Welcome to the website of Carrie Henderson, non-fiction writer researching the House Of Mirelle, social history and British vintage fashion. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org: Twitter @carriehenwrites Skype @carriejourno: Instagram: carriehenphotography #HULL2017
Review of 2016: The Year The House of Mirelle Book Came Alive
At the stroke of midnight on the 31st December Big Ben will tell us that 2017 is finally here.
The UK City of Culture starts on January 1st and it heralds a glorious year of art, music, dance and loads more besides to whet the public’s appetite for All Things Hull.
2016 was also about All Things Hull, but mine was about Hull of the past.
It was a landmark year when The House of Mirelle lifted from the pages of my research notes and came alive.
This year has brimmed with adventure; it took me on a voyage of discovery that was fascinating, full and fun.
Here are my standout moments from 2016:
From research to reality
In the turn between last year and this, the research into The House of Mirelle had generated a list of people I needed to find because they had direct contact with the fashion house.
My big database called The Find List was up and running and I knew why certain people were important to the story. Every single person mentioned in the research findings – yes, every one – had been added to The List, but there were people who were absolutely key.
By January I was ready to ‘go live.’ Those names shuffled to the top were ones I urgently needed to trace, but, I asked myself, how to find them from so long ago and where on earth do I start?
The Mirelle research started right at the very beginning – way, way prior to 1950 so many of the people at the top of The List weren’t still alive.
In 2015 I pondered what to do.
Does that mean I have to leave those people there or is there another way?
How do you go about finding people who are no longer alive and even if I do, can I trace them with only a maiden, family or married name?
What happens if I do find them and then they don’t want to know….Hm!
All these thoughts were scribbled down in my research diary until one day I decided that the internal struggle was there because it didn’t seem right to leave their experiences to one side even if they had passed on.
Finding out why The House of Mirelle was special
I felt something special about Mirelle – the same feeling that’s driven me on since I first discovered it in 2014.
Someone said of shopping there:
“Oh, it was an experience, a real experience, I can tell you.”
The flutter rising and falling in her voice confirmed what I already knew.
“If that’s true,” I thought, “then those no longer alive would have talked about it with their family and friends as well.”
Following this hunch, in December 2015 I decided to trace the family members of those on the top of The List whether I thought they were alive or not.
“I’m in this with both feet,” I said at the Royal Station Hotel in September. “I’ll follow the story through to the end, wherever it takes me.”
Tracing and finding key people
Through more research skullduggery in early 2016 letters started to go out introducing myself. They were sent across the UK to the last known addresses of people or their sons and daughters.
I had no idea how reliable those addresses were, or how reliable my intuition was that people would want to reply either.
One of the first letters was sent back from Gloucester with ‘return to sender, not known’ scrawled across the front in red pen. Yes, it was disheartening but it was at the same time useful to cross that line of inquiry off The List.
“You never know,” I thought, “they might be found later on…”
Little did I know the oft quoted research adage ‘keep your mind open’ would be so true this year.
People’s stories make the history of Hull
The nerves dissipated, replaced by cautious optimism when the first response to one of my letters came back having found the right person.
They said, ‘yes, that’s me, those are my parents’ and from that a whole other story unfolded.
It was one about a family lineage that can be traced back to the 19th century and the prominence of Jewish culture and retail throughout Hull’s history including the present day.
I’d contacted that person because I wanted to ask if they had a photo of an outfit that had been designed and made at The House of Mirelle. They did and I was then even more delighted when they gave it to me to use.
When it arrived earlier this year I saw what I’d originally wanted to see – a real life photograph to illustrate the written description of an outfit.
At the end of this year though I hold that photo in my hands and see what it really represents; a story far wider than the House of Mirelle, the story of Hull itself.
Other people have come forward too in many different ways and have generated many, many different conversations. Their voices follow me as I carry out my research.
Snippets and clips float back at different times, making links between what I’ve researched and what happened for people living the experience directly.
Since early this year finding people has extended from letter-writing to social media, phone calls, emails and texts also.
At the end of this year I feel the warmth of those surrounding me and the amount of Christmas cards on my window sill that have an “HU” postcode is testimony to how welcoming and open everyone has been.
This year has been a huge milestone in bringing the people into the story. It’s been wonderful.
There are still more surprises to come
Last week I spoke to a woman for the first time. At beginning of the year she was at the top of The Find List but was completely untraceable.
It took all year and another coincidence to find her and only happened because someone unconnected recognised her from something I’d shared from my research sources.
Talking to her brings a ‘name’ that reaches back all the way to the 1930s. As a nice aside it reconnected these two people after a long time too.
For me the standout part of 2016 has been incorporating people into the research.
It has been and still is absolutely extraordinary to hear people’s stories, receive their mementos and get to know them and through that, bring the House of Mirelle alive.
The British Library
Depending on how you think about research, spending time delving into the records of the past is either a practical necessity or a dream come true.
This is why loving your subject is essential; there will be things to do that are mundane and to others seem utterly boring but to you it’s all on the path to the book you’ll publish in the end.
This year I’ve got to know The British Library very well indeed. It was in February that I first took myself and a ruler, some pencils, a flask of tea and a big notebook up to Kings Cross reading rooms to ‘tackle 1951.’
I have to fill the gap between sources that I already have and the sources that are only available at The BL, as I affectionately call it.
Starting at the beginning of 1951 I’ve steadily worked through each year there and at the time of writing I am slap bang in the 1960s.
That’s at least 12 of the most wonderful days spent in the reading rooms. When I walk away I have a spring in my step that comes from the ‘wow’ of finding more.
While I’m at The BL I read and take notes of anything that may link in with fashion, Hull or The House of Mirelle and I do it one year at a time all and in one go.
