creates a unique arrangement between the interior of the church and its exterior. Here, while the general spatial arrangement of the tracery has been retained, the tracery itself follows a distinctly different pattern from reality. To an extent, and particularly with the flowing patterns of the east end and transepts, the patterns of the windows have been ‘rationalised’ in light of Enlightenment principles; they are simplified, lacking ogee arches and the organic, flowing decoration that they hold in reality.  

So why? Why would Fleming and Gent do this? Speed may be part of it- they may have wanted to give a wide, general prospect of the Minster without spending too much time on illustration and production. An alternative possibility could be that they were working from other illustrations and not from the actual building itself. Another possibility, one which is most intriguing and eminently possible albeit less than probable, is that Gent and Fleming did not approve of the decidedly aclassical window designs; these were not ‘tasteful’ at the height of the Enlightenment; indeed, medieval design was somewhat denigrated during the early period, awaiting its revival towards the end of the Georgian age. The alterations made to the window tracery here could therefore represent an attempt to ‘update’ the medieval tracery to make it more palatable for Gent and Fleming’s audience. It is worth adding that the ‘rationalised’ tracery of the image clearly resembles other examples of 18th century Gothic- Hawksmoor's Gothic towers at Westminster Abbey and All Soul’s College come to mind, as does Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and Dance’s slightly later ‘Hindoostani Gothic’ façade to London Guildhall. The tower especially resembles Hawksmoor’s Westminster tracery and given that said tracery was constructed at the same time as Gent and Fleming’s work (1722-1745), it seems natural to conclude that there is a link between them. Which inspired which is unclear.

Buck, 1745

The Buck Brother’s prospect of Hull is immediately familiar. Poised and rendered almost identically to the 1642 Hollar prospect of Hull, the Bucks are clearly following in his stead. This image reads as an update and a sequel to Hollar’s copperplate, a demonstration of the remarkable change that Hull had undergone in the prior century.  

Front and centre is Holy Trinity. It is the aspect of Hull which has clearly changed the least in the town, and here it is almost identical to Hollar’s interpretation. So little has changed, in fact, that you may rightly wonder if Hollar’s church either inspired the Bucks’ church or was the direct basis for the Bucks’ church. My instincts are towards the latter, as only slight modifications seem to have taken place.  

Anonymous, 1790s

We have no idea where this image comes from or otherwise its provenance; we simply know that it dates to the 1790s. Highly detailed and true to life, the image is noteworthy for its attempt to show Holy Trinity in all its beauty. Not a huge amount to say here, aside from the glaring inclusion of a stables in front of Holy Trinity’s east front. This stable, which has clearly been constructed in the last 100 years (bearing a Neoclassical design) and would be later demolished before 1834, sits where a modern concrete multi-story car park now stands. How I would prefer the stables to still be there!

John Craggs’ Guide to Hull, 1817

‘What we know for certain about the first foundation of the church of Holy Trinity, is that the building of the east part of it, now the chancel and steeple, was considerably advanced, but not finished, in the sixth year of the reign of King Edward the second (1312) only sixteen years after the building of the town, and that the King contributed bountifully to the edifice. From which early period, this magnificent and stately church, large, well proportioned, and of exquisitely neat workmanship, has shone the principal ornament of the town of Kingston upon Hull, affording ample matter of curiosity and gratification both to the architect and antiquary. This beautiful structure is built after the cathedral fashion; and forms one complete range of the gothic order, planned and executed with a degree of elegance seldom exceeded in edifices of this nature. The church within is well lighted, exceedingly lofty and spacious, and at once strikes the imagination with surprise, awe, and reverence. Its dimensions are of the following large extent. From the west door to he east end of the chancel, it comprehends a space of two hundred and seventy nine feet; whereof one hundred and forty four feet contain the body or nave of the church, twenty eight the breadth of the transept, or great cross aisle under the steeple, and the remaining hundred the length of the chancel.

The breadth of the body, or nave of the church, is seventy two feet; the length of the great cross aisle is ninety six feet, and the breadth of the chancel seventy feet.

From whence it appears, that the whole of this elegant structure occupies an area of no less than twenty thousand and fifty six square feet, which is more than two thousand, two hundred and twenty eight square yards.

The interior architecture of this church is in the first style of Gothic grandeur. The lofty and spacious dimensions of the chancel, the lightness and elegance of its workmanship, are not surpassed by any other similar structure in the kingdom. The roof is supported by slender uniform pillars, of exquisite workmanship, on which are placed five light gothic arches, on each side, which divide the choir into three large aisles. Over the altar piece is an animated and masterly painting of the Last Supper by Parmentier.’

