“East Is East And West Is West”: Narrating Life Stories of Hull Through the East-West Divide

In this latest blog post, Charlotte delves into one of the most prominent – and controversial – themes of our research, the notion of an East-West divide in Hull. Covering rugby rivalries, cultural differences, and storytelling frameworks, this post explores how people use ideas about East Hull and West Hull to structure narratives of their own lives in the city.

Image from our project partners the Hull History Centre.

‘Take a pen, and draw a big line right down the middle of the map’, shouts one of our workshop participants. We are sat around a table at the Carnegie Heritage Centre, on one corner of Hull’s West Park, with a dozen or so volunteers who have agreed to help us shape the early directions of our research project. Armed with post-it notes, pens, and endless cups of tea, we have asked the attendees to annotate huge contemporary maps of Hull with their memories, stories and suggestions. Which places are important to the story of the city? How can we map the history of modern Hull?

By directing us to divide the map into two halves, this participant opens a debate across the table that has come to define many of our conversations about Hull’s history and character over the last year. What are the differences, if any, between East Hull and West Hull? Does this divide really exist (the answer from locals is a resounding yes), how important is it (very), and how does it shape the way that people narrate their lives here? “Which side of Hull are you from?” is a question I am asked regularly in our workshops and oral history interviews, and I occasionally find myself falling into the trap myself, selling myself as an ‘East Hull girl’, either proudly or self-deprecatingly, in order to build rapport, establish a sense of camaraderie, or prompt conversations about ‘the East’ and ‘the West’.

Although concrete difference between the ‘two sides’ of the city are, we think, pretty debatable, it’s clear that this is a persistent spatial narrative that shapes people’s conception of the city and their place within it. Whether people divide the city along the winding curves of the River Hull, or the sharp line of Beverley Road, or into three shapes east, north, and west of the city centre, varies (note that ‘North Hull’ is much less talked about, and sometimes absorbed into East or West), but this geographical understanding nonetheless persists. The most tangible expression of the East-West divide is undoubtedly in sport, where club allegiance to rugby league teams Hull Kingston Rovers and Hull FC provides an important anchor for separating the city into two halves:

“I also had a very good friend of mine who was a rugby league fan, in the 50s. And we used to go watch Hull, I’m afraid, due respect to Rovers, East is East and West is West. And we used to go to the Boulevard.”

Like in other cities, this sporting rivalry has helped to sustain a competitive character within discussions of East and West, where the areas are not just different, but pitted against one another. When we made a call out for people to suggest ‘Hull songs’ earlier this year, the sporting anthems of Hull and Rovers were without doubt, the most frequently (and vigorously) recommended tunes. Some locals take this very rivalry seriously, although most of our participants have only evoked it in a jokey, tongue-in-cheek way.

Far beyond the sporting life of the city, our project participants have insisted on a range of differences between East and West Hull that have shaped the city and their lives within it. Wealth is a common theme in our conversations, with people regularly contrasting ‘more money and bigger houses’ in the ‘wealthy’ suburbs of Kirk Ella, Anlaby, and Willerby with council estates like Longhill or Greatfield. Above all, though, the culture of each area – largely defined by the personalities, appearance, and attitudes of the people – are usually cited as the most significant points of contrast:

You said West Hull people were different to East Hull people, in what ways?

“Just, just, just they were, it’s hard to explain (laughs). But erm, yeah different attitudes and everything, and louder, I always thought the Hessle Roaders were louder than, and people from West Hull and maybe because of the fishing industry and you know, the fact that the women had to bring them up and all this sort of thing. I always think with East Hull is slightly, quieter, subdued, people are not as loud and extravagant. You noticed it with the women, the mothers especially, like, wore a lot of bling, the Hessle Roaders, yeah yeah, and the hairstyles, cos they had the big hair, a lot of the Hessle Roaders.”

Interestingly, although perhaps unsurprisingly, both ‘sides’ appear to apply the same compliments to themselves and throw the same insults at one another – in particular each ‘side’ considers itself friendlier, prouder, and having a stronger sense of community. (Note here the interpretation of ‘Hessle Roaders’ as quintessential West Hull people, often standing in as representations, or at least the main characters, of culture and society in that side of the city – this is a theme we want to return to in future blog posts).

References to heritage and in particular Hull’s industrial history, as seen above in discussions of the fishing industry, are also frequently referenced in talk of East and West:

“We’ve got a lot of history, and like the East, I always say this, West Hull it was all the trawlers and the fishing, whereas East Hull was the docks and the barges. And so it’s always been kind of, water-based, but it was that line in between.”