Going there is a treat. It’s an extraordinary building which has free exhibitions, a hustle and bustle of interested visitors and a quiet presence that is matched by the thrill of turning original items over page by page. I literally hold history in my hands.
My research trips there have generated a massive database of background information, articles and notes about what researchers call ‘context.’
So if you want to know what Hullensians were wearing in 1956 or 1960 – I’m your girl!
Coincidences and serendipity
One aspect to 2016 makes me smile. There have been so many coincidences on this journey that they’ve developed into signposts along the way.
Researching and writing about Mirelle is a big project with edges that keep changing and when I’ve put it to one side for a while, a new coincidence calls me back in.
What do I mean?
There was the time I was watching a documentary that had a boat in it called ‘Mira,’ when Betty Bartlett’s daughter Anne contacted me this year, the house I stayed in in Hull and the two people who last saw each other in 1978 – one of whom I couldn’t find – bumping into each other in Hull just as I said: “I don’t think I’ll be able to find them.”
These coincidences have got an energy of their own. They can be personal or about Mirelle but the most recent is quite extraordinary.
For a while as a child I lived in a small village in Lincolnshire. In the 40 years since my family moved away we’ve had no contact with it at all. Near where I currently live I have a friend who comes from Hull and a relation has written a screenplay about The Triple Trawler Tragedy and it was sent to me to read.
I loved it. However it wasn’t that coincidence that stunned me – her relation lives in the same small village where I lived in Lincs.
There’s these, and there are many, many more……
2 Mirelle dresses: Sewing, sales, modelling and buying from the 1950s – 1970s
During 2016 I became the proud owner of 2 House of Mirelle dresses. They come from different eras; 1950s and 1970s.
Each speak to the talents of the buyers who sourced the designs of the day, they really knew their clients and were fashion buying experts.
They also show the talents of the workroom girls who were employed for their sewing and tailoring skills, sales staff who matched the perfect outfits with customers and the models and mannequins who displayed them in the fabulous fashion shows.
One dress is constructed in ways that shows couture sewing skills from the 1950s at their very best.
The other shows how the shop and workroom developed into the 1970s but that the sewing skills used in additions and alterations remained of the high quality expected of the earlier era.
As a dressmaker myself, holding two clothing items in my hands ( with cotton gloves on of course ) that might have been touched by the staff I’ve interviewed about Mirelle is tremendously exciting.
Both gowns are stunning. Fashion historians will view them in one way, visitors to an exhibition about The House of Mirelle another. Which leads me onto….
The House of Mirelle exhibition
2016 has seen the Mirelle archives grow and grow so that it contains photographs, interviews, clippings and programmes donated to me from throughout Mirelle’s history.
This is growing all the time and is so wide ranging and full it has become the Primary Historical Resource for Mirelle.
I have been offered exhibition space at Hull History Centre in November 2017 and the proposal includes a fashion show. One ex-model has even offered her services to the show saying she’ll ‘do her thing’ just like she used to. Marvellous!
It’s wonderful that the people I’ve got to know are so enthusiastic about this idea. Mirelle ran fashion shows throughout its 40 years of opening and they were occasions that people flocked to from miles around.
We may not be able to use the City Hall, Locarno Nightclub or The New York Hotel as Mirelle did in the time but we can make it just as good – a modern version in our time.
House of Mirelle wedding dress
In the midst of the post-Brexit melee, Jo Moore placed an advert in her local newspaper in Perth, Australia.
She wanted to know if anyone could tell her who originally owned the Mirelle dress she’d bought from a Perth charity shop.
I decided I’d help by writing a blog post about it and retweeting it too.
The very next morning, after a flurry of interest, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Humberside and within 24 hours the Hull Daily Mail interviewed Jo all the way from their offices in Hull too.
They followed that up by interviewing me next, admittedly from a shorter distance.
We had help left right and center and social media stepped up and made it a worldwide search.
All the way around the UK and Australia people shared and shared the information, inspired by the idea that the bride would see her wedding dress again.
In a couple of weeks it had been shared over 13,000 times which left me and Jo breathless.
On the 18th September I clambered onto a train at Kings Cross with one large and heavy suitcase, a backpack filled with research materials in display folders, my voice recorder and laptop and headed to Hull.
The coincidences continued….
It was while I was there that I read a block of finely printed text about a family wedding and Mirelle.
A seemingly innocent portion sprang out at me – the address the bride lived in. It was in Pearson Park and, as my eyes boggled, I saw it was exactly the same house I was staying in. At that very moment I was glad I was sitting down.
The time I was in Hull was extraordinary. When you come from a place familiarity means you forget what it’s like for someone seeing it for the first time.
It wasn’t the case though. Everyone had a love of explaining the history of Hull and a real connection with the past.
I did so many things that were unforgettable, You only have a first experience once but I felt it would be every bit as unforgettable even if it was the 3rd or 10th time.
The Hull History Centre was important for answering the questions that can only be answered in Hull and exploring the City on my own was also.
Being taken on trips to The Humber Bridge and a tour of the City centre was as well and the big get together of all the people involved with Mirelle at The Station Hotel too.
I can’t wrap my mind around calling it The Mercure, it’ll always be The Station Hotel to me.
What a lovely afternoon that was. As people contact me, I find they know others. I’ve become a hub around which people ask to be reconnected with people from their past and if they give me permission I don’t mind at all, it’s a thrill of a different kind.
While I was there I was given some illustrations by a Mirelle designer from the immediate post-war period. It was an unexpected moment and brought a tear to my eye that was as hard to brush away as they were when I was then given Mirelle fashion show programmes too.
After that, the same person passed two black and white photos over the table between us.
In them was a woman she didn’t recognise but she thought it was way back in the 1940s. I knew who it was in an instant. I’d met her for the first time only 3 days before.