This lengthy description of the church from 1817 includes some beautiful language, perhaps expectedly, given its origin during the age of Romanticism. Craggs’ description is one of the most sophisticated developed so far, and it is a world away from the work of Gent in the previous century. Craggs emphasises the workmanship of Holy Trinity above everything else and is clearly a fan of the Gothic style as implemented at Hull. There’s not a lot else to say, only that Craggs mentions that at this point the Parmentier painting was hung over the High Altar, in contrast to today, where it may be found in the North Aisle.  

Charles Frost, Notices Relative to the Early History of the Town and Port of Hull, 1827

‘… a stately Chapel, which now forms the chancel of the magnificent parochial Church of the Holy Trinity.

Leland has already remarked, that the “Trinite Church,” was “most made of bricke”, and the truth of his assertion has become too apparent from the present lamentable want of repair of the exterior of the edifice; no room indeed is now left to doubt , that the chancel, with the exception only of the buttresses, crenelles, and windows, which are of stone, is wholly built of brick, as are also the foundation of the tower or steeple and the south porch of the church.

Frost also tells us that the Archbishop of York (1739) visited Hull and recorded: “With regard to Trinity Church (which Leland says has a great deal of brickwork worked up in the walls) there does not appear to a single brick in or about the whole fabric, except a few in the south porch, placed there of very late years”.

The fact that the chancel and south porch of the Church are principally built of brick being established, it would be extremely important for the purpose of the present inquiry if the date of the structure could have been ascertained, but this most probably remains uncertain. It has already been stated, that there is reason to believe it was raised in the year 1285 by James Hellward: at all events it has been shewn to have been in existence in the year 1301; and this fact is perhaps sufficient to establish the claim of Hull, to the merit of being the first town in this country the useful art of brickmaking; particularly as it has been said that the well authenticated instances of buildings in England made of brick, decidedly not taken from Roman walls can scarcely be carried further back than the reign of Richard II.

In referring to the old dock walls he records the: bricks taken from these foundations, like those in the Chancel of Trinity Church at Hull, are of the Flemish shape, and similar to those in  which are groined in between the stone ribs of the vaulting over the passages through the Checquer or Western Gate of the Cathedral Close at Lincoln, the date of which is about 1350.’

Frost’s work offers much insight into the view of Holy Trinity back in the late Georgian period. Frost’s comments mostly relate to the brickwork of the church, something which Leland commented on nearly 300 years earlier and which otherwise has been left out of sources. Holy Trinity was and is indeed the largest medieval brick Gothic church in Britain, so this not a minor feature to undersell.  

Anyhow, Frost gives us clarity on the condition of the church in the early 19th century. The Church of England in the 18th century was beset with division and complacency during this period, leaving many of its churches impoverished and decrepit. Indeed, if you go into any medieval church in the country, you will almost always find that the 18th century was a period of decline for that church. Hull was no different, and Frost makes this abundantly clear.  

Importantly, Frost seems to be one of the first historians and archaeologists to recognise the importance of Holy Trinity’s age, noting probably correctly that Hull was the first town in the country to re-develop the art of brickmaking, Holy Trinity may be the oldest medieval brick church in the country. I will elaborate further; brickmaking in Britain flourished with the Romans before undergoing a seemingly quick decline in the 5th century. While clay remained in use in building structures throughout as daub, bricks would not be made again in this country until the 13th century- Hull and King’s Lynn both offer a stake to be the first place in which this happened. 

The origin for this redevelopment seems to lie in trade with the North Germanic Coastal Plain, the region stretching from Holderness, the Vale of York, East Anglia and Kent to the Netherlands, northern Germany, Denmark and then Poland, perhaps as far as Kaliningrad in Russia. Here, the absence of workable building stone (beyond often poor glacial debitage known as fieldstone) lead to an early interest in brickmaking from the 11th and 12th century onwards, with regions such as Denmark developing a ‘Brick Romanesque’ and later a ‘Brick Gothic’ style. This latter form of architecture had a hugely generative influence in the Humber region, where local high quality building stone was relatively scarce and the cultural and social connections with the North Sea region were exceptionally strong- hence, Hull Holy Trinity, as well as the walls and a considerable number of the houses and other churches in the town. Frost alludes to this clearly when he mentions the ‘Flemish shape’ of the bricks used.    

J Pigot & Co, National Commercial Directory, Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire, 1833 

‘The church of Holy Trinity, in the market place, is a conspicuous ornament to the town, and a magnificent pile, in the cathedral style of Gothic architecture, erected, according to Mr Frost’s Notices, in the year 1285: the benefice is a vicarage, in the gift of the corporation, and incumbency of Rev. J H Bromby.’

The last source for this article, the NCD does not reveal much that we haven't already established through other sources. It does mention JH Bromby, who at this point had only just become vicar. Bromby would go on to be the country’s longest serving vicar as well as Hull’s and would have a great impact on the church he served so dearly.  


So ends another look into the sources of Hull Holy Trinity. Part III, focussing on the 19th century and early 20th centuries, is coming soon - so keep an eye out, as we continue our journey into Holy Trinity’s past.

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