Wilberforce House and Hull's High Street

wilberforce house

Wilberforce house - A home..


Wilberforce House is one of the oldest buildings in Hull. It was built around 1660 by William Catlyn for Hugh Lister in an architectural style known as Artisan Mannerism. This unusual design combined classical influences with local designs to create an original style. It was bought by William Wilberforce, grandfather of the abolitionist in 1732. Wilberforce House, HullHe was an apprentice to a local merchant, John Thornton, and after his death Wilberforce bought the house from his son, Godfrey. William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, was born in a room upstairs in 1759. To celebrate Wilberforce's birth, his family decorated the ceiling in the main stairway with the family crest. The House was extended in two phases, during the 1730s and 1760s by the Wilberforce family to the building you see today.

...A business...


Wilberforce House had always had a dual function as a residence and a merchant business, making the best use of its location on the riverside for trading and unloading produce. Wilberforce joined forces with his nephew to form the Wilberforce, Smith & Co Bank which occupied some rooms of the house from 1784, with the bank manager, Thomas Thompson living above shop from 1798 in sole charge of the merchant house. Thompson died in 1828, and in 1830, Wilberforce sold the house to pay for his son's debts. The house continued to be used for various different company offices. The last resident of Wilberforce House was James Henwood.

..A Museum!


During its use by businesses in the 1890s some people asked to view the historic house, signing a visitors book which is on display in the galleries. In 1891 the Council brought in a rate to fund the restoration of historic buildings, and in 1896 Councillor Brown campaigned to preserve the house as a museum. Wilberforce House was bought by Hull City Council in 1903, and opened as a public museum on the 24th August 1906, with displays on Wilberforce, slavery and local history collections. The Museum's displays were updated in 1983 to improve the presentation of the collections. Wilberforce House Museum secured funding to re-develop the galleries and improve access ready for the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain in 2007.

Georgian Houses


The buildings next to Wilberforce House are called Georgian Houses. They were built by James Hamilton, ship-owner and tar merchant around 1757. Most Hull merchants had trading links with the Baltic countries, but the Hamilton family were unusual in that they traded with North America. James Hamilton imported tar that was produced on the slave plantations; strange that a product of slavery was used to provide the wealth to build a house next to the Slavery Abolitionist's home. Georgian Houses were typical Hull merchant houses of the 18th century. Over the years the houses were used as family homes and merchant offices with warehouses at the back of the building. Hull City Council took over Georgian Houses in 1949. They had been damaged in World War II and needed restoring. Alderman H. Fairbotham opened them as a museum in 1957. The rooms displayed costume, fire-arms, coins and archery trophies. They have been part of Wilberforce Museum ever since.
Corn Exchange, High Street

High Street - Hull's original City Centre


Wilberforce House and Georgian Houses are on High Street, the oldest street in the City. Hull was a thriving port and High Street was a mixture of merchant homes, warehouses and pubs. It would have been a lively and noisy place with merchants, sailors, prostitutes and press gangs. The River Hull, parallel to High Street, was the main area where merchants unloaded their cargo from the ships and moved it to nearby warehouses using staithes or small narrow paths. These were dotted along the High Street and access was jealously guarded by the merchant community to preserve routes to ships and trade. Ye Olde Black Boy, one of the oldest pubs on High Street today, was formerly a pipe shop and brothel. Men who drank in there were vulnerable to the local press gangs that roamed the south end of High Street looking to force men into the Royal Navy. Contrary to local stories, slaves were never sold on these premises.