Now an 88 year old she worked at Mirelle from the close of war in 1945. Listening to her talking was one of the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had. The air was filled with sewing skills, the influence of rationing, getting ready for fashion shows and making up for clients.
She didn’t see what she’d experienced as that important or why I’d want to ask, but to me as a fashion historian and a dressmaker, the time she spent with me was magic.
The artistry and skills of the Mirelle women are wide ranging and these things particularly connect the present with the past.
Through them we can see the links between fashion and creativity then and now and see the extraordinary collection of talents that centered on Hull’s House of Mirelle.
But I think this photo sums up the most meaningful moment of 2016
I started the first Mirelle notebook in 2014 with one name.
This year a woman got in touch with me, her name is Anne. We talked and she shared that her mother worked at Mirelle as a dressmaker.
We talked some more and while she did her name rang a bell.
Faint and distant it took looking back through 2 years worth of notebooks, my diaries, my databases and resources to find out why.
In a small book from 2014 I discovered a name. It was scrawled there in a rush long before I had explored what Mirelle was, before I’d even decided I was interested enough to go any further.
It was a sentence that meant only that I’d noted something down.
It said: “Betty Bartlett, dressmaker.” She was a fire warden at Mirelle during the war.
When I told Anne that her mother was the reason I’d started on the path 2016 has found me in, we both fell silent. She didn’t know it was there, she had been completely unaware of it up until that point.
We decided that we’d go to The History Centre for very the first time and view Betty’s Fire Warden card together.
You can’t take photos at the History Centre or use them without their permission because of copyright, but the assistants working at the desk took this photo of us holding the Fire Warden Card gladly – it can’t be seen clearly but they could see how much it meant to Anne.
We examined it inside and out though as I was aware that this was a very personal moment.
I’m not researching my history, I’m writing and researching the history of others. Sitting there holding the Fire Warden Card with Anne summed up 2014, 2015 and this year also.
It speaks to the journey I’ve found myself on and how meaningful it is to me and others.
Looking at it heralded something else important…
From January 1st 2017 as the fireworks explode in the sky above Hull I am ready to start writing….
Long before we sat in classrooms, storytelling was the way people learned about history. In ancient times not everyone went to school and not everyone could write either.
So, people told each other stories that were passed down from generation to generation.
Throughout history some of those stories were written down but the collective memory of the people listening and the act of storytelling itself was a type of recording, a ‘memory archive,’ if you like.
Storytelling and Oral History
In the 1970s a movement changed History-with-a-big-H, it was called Oral History.
It harked back to what some people thought was an outmoded or forgotten idea; what people say about their lives is as valuable as any document on the shelves of a university library or museum.
Oral History established a new order – one where anyone could get involved with the building blocks of history by telling their stories and having them recorded for all to access and hear.
Oral History combines the ancient tradition of storytelling and modern methods of recording and access; it’s this combination that is building ‘new history’ and the good news is that Hull’s Oral History is already under weigh…
Untold Hull is doing just that – its task is to record the life stories of the people of Hull.
They are building an archive of the past and what the people think about its future and you are the people making it happen so you can get involved too.
Kingston On Hull – Stories From The City – September 2016
“I hope when you get home you’ll tell people what Hull’s really like,” said a Facebook friend, “it’s got a bad reputation, you know.”
These words echoed in my mind after it was posted on my timeline. It was 2 days before I left Hull. Right up until then my days had been fun and full and the evenings were spent organising, sifting and planning ahead.
There it was though, the question that throughout my trip was tucked away and forgotten. The side of my mouth twitched into my wry expression; it happens when someone says something uncomfortable to hear.
I reached out and typed, “I will be telling people that Hull is a fantastic City, that the people have been wonderful and the reputation it has isn’t deserved.”
The person clicked ‘like’ and my reply was not a platitude, after 8 days in the City it was meant.
What did I know about Hull before I arrived?
I knew where it was of course. It’s up there above The Wash in that crease that divides the North proper from the Midlands.
If you fold the British map along it you’d have Liverpool, the place of my birth on one side, Manchester underneath it and Hull at the end.
“Where is it exactly?” people asked before I took the journey.
“Yes,” I thought in reply, “it’s not even on the weather map is it!” Their fingers pointed vaguely at the TV screen until I pressed mine at the right spot. “There. It’s there.”
“Ohhh,” came the reply. “I see,” they added, not really seeing it at all.
“Why isn’t it on the weather map?” I thought before I arrived. “Hull was the main fishing port in England. Do they have their own way of doing the weather that doesn’t need the BBC?”
“It’s invisible,” my eyebrows knitted as I looked at The News one morning, “but it’s not invisible at all. Look at how historically important it is and the people I’ve got to know from there aren’t invisible either.”
Conversations I’ve had with people who’ve shared their stories floated back, warm and inviting. Coming from The South-Now, as I call it, the openness and enthusiasm to talk by the people of Hull is not something I experience from strangers on a daily basis.
“Where I live,” I said to quite a few people while I was away, “if you stop and chat to someone on a bus, they’ll think you are mad.”
“They’ll think your mad if you don’t, here,” came the reply.
Having hopped around the UK before settling in London I carry with me the friendliness of somewhere else. It’s in my bones to walk towards people and not away.
It’s in my bones to explore too. I walked around The Avenues, along Newland Park, around Chanterlands Crematorium and into Beverley Road Baths looking upwards all the time.
Throughout the stay, my head didn’t once sag and with it I took photo on photo on photo, there was so much history to look at as all my research sprang wonderfully to life.
Pictures of Dutch style houses spiking the sky in Park Avenue, the corner of The Bull Pub on Beverley Road, the glorious fountain I’ve seen in the tour guides and history books at the end of Westbourne Avenue whose mermaids were curving and glistening in the summer sunshine.