“I always thought that there was little said about the erm, the barge world and the Humber and the vessels, compared to the trawlers. You know, Hull, people always talk the trawlers and the lost, I think it was three trawlers went down in one winter, and they always talk about that but they never talk about things about the barges, when they was you know, iced up, and things like that.”

It is undoubtable that stories from ‘West Hull’ have played a much more central role in the authorised heritage discourses of the city, shaping what people think of the Hull’s history much more so than the East (although recent research and heritage practice has begun to address this). The framing of the story of ‘Dead Bod’ as one connected to the fishing industry (in the West) as opposed to its home Alexandra Dock (in the East), is perhaps just one example of how this plays out in both professional and popular interpretations of the city’s heritage and identity.

For some participants, this divide is discussed very much in the past tense. Many people have explained to us that people would not, or could not, cross over the ‘boundary’ of the River Hull into opposing sides, in earlier decades:

“The River was the dividing point. The two parts of Hull were very distinct in that many people would not venture to the opposite side of the city. West Hull was predominantly “the trawler fishing” and allied trades. East Hull was the “commercial docks” and engineering firms. There was rivalry between the two fuelled by the two rugby teams (West) Black/White (East) Red/White. I once read that people who lived up West Hull would not eat “bacon” and similarly people up East Hull would not keep a “black and white cat”. At Kevin Ballroom in Hull’s Old Town, a battle royal would take place when youths from both sides met (this was the time of the “1950s Teddy Boy Era).”

This mid-century divide was practical as well as cultural – lack of private transport options, and the bustling industry along the River Hull where bridges were lifted regularly, meant that getting from one side of the city to another was much more difficult than it is today. Logistical issues existed in tandem with the idea that people from other parts of the city were different, perhaps even unknowable. One participant described how ‘Hessle Roaders’ were like an ‘alien people’ to those from Hull’s most eastern estates in the 1970s (despite competing narratives that most of those moved to new post-war council estates were ‘Hessle Roaders’ themselves). It’s clear that similar perceptions of difference and division persist in the city for some today:

“There, yeah there was a difference, still is I think.

Do you?

Yeah, yeah.

In the same ways or different ways?

Pretty much the same ways I think, it’s still, yeah, still think Hessle Roaders and West Hull people are louder. Not in a bad way, just louder… And it’s very subtle differences, it’s not like major difference, it’s subtle, subtle things isn’t it, I think.”

For many people, the differences between East and West are hard to put a finger on. While two rugby teams divided by the River Hull is an easy point of contrast to identity and articulate, it’s clear that many people feel the East-West divide more implicitly, more intrinsically, and struggle to explain this in concrete terms:

“I don’t know, I’m just, I dunno I was born and bred, I’m Hull through and through aren’t I, well East Hull especially.

In what ways are you Hull or East Hull through and through?

(Laughs) it’s hard to say, it’s like, right from the beginning I’ve always liked, I’ve always loved, just loved being here.”

This perhaps reflects the way in which the idea of a divide is embedded into the cultural identity of the city, seemingly so natural, so undeniable, it becomes difficult to describe.

Moreover, we’ve noticed that not all of our participants have talked about East and West Hull explicitly in terms of difference, or felt the need to. While some people have insisted on the contrasts between the two, and talked with us at length about this, others have only dropped references to East and West into conversation as more of a contextual detail – as a shorthand, or as background information. This suggests that ideas about East and West are an even more deeply embedded trope of the city that people lean on, or perhaps slip into, when narrating their lives here – a framework for discussing collective identity that is established, recognised, and shared. People don’t need to be discussing differences and rivalries for East Hull and West Hull to matter. When narrating her life story to me in March this year, one interviewee opened her story with references to East and West, which she used to explain the two ‘halves’ of her life so far:

“We I was born in Hull, I was Hull born and bred, I was born on Holderness Road, East Hull, and, how old am I now, 65, I’ve had sort of thirty years in the East Hull and thirty odd years in the West Hull.’

For this interviewee, narrating a life in Hull meant differentiating between living in the east and the west. Establishing which side of the diving line you’ve been on was simply a part of living in the city overall, a spatial understanding that spreads across both ‘halves’ of the urban landscape, and shapes conversations about it.

So perhaps, when I introduce myself to people as an ‘East Hull girl’, I am communicating something less about which ‘side’ of the city I’m from, and more about me being from the city at all. Emphasising my roots in the east of the city means establishing my roots in a shared spatial and cultural understanding of Hull that doesn’t split the city in two, but draws it together. By stating our allegiance to East or West, or asking people about theirs – “Are you from East Hull or West Hull?” – we claim our place and authority in the story of the city’s past 80 years, and far beyond.

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