History of Hull: Walking with our Volunteers pt.1 – Chicken George & Old Mother Riley


On 22nd November we held our first workshop for the project, which involved getting a group of volunteers together at Hull History Centre for a range of activities. These activities are part of the research design of the Half Life of the Blitz project and involve shaping the project’s focus around a collection of local memories and experience, more on which can be found in our previous blog post. However, before we made our way to the History Centre, Charlotte delivered part of her Blitz Trail to several the volunteers. We are going to discuss the ways in which the processes of walking around the city before working on memory maps is helping us refine the project’s research question in a forthcoming working paper, but for now we want to focus on just two of the many fascinating insights from the walk around Hull.

In the journeys between the different destinations on Charlotte’s tour, we had the opportunity to talk to local people about the different places we passed, and they unearthed some fascinating local nuggets. One of the most interesting stops turned out to be the western end of Paragon Street, particularly Tivoli House and, further along, takeaway Chicken George. Tivoli house, built in the 1960s – as several our guests were keen to point out – stands on the site of the former Tivoli Theatre, which was demolished in 1959.[1] Today, little more than the name remains to identify what once stood there, but the history associated with the former life of the site as a theatre is preserved in local memory. Foremost amongst the stories concerning the theatre was that of the death of Arthur Lucan (born Arthur Towle, Lincolnshire in 1885), who portrayed the popular drag act Old Mother Riley on stage, radio and in the long-running series of comedy films between 1936 and 1952. Having been declared bankrupt earlier in the year, owing the inland revenue around £15,000 in unpaid income tax following the acrimonious split from his wife and on-screen daughter Kitty McShane, in May 1954 Lucan brought a stage adaptation of his character to Hull.[2] However, before he could take the stage on Monday 17th May, despite having appeared hale earlier in the day, Lucan collapsed backstage and died at the Tivoli aged 67.[3] When he was buried, according to both the Hull Daily Mail and Robert Kenny’s biography of Lucan, a considerable crowd saw him on his way from the service in St Patrick’s Church, Spring Street to the Eastern Cemetery, where both his well-tended grave stones can still be seen today.[4]  Several of our party stressed that Lucan had been well liked in Hull and that the maintenance of his graves and attendance at the funeral was indicative of the way a largely destitute Lucan had been taken into the collective hearts of the city. For the project team, the memories associated with the Tivoli and Lucan’s death illustrate the importance of unearthing local memories with people who live in Hull, because they tell us so much about what being from Hull means in ways that printed sources just can’t do. Lucan’s death, burial and memories of him not only show us that Hull was and is an important cultural centre in the region – something largely overlooked by people from outside the city – they also tell us what it means to live and, in this case, to die and be remembered in a city with a strong sense of community. Lucan’s story is about someone a little down on their luck who was shown, even in death, the compassionate nature of Hull’s people. Listening to the memories and stories of our participants in the walk around Hull also shows how important the built fabric of the city is to maintaining these memories. On the ground floor of Tivoli House, inside Coopland’s Orchard Café there is a bust of Lucan alongside some memorabilia that recalls his days as a performer, which combined with local stories keeps alive an otherwise hidden history.

Further along from the old site of the Tivoli Theatre, we encountered another icon of present-day Hull, Chicken George takeaway, one of several businesses with the same name in the city. A number of the tour party offered the opinion that the name might have originated from or been inspired by a stall at Hull Fair of the same or perhaps similar name. Chicken George is, nevertheless, a relatively common name for takeaway poultry emporia in both the UK and in the United States and is not unique to Hull, although few places have so many. Moreover, the name seems to have originated with the character Chicken George from Alex Haley’s seminal book and TV series on slavery in America ‘Roots’, which has little connection to the city. A Chicken Joe, rather than George was, however a fixture at Hull Fair and other fairs across the north of England between the 1930s and 1962. As Chris Ketchell makes clear in his book on Chicken Joe, he was a well-known figure in local life.[5] As an article in the Daily Mail recalling Joe explained:

The prizes at Chicken Joe’s stall were stout carrier bags crammed with groceries – sugar, butter, tea, jam, suet … plus, topping the whole package, a plump, plucked, oven-ready chicken, fresh from Chicken Joe’s supplier in Ping Pong Alley, Hull… You bought what was essentially a penny raffle ticket while Joe spun three roulette-type wheels with light-up numbers. If your three-digit number came up, you got the chicken. If not, how could you resist buying another ticket?[6]

Joe, then, was a celebrity of sorts and is fondly remembered in local lore, even having his stall resurrected for an exhibition of Hull’s Fairground history in 1999.[7] So, perhaps the story of Chicken George and Chicken Joe has become entwined over time. What makes this association between Hull Fair and Chicken George important to this project is not whether the memories we shared are quite historically correct, because accuracy is, at least to this project, less important that what a memory can tell us. What an association like that between Chicken George and Chicken Joe illustrates to our project is the importance of the Hull’s built environment in creating links – both tangible and intangible – to the city’s past and associated cultural values. Both Chicken George and Tivoli House are examples of the way we remember and reuse the past to tell stories about the present, about who we are and, in this instance, what it means to be from Hull. Chicken Joe evokes a memory of a vibrant working-class culture where a bag of groceries was worth a few tickets at a fairground raffle, and where the proprietor of such a stall might be a celebrity across northern towns and cities. The memories and associations we bind up with the built environment are ways for us to understand the cities in which we live by telling stories that illustrate particular values and identities, in these ways the built environment both aids our memories of the past, but also functions as a means through which we can tell stories about who we are. Without the presence of Tivoli in the name of the building that replaced the old theatre or the bust of the unfortunate Lucan in Coopland’s, or the presence of Chicken George a few doors down, these stories might not have been told and the project would never have had the opportunity to explore these fascinating aspects of Hull’s heritage.

[1] http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Hull/TheatreRoyalHull.htm

[2] The Times, ‘Variety Artists Debts’, 10 May 1954, p.5.

[3] The Stage, ‘Old Mother Riley is Dead’, 20 May 1954. P.5

[4] See Robert V. Kenny, The Man Who was Old Mother Riley (Albany, 2014)

[5] Chris Ketchell, Chicken Joe the Man You All Know (Hull, 1999).

[6] Keith Waterhouse, Daily Mail, ‘How Chicken Joe put the beef into the Feast’ 23 Mar 2008.

[7] https://www.fairground-heritage.org.uk/learning/fairground-people/chicken-joe/

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