People’s voices came with me. I heard them telling me again about what was important, why it meant something to them.
Sometimes voices joined each other, laying lines of history along the same streets and roads I was walking.
“Cities are the people,” I said, “after bricks and buildings, it’s the blood that runs through it that makes them.”
“It’s not muesli, it’s Morocco,” I added, enjoying the way Newland Avenue bustled and brimmed with numerous cafes and cultures. Everyone was everywhere, chatting, drinking, walking, ‘going to.’
Only the City centre was quiet. I walked there each time, along Beverley Road and Spring Bank from Pearson Park.
That journey was different, hardly anyone was doing the same but the nose of Prospect Street was like the bow of a ship, telling me I’d walked in the right direction.
“It’s taken its toll on businesses, this rebuilding. At least one has closed since they have put these barriers everywhere.”
“Oh no.” I snapped, “ that’s terrible.”
If only the people could find a way of overlaying the old photos of the City centre across the new, like they do in architects or building programmes, they’d see what I see as I look around.
I hear the masts from the ships clattering in the wind. I hear the ‘ding’ of the bell over a door as a well dressed woman removes her gloves and hears “good morning, Madam.”
I compared the center to Leeds, another great Northern City but it wasn’t the same. There, I found the scale of the buildings so immense they were like giants walking through you.
In Hull though, the uneven cobbles along Whitefriargate had fishes carved into them and the sole building on The Land Of Green Ginger looked as immaculate as its For Sale sign glimmering in the window.
I got lost, a bit, but the nearness of everything surprised. King Edward Street was not Oxford Street, Story Street was an offshoot, the walk past the old Edwin Davis building empty and for sale and with planning permission attached took me to The New Theatre and Kingston Square in moments.
“Where Madame Clapham was,” thought I, smiling again at the number of people who’ve asked, “have you heard of Madame Clapham?” and the number of times I’ve said, “yes, yes I have. I’ve heard about Madame Clapham.”
It’s close here, you can see how people knew each other and how proud those buildings would have made you.
“Would you like to go for a tour?” I was asked. “Oh yes, please,” was my reply. The car ride headed towards The Humber Bridge to stop and look at it curving over the water.
“It’s immense,” I said, “and simple and beautiful for it, isn’t it,” I added.
“I used to stop here while it was being built and watch them pile drive those struts into the river bed. I walked over it on the night it opened,” they added and then another voice joined in.
“It was amazing when it opened,” the other voice said, “I walked over it you know, the night it opened. Everyone did.”
Our wrong-turn trip into Lincolnshire and back again before stopping had become an afterthought with the view. I stood letting the wind blow through me, feeling the greys, browns and blues mix for wide miles.
“I’ll find water, eventually,” I joked in the Station Hotel.
“It’s just there, there,” said someone, pointing out of the door to the left. “Go find, Carrie!”
In the last hours of the last day in the City centre I’d taken time to explore. That settling feeling was in my mind, the one you get on the last day of a holiday knowing you are to leave soon.
I’d visited the Maritime Museum but I was surprised to find there were only my footsteps echoing around. They mixed with the plainsong of a fisherman’s folk ballad in an upstairs gallery; but aside from me it was entirely deserted.
“Just me and those figureheads that watched me as I walked in.”
I skated past a polar bear roaring and dressed up in a sou’wester in the selfie mirror. I tweeted #museumselfie but no-one tweeted back.
Rounding another corner I found myself in a room about the Ellerman Wilson Line. I laughed first, delighted to find it and then after reading for a while shouted a quiet, “Yess!” That turn had answered something I’d brought with me in my vast notebook called The Questions.
“It’s happened again,” I said over tea,” another coincidence. It’s got so’s I’m looking out for them now and if one doesn’t happen at least each week, I think it’s telling me I’m on the wrong track.”
“It’s like being a detective,” said a woman across a seat from me at The Royal Station Hotel. “Yes, yes it’s very much like being a detective,” I said, looking directly back at her, “good choice of word.”
I’ve always thought that saying “I’m Doing Research” is academic and excluding. I understand what it means, because I’m the one doing the research and after all I’ve been trained in how to do it but that doesn’t describe it to anyone other.
Doing research is like being a detective, an information-detective, except you don’t have FBI computers at your disposal comparing DNA and matching fingerprints.
Doing research means looking at primary sources: documents, recordings, words, memories, books and newspapers. It means meticulously asking questions that arise from doing that work and then doing the leg work to resolve them.
It doesn’t go in order either. 1975 is more clear than 1955, 1941 is obtuse but 1985 is finished. You learn to give the information enough room to reveal itself however disordered and unruly it is while it does.
“You are very organised,” said someone I was interviewing in Beverley. Beverley was ‘all change’ from Hull. I’d stolen half an hour to walk around the immense Minster before meandering through the shallow streets to the market square.
Across the restaurant table between us was my portable office. The Find List, The Questions, my folders with visual materials in them, all laid out amongst the coffee and tea we’d chosen to drink while we talked.
We swapped stories and then about how we organise materials. “From the outside it’s the ultimate example of a duck swimming calmly but paddling beneath,” I joked.
“Yes,” she laughed, “it is a bit isn’t it.”
Writers of non-fiction spend long hours reading, reading, reading then writing, writing, writing. I have to know the subject I’m writing about inside out and back to front.
I have to have asked and answered all possible questions. I have to support, or prove, what I know by producing the evidence too and all that happens before any writing, big writing that is, not little writing like note-taking and ideas in a notepad.
Then there are people, the blood and bones in the story of The House of Mirelle. The people are like The Humber, they run through it by telling their experiences in their own words, supporting and adding to the research I’m doing.
They thread through the book, enriching it with their Oral History – what they say in their words, not mine.
Tuesday at The Hull History Centre, my first visit, detective and voices came together. Someone came with me; they had a reason to be there for the first time too.
When I first started researching Mirelle the Hull History Centre website returned a name.
The name was Beatrice Bartlett. The Fire Warden card typed into the collection details indicated that she worked during World War 2 with a bucket of sand and a broom to sweep incendiaries from the Mirelle business premises.
I’d written down the reference in the first Mirelle notebook. Later on ‘Beatrice Bartlett’ was added to The Find List, a big database of people I am seeking out to talk to or incorporate into the story. Then, as often happens with research, it became one of the gaps until a year and a bit later a woman got in touch.
“My mother worked at Mirelle,” she said, “she was a dressmaker.” We talked, she shared and I took notes. Afterwards the conversation returned in a quiet moment. “Her name rings a bell,” I thought, “but why.”
I turned the pages on my notebooks, starting with the most recent first but found nothing there.
I searched the Mirelle Database but nothing exactly matched either. I turned out my filing, going back and back through time. 3 months ago, 9 months ago, last year, the year before. Then I read the words – Beatrice Bartlett, Fire Warden and the History Centre reference alongside a note about one child, a daughter.
My scratchy writing stopped me in my tracks. It couldn’t be that this woman was her, could it?
It was. After she and I took stock we decided that we would view her mother’s Fire Warden Card for the first time together. The staff took a photo of us holding it.
“It means a lot to you, I know,” I said, “me too, to be here with you when you see it and because it was the first piece of research that gave me a clue that there was a story to tell.”
The next day I returned and viewed the City’s bomb maps coloured in greens, reds and yellows. “She used to say she didn’t know how she survived,” I recalled the lady telling me of her Mum. I looked down at the numerous handwritten “D’s” that overlaid the areas in the City centre, a big slice of ‘D’s’ and green.
“Are you making a reasonable assumption that ‘D’ stands for destroyed?” I asked the Library assistant. “Um, the key doesn’t make that clear,” they replied. We stood above the table it was laying on and regarded it again.
”I suppose when it comes to The Blitz, ‘D’ meaning destroyed or damaged means pretty much the same thing.” I said, eventually. His eyebrows flicked up momentarily as he looked back at me.
“Hull was bombed as much as London,” he said. I didn’t answer because page after page of the Hull Daily Mail was running through my mind. I’d read the reports about A North Eastern Town, unfolding the Blitz of 1941 and most of the 20 years before and since.
I could name who was in the columns of local businesses advertising new premises with the words, ‘business as usual,’ and I knew that some of them I’d already walked past on my way up Spring Bank.
“Just like that sign outside on the barriers,” I thought, “I wonder if they know.”
“I hope they finish it in time,” someone said, as we stood in a shop entrance in the centre, “It’s really affected business here.” I noticed how kind they were being about everyone’s trade, they all stood together.
“Are you looking forward to next year?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” they said, drawing themselves up a little, “of course, I think it will be a really good thing for us, for Hull.”
“That’s good,” I said, raising my hand to shield the sun, “it’s got so much to say for itself, this City of yours you know, it’s not what people say it is.”
“It’s suffered a lot,” came the even reply. “It’s still there though if anyone wants to look for it.”
I nodded. “It is.”
After we parted I looked at the mass of orange barriers. “I haven’t seen anyone who’s talking about being blue yet,” I messaged someone who’d travelled to take part in the Spencer Tunick installation, “but the barriers are still here,” I added, thinking the Council had done a good thing to arrange the exhibit around the sea of orange.
“It took days to get it out of his hair,” came the reply.
“I went to The Humber Bridge today,” I said. “It was truly amazing, if a little unexpected.”
“Oh, I haven’t done that for years,” they said whistfully.
“Those houses there flood every year, you know.” I was told as we left that place.
“Are they holiday homes,” I asked but my mind wasn’t working and instantly regretted it. “No, no people live there,” was the reply.
I considered a part of London called Richmond. The local newspapers are full each year of people sandbagging cottages along the River Thames because of the Spring tide. It seemed far away and manicured, and this hardship wasn’t.
“Hull used to be a really wealthy City, you know. It all changed in the 70s when the fishing industry closed down but there’s always been money here, always been wealth.”
“I hope next year brings lots of good,” I replied.
“Oh I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be really exciting.”
“I can’t wait to see the fireworks on January 1st,” I said, thinking ahead to November and the possibility of joining in Hull 2017 with a Mirelle exhibition. The enormity of what I was returning to do flashed in front of me for a few seconds.
“I’ve got a lot of writing to do between now and then,” I added, thinking about how good the trip had been for the research and how the story was now laid out like the roads into Hull from Lincolnshire.
“Do you want me to drive you around the East now?”
I thought about a meeting I had lined up and the next visit but I was tempted.
“No, no thank you. I said.” I want to save something for the next visit.”
“Next time?” came the reply.
“Yes, yes. Let’s do that next time. Next time we’ll properly see The East. I’ll be back before long you know,” making the promise to myself also.
This morning I was contacted by a journalist at BBC Radio Humberside. He was interested in hearing progress with the Australian House of Mirelle wedding dress.
Here was my reply:
“It’s been an extraordinary journey. Things took off when it captured the imagination of a non-profit Facebook group ( closed group ) called Aussie and UK Angels – Reuniting Lost Family.
“The members work in their spare time and for no fee with other members to search for lost family members across the globe. They do heartfelt work of much more importance than looking for owners of wedding dresses but they wanted to help, so help they did.
“Within a week it had been shared over 13,000 times between the UK and Australia. People came forward with lots of suggestions and hints and we chased them up bit by bit and piece by piece.
“The Hull history Facebook groups have been fantastic too – social media being so good for situations like this – but so far it’s not gleaned that one piece of information we need to finally solve the mystery.
“We aren’t giving up – I’ve discovered through the research I’m doing into Mirelle that questions like this are never truly closed.
“Often when avenues have been considered to be dead ends I’ve been proved wrong and sometimes that’s long after the trail has gone cold.
“What’s been great is the spirited help from the people of Hull, those connected to Hull and those in Australia.
“They fondly recall their pasts and some of the conversations we’ve had along the way have been fascinating whether it has anything to do with wedding dresses or not.
“So we are still searching, still keeping our hopes up and our minds open!
“It’ll take that one missing piece of info. and the puzzle will be solved.
“When we do I’ll let you know.”
If you have any information to share, get in touch with us, the quest is still on to find the original owner!
The Jubilee Church building on King Edward Street is a stalwart of Hull’s historical centre.
Surviving in the cityscape over years of rebuilding, it sits in a single row of Victorian and Edwardian buildings on King Edward Street.
That bit between Waltham, Story St and Albion St miraculously survived the city center bombing of The Hull Blitz, just!
Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a tour of the building.
Having read so much about its history, it was a treat to walk in through the double fronted wooden doors and wander around from top to bottom.
We went through double swing doors into the main church and admired the original wood cladding and the long and light crittle windows – still opened and closed by a hand held winch of old.
The doors have porthole windows with beveled edges on the thick glass.
Although painted white with many layers of emulsion, downstairs a doorway left in the original dark wood conjours up images of the 1930s when people dressed up in hats, coats and gloves to go to church on a Sunday.
That the building is there is nothing short of a miracle. Not even the Hull Royal Infirmary (HRI) on the opposite side of King Edward Street escaped the bombing.
On 7th May 1941 when it was hit, by luck and planning ( wings had already been evacuated ) no-one was killed.
The Waltham Street Chapel, closed for worship in 1936 didn’t escape entirely. It lost the back section in the Blitz but the front remained.
Afterwards its space was in demand and it leased out the space on the ground and first floor.
When Albion Street was hit, the library moved into the first floor. It remained there until it moved into the Church Institute in 1958.
Many people recall the Nat West Bank occupying the ground floor. They also leased it from the Central Methodist Church.
The slate and black marble fascia of that time was clad with permission from them after the new Methodist church was opened in 1960.
A new sign went up on the front in 1998 and of course nowadays it is The Jubilee Church.
They use the rooms in the building for worship, groups or 1-1 meetings. They host crafting and cooking sessions also and the smell of cooking as we walked around was delicious.
At the last minute we were offered the chance to see Nat West’s old safe in the basement.
The door was open and we could look inside to where the money was kept in the old days.
The words “Chubb” were plainly seen over the door frame and the bars and wheel handle that would have opened and closed it every night were too.
I had a go at pushing the door but it was not going anywhere. It remains half open, half closed with the shelves inside stacked with trays and cans.
The basement room is a food bank – which we thought was completely appropriate – and made us smile a lot. 🙂
Social media is a powerful thing and the Hull History Facebook pages are no exception.
This morning I read a post on Old Hull started by Jane Hitchin. The picture at the top was of a wonderful old red brick building with the words The Hull Braves Guild painted across the front. You can see the photo in this post and follow the link to the Facebook page above.
Reading down, it appears that this building may be demolished on 22nd August unless the planning committee decides otherwise. I was particularly shocked by this decision as The Hull Braves Guild is also part of the story of Mira Johnson and The House of Mirelle.
Mira was a lifelong and selfless personality in the landscape of Hull’s charitable organisations. Throughout her life she worked to benefit charity including The Hull Braves Guild.
Public donations came from her staging large theatrical fashion shows that took place – mostly – in locations in Hull including The New York Hotel and Guildhall.
On 12th December 1950 a fashion show called ‘Frills For Festivities’ was held at Guildhall which benefited the Hull Braves Guild. It was staged on the suggestion of the then Sherriff’s Lady Mrs F L Bailey.
On 29/11/1951 again at the request of the then Sherriff’s Lady L Rosen, another House Of Mirelle fashion show took place at Guildhall which, again, benefited Hull Braves Guild.
They were large scale public events with considerable attention paid to them and full houses in terms of attendance. Both occasions speak to the importance of Hull Braves Guild in the minds of the public officials and the public at this time.
It is unthinkable that the building that housed the charity could be demolished. It is a vital part of Hull’s social history and must remain.
If you want to help the protest against the demolition of this building and such a prominent part of Hull’s social and architectural history, please email as follows:
Email address: email@example.com
Please use the reference in the email header: Ref. No: 16/00737/PAAD
Feel free to quote the section in this post in bold if you want to set your email into historical context.
The link between Mirelle, Mira and The Braves Guild is one that speaks to its relevance to Hull’s history overall. For this reason, I’m watching the public protest against this closely.
I think Mira would be outraged and possibly even hurt on behalf of those the charity helped.
Once gone, this building will never be replaced.
She would be standing at the front of the crowd saying in her passionate lead-from-the-front simplicity, that the building absolutely must be allowed to remain.
“Because Mira Johnson and House Of Mirelle were in Hull,” I reply. “Also because, well, when I started to look at both those things in light of Hull’s history overall, it became clear that their story is Hull’s too.”
“Everyone knew everyone, Carrie, everything is connected,” said a lady one day.
“I see that,” I answered, “the shops and the streets and the houses and the people in them – they are all part of each other.”
“It’s still the same way today,” they replied, firmly. “We all know someone who knows someone.”
“That’s what makes this so fascinating to research,”I said. “It’s not for everyone I know. It’s a lot of painstaking, slow, fine attention to detail but what comes from it – um – I’m seeing what you mean about everyone knowing everyone, yes, but also that everything really does connect with everything from way back when right through to now.”
“I don’t know if you know, Carrie, but Hull was bombed more than London in The Blitz.” He said it bravely and fearfully, both at once.
“I did. It must have been absolutely awful. How anyone survived is beyond me.”
“There have been a lot of changes you know,” someone else said, pensively. “Sometimes I lay awake at night and think about how great it was to go to all those shops in the old days, I’m sure many people do.”
“It reminds me of that song, beneath my feet begins to crumble, but my love..”
“Never dies!” they said, finishing the 1960s lyrics for me.
“Oh it was a golden age, it really was,” said someone new. “We went dancing all the time but I always kept Saturday nights free for the New York Ballroom because I might meet someone there.”
Unless you’ve been locked away in an isolation tank over the last few months, you’ll know that in 2017 Hull will be the UK’s City Of Culture.
All year the City will be celebrating the best of Hull past, present and future. It’s going to be an exciting year, filled with innovative, inspiring events and projects that show off Hull at its best.
Today I heard some great news – that myself and The House Of Mirelle project have been accepted as an official Community Brand for Hull2017.
This is jump-up-and-down brilliant!
Being able to display the Community Brand proudly is “a mark of creativity, a sign of social action, and an invitation to make a difference.”
Engaging and involving the people of Hull in the research into The House of Mirelle is terrifically important.
Over the last months the stories you’ve shared and the information you’ve given has built it into a truly collaborative, community project.
It shows how individual people’s voices can join together to say something great about Hull’s cultural history and preserve the memories as a permanent record of its past.
From this point onwards it’s onwards and upwards! I’m looking forward to being part of the community of people, organisations and projects across Hull who are taking positive social action and will make Hull2017 a resounding success.
The jiffy envelope from the second hand book seller arrived in time for Christmas.
When I reached in to pull out the book I discovered that it wasn’t the size I’d expected – it was much smaller and lighter in my hands.
I ran my fingers over the textured leather cover feeling the dips of the gold picture and the white lettering before I opened it up and saw the face of Kay Pearson looking back at me. She was pictured at a piano surrounded by friends.
I am lucky to own a copy of Life In Hull From Then Till Now, it is a book long out of print.
It was published in 1978 after a story about Kay Pearson’s life was featured in the Hull Daily Mail’s Jane Humber section.
The publisher, Bradley Publications and Co, was as tickled by her story as the ivories that Kay played from childhood.
I’m also lucky to have this book because Kay’s story spans over 70 years of history in Hull from the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century until the 1970s.
Her story is told without artifice, flourish or it seems, that much conscious editing and it’s good for it. It’s retained a feel of someone sitting down at an old-fashioned typewriter to recount their life from start to the point when it was written.
At one point at the outbreak of the Boer War, the typeface even changes, as if the moment was a rift in time that could never be breached.
Kay’s voice speaks clearly from the pages. It reads as if she is talking out loud to an audience that she obviously enjoys.
Her life story is extraordinary. This is a spoiler free blog except to say that it’s the details of her life as a women that makes this book so fascinating.
It is at times a brutal account of female life: cleaning The Article, evidently an essential part of post-birth kit in the early part of the century, turned her 14 year old stomach and ours as reader also.
Her story has many up’s, down’s, dips and turns and at the same time charts the social history of women and the changes that the 20th century brought too.
Her stories of clothing make for fascinating reading.
By the time she’s in receipt of a widow’s pension in the 1950s she notes that one criteria of the pension is: “I must dress decently.”
This was given to her after the state stepped in and democratised fashion throughout the war years through the CC41 scheme, something that historians talk about benefiting the working classes of Britain more than those with money.
Throughout, Kay describes shopping, clothes, fabric and fashion in a way that reminds me that fashion as we know it these days has such a connotation to consumerism, extravagance and luxury.
There is an accompanying recognition of how, in comparison with ‘then,’ the ‘now’ is easy.
True poverty was part of Kay’s life.
At the turn of the century, her mother made a hearthrug from old bits of coats and trousers. Sometimes she’d “buy a soldiers old red uniform from the ragman that she’d cut into 2 inch strips and it made a splendid splash of colour on the ‘clipped mat’ as it was called.”
But she was an opportunist. She earned pennies on Sunday afternoons in the early 1900’s running errands because “men and woman enjoyed parading the whole length of Queen Street down to the pier and dress was not complete without a rose, gardenia or carnation to wear.”
Luckily her sisters were good needlewomen and helped her mother make a “new dress …in a delicate pink or grey,” so that she could wear it with rag dolled hair in a childhood performance.
She was still using this dress as a costume in 1978, it survived so well over the years.
To us these days, we’d think that it was a rare skill but Kay said that she wasn’t a skilled seamstress – despite this she handmade the outfits for her two daughter’s wedding days in 1941 and 1942.
It took her 16 weeks to prepare for the 1941 wedding: “there was materials to decide upon and purchase for the bride and bridesmaids. My daughter’s choice of wedding ensemble was plain, but choice, taking me exactly 10 weeks to complete.”
She adds detail that describes how precious this was in the horrors of the Hull Blitz:” I dread to think how many occasions I had to dismantle the gown from the hangers and store in numerous travel cases for safety, as air raids occurred.”
In 1942 her second daughter got married quickly, as was the trend at the time. Kay again made a wedding outfit from scratch after her daughter and her decided on “materials, styles and colours”.
By 1949, towards the end of rationing she looked back and recorded her thoughts: “All gowns, including my own, were complete for the great day, were really something, so much that I marvelled at my capabilities of dressmaking and a four tiered wedding cake into the bargain!”
We are left with this description to imagine the clothes she made.
And what of her own wardrobe?
“From the time I reached 15 years, I had saved up enough money to purchase mustard serge to have a costume made.** I purchased this from a shop called Sultans in Great Passage Street, the cost 3 shillings and 6d.
“A girl, apprentice to the trade, who did odd jobs of work on the side, made up the material at a charge of 5- and very nicely too – I felt a proper “swank” in it.”
And of her own wedding in 1915?
“Finances in our household were down to zero..to obtain a bridal gown was out of the question, however, material was purchased at a store Willis and Co, on the corner of Waterhouse and Carr Lane.
“Five yards of pale blue ninon*** at a sale, price 9 3/4 per yard. It cost 4 – 8 1/2 d.
“My eldest sister concocted a dress and jacket for me, and the left over pieces were made into two small head bonnets for the bridesmaids who were arrayed in white.
“My ensemble was made up of a straw hat trimmed with forget-me-nots, and a pair of my younger sisters shoes, I carried a bunch of flowers.”
Kay doesn’t include any photos of these family occasions, choosing instead to show pictures of Hull which are often faded and hard to make out on the page.
They are interspersed with snippets of programmes from performances she took part in or produced, and photos of herself performing in her later years also.
But one photo of her youngest daughter Betty, exists. It is the final photo in the book. Standing in her back garden, she is dancing for her mother as she took the photo.
She is smiling and holding the skirt of her dancing outfit which has the signs of being hand made also.
I’d ordered Life In Hull From Then Till Now, because I’m interested in Hull’s social history through oral history telling. That’s a phrase that means collecting and studying history through listening to people talking about the past.
Kay started to write aged 81 and that’s exactly what oral history is all about – talking about it and writing it all down. It’s part of the method I’m using in researching the House of Mirelle also.
As Kay said: “people always feature in any walk of life, some times fictitious, however every word you are about to read is fact and has needed no research.”
She was absolutely right.
Kay Pearson was a musician, mother and without realising it, a pure social historian of Hull.
In my school days we learned about history by reciting a seemingly endless list of dates and events.
“Chartism, The Corn Laws, Peterloo and World War 2,” chanted me and my friends as we held our history homework in our hands, waiting to enter the musty-dusty, dated classrooms.
By the time I took A level classical history things had got better.
Plays written by ancient voices made us gasp and laugh and we imagined living in the ancient ruins we visited. Descriptions of the lives of the average Joe or Joan were more interesting than reciting lists of kings and queens and prime ministers and acts of Parliament.
Classics made history better – it wasn’t necessary to ‘do lists’ to learn any longer.
What made the difference was the people’s voices that spoke out from the pages of history. Despite being over a thousand years past, it was fresh and said more about the time than any encyclopedia or text book. Voices and experiences and arts and culture made history come alive.
Researching the House Of Mirelle started with the modern equivalent. The research into the background of the fashion house means doing a lot of reading, then a lot of questioning about what I find, then even more reading and fine-sifting of information I’ve discovered.
That research has to happen before getting to the next bit – asking people about what they remember of the fashion house in real life. Like ancient history, this part makes the black and white information from the pages of materials I’m reading leap into life.
The House Of Mirelle did the same. It started with an interview:
The person said: “my aunt remembers it, she said it was ‘posh.’ She never went there….she thinks they made clothes for the Royal Family.”
I sat there listening to her, thinking of the pages of the text books, fashion books and magazines, the pages of information about the history of Hull, the lists of questions in my note books and drafts of the first chapters.
I listened to her voice some more and the House Of Mirelle became real again, so many years after closing it’s doors and the last item was bought, her voice and her memory was bringing history alive.
From the air, England is a patchwork of cities and country, stitched together with granite and rock and fields and streets.
Hard against the North Sea is the UK city of Hull, cradled from that vast expanse by the River Humber. She reaches into Yorkshire in the North and Lincolnshire in the south with the city rooted in the crook of her arm.
Follow her out from the land of safety and your eye falls across the other country: one of rolling and glassy navy blues.
This is a cold sea, a bitter sea, a connecting northern flow that binds Hull with Europe. It is the strength of the sea that in medieval Britain, trade grew and with it the port at the estuary of ‘Mother Humber,’ respect for her lifeblood given in this name.
When docks were built to accommodate trade and industry, Hull became a gateway to the wealth that Europe brings. British woollen products and textiles were transported out from the enormous ship-filled berths, bringing wealth to the growing middle classes.
At first optimistic, this advantage turned when the North Sea blew against Britain in the war.
Hull’s gateway to world conflict would affect business, homes and family life as well as the character of the city for years to come.
In bad weather Zeppelins flying to London in the first world war turned back. The airships dropped their payloads of incendiary bombs onto the roofs and heads of the citizens of Hull. People lost their homes, business and lives.
In the aftermath Hull came to realise that a war could be fought from the sky. The people rioted for better protection. In preparation, 40,000 air raid shelters were built in the City but between Word War 1 and the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, airship technology had advanced.
With it the dark, sky line threat of aerial attack was realised. Air raid shelters were scant protection from The Hull Blitz. The as-the-crow-flies distance from Nazi occupied Europe gave Germany the arrows they needed to bomb the City and port of Hull.
In 1941 the City lived in constant terror of a Nazi bombardment seconded only by the London Blitz.
95% of houses were damaged. The toll of dead and injured was in it’s thousands. 152,000 were made homeless.
The beautiful, historic Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the city center caved under the storm.
Half of it was destroyed, taking with it thriving retail and industrial businesses, hospitals, churches, pubs, schools, cinemas, factories as well as homes.
Albion Street, within the lopsided square of roads encircling the old City, looked very different at the start of the war that it did at the finish.
The library, at the head of the street, attempted to maintain normality by opening its doors, but the people who lived in the brick terraces cowered throughout the Hull Blitz until finally, vast swathes of it was destroyed.
The air raid shelter to protect those who lived and worked nearby was a painful nothing, an inadequate and resounding tin hat against the driving onslaught of bombs.
But within this magnet to terror, the House Of Mirelle survived…