This week (7th -9th March) our heritage partner and all-round great bunch of guys at Hull History Centre will be hosting an exhibition commemorating the 82nd anniversary of the bombing of the National Picture Theatre (NPT). Admission is free and from 10am-noon there’s an opportunity to share your wartime family history.
The NPT holds a special place in our hearts, so we are delighted to see progress being made on it. In 2010, the first paper our project lead, Jim ever gave concerned the NPT and the battle for it’s redevelopment.
To help promote this event, and to celebrate the continued progress made on the renovation of the NPT, here at the Half-life of the Blitz, we thought we’d share some updated thoughts on it’s importance to Hull and for academic study of our built heritage.
On the night of the 17th of March 1941 the National Picture Theatre on Beverley Road, Hull was bombed and largely destroyed leaving only the fragments of the interior walls and the grand façade standing. The NPT was just one of over 4,000 buildings damaged or destroyed in around 62 raids by the Luftwaffe on Hull during the Second World War, in which 1200 people were killed and a significant amount of the housing stock was damaged.  If, like so many of its counterparts in other bombed cities, the NPT had simply been demolished then it would likely have remained an unremarkable case; no one died in the bombing and the building was – at the time – of limited architectural or historical significance. However, through years of economic difficulties in Hull and given a location which, until recently classified as a conservation area, was seen as having little development potential, for seven decades – despite frequent interested parties – it remained a largely-untouched ruin. The NPT thus represents a curious anomaly: a ruin which had been left to quietly decay since the war, whilst virtually every other example of a bomb-damaged building had been repaired or has vanished. Indeed, the NPT has been touted as the last ‘Blitzed’ building in Britain not to have been demolished, restored or preserved as a memorial. 
However, after nearly 7 decades of this peaceful neglect, in 2007 the National Picture Theatre became the focus of local media attention after it was Grade 2 listed following a campaign by interest group the National Civilian WWII Memorial Trust (NCWW2MT). This organisation campaigned for the site to be turned into a memorial to Hull’s civilian dead and an educational facility where people might learn about the history of the Blitz. Despite this, funds for the project were difficult to find and 2 years later the then Hull council took the unusual step of supporting a request by the owners of the NPT (a property developer) to turn the buildings into a block of flats. Nevertheless, for a range of reasons, including financial difficulties and local opposition, the owners of the site never succeeded in their plans to turn the site into either living spaces or, later, a dining area. Subsequently, in 2018 after several attempts, the NPT was compulsorily purchased by Hull City Council. In 2021, the council approved plans to redevelop the site into a memorial and education centre and plans are still underway for this to happen as I write.
What makes the NPT so fascinating to our project is the way the two competing interests – one to redevelop or replace the NPT and the other to turn it into a memorial – asked questions about the role of material remains in memorialising events. The debate over the future of the NPT gives us an insight into the way people may view ruins, yet both the argument for preserving the NPT and for its conversion into flats or other commercial usage echoes an older debate that saw much coverage following the Second World War. On one hand there existed an idea that the most appropriate way to celebrate the sacrifice and contribution to victory of the British people, especially during the Blitz, was through rebuilding successfully. This involved the demolition or complete reconstruction of bombed buildings coupled with striking modern solutions to pre-war urban problems. Here, as Nick Bullock has argued, the concept was that victory meant progress and that the creation of gleaming, rebuilt cities was an appropriate reward for the valour of Britain’s people.
Despite this, there were also growing voices that argued for sensitive treatment of old buildings, and, in particular, calls for the ruins of several significant ruined buildings to be preserved as memorials. Perhaps Britain’s most famous example of this is Coventry Cathedral. In Louise Campbell’s study of the rebuilding process in Coventry she shows how the bomb damaged site became a battle ground for conflicting concepts of what was an appropriate way to memorialise both the destruction of an ancient and ‘architecturally valuable’ building and the deaths of so many in Coventry. The final outcome was something of a compromise with Coventry building a new modernist Cathedral next to the preserved, manicured and memorialised site of the bombed ruins This then represents the creation of a specific site for the transmission of a version of history and in this case a message of forgiveness and reconciliation with former enemies. The creation of a new, ultra modernist Cathedral alongside the ruins forms a counterpoint , which maps both a narrative of progress and phoenix like rebirth onto the site. All over the world, sites like Coventry – the ruins of important, iconic or sacred buildings – form the basis of sites for the transmission of messages both about the past and the present. At the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall (HPIPH) – the epicentre of the first atomic bomb and the only building of any size left standing – the site is declaimed as “a reminder to the whole world of the horrors of the atomic bomb and a symbol of global peace.” This declamatory framework (a way of saying signs and notices narrating what the visitor should understand and focus on) is common and asks questions about the actual impact of the ruins themselves, not least because the image of the HPIPH is so pervasive in a cultural context which exists separate from the actual experience of visiting the site. This utilisation of a framework of declamatory notices, informing the visitor what occurred is starkly illustrated in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane – wiped out by the the Waffen SS in June 1944 and maintained as a ‘Martyred Village’ since. The conversion of ruins into memorials like Oradour is then not merely about allowing the material ruins to speak for themselves (if indeed they can) but about preserving ruins to act as a kind of mnemonic for a particular, sanctioned version of the past. Despite the seeming assumption of the creators of these sites that there is something valuable about the experience of being amongst the ruins, the past is still narrated to the visitor. This is not only an attempt to impart information, but also a demonstrable attempt to use the ruins to help reinforce a particular message. Oradour then serves not only as a memorial to a particular event, but also as focal point for French anger and remembrance concerning the brutality of the Nazi occupation.
What these sites show is a belief that experiencing ruins is a powerful tool for the transmission of ideas about the past. That more than visiting a museum or reading a book there is something uniquely valuable about the actual experience of being in ruins. Perhaps being there can convey a gravity that words alone cannot. Yet the ruins seem not to be enough in themselves – in every case we can see that a declamatory framework exists to guide us through what we ‘should’ understand from the ruins. This disciplines the way in which we experience them, the manner in which we move around them and even the way in which we see them.
In all the previous examples the buildings are significant either as former landmarks, sacred spaces or iconic images. However, the NPT was not, nor has it become one of these. Indeed, over the last 80 years the NPT has been regarded by many people with little interest – an eyesore and a testament to a city that still hadn’t finished the job of rebuilding. Cllr. John Fareham summed these feelings up when referring to the site as a “badge of shame.” saying “What sort of credit is it to a city when we have got a bombsite in a conservation area?” He went further, arguing that other, more appropriate memorials existed to the dead in Hull’s main park. Fareham’s views are echoed by contributions to the Hull Daily Mail, typical of which is the response of local resident Mike Radford to the announcement that a campaign was being launched to save the building from conversion into flats:
The idea that housing is inappropriate on a former bombed area is completely laughable. The Victoria Dock development is built on the former eastern Docks area, much of which suffered severe damage during the Blitz. All over Hull, derelict bomb sites gave way to new houses, industrial premises etc, without meeting any objection. It is called progress.
Yet the objections to the NPTs redevelopment as flats were equally vehement: the Chairman of the Hull and District Council of Ex-Servicemen’s Association, Barry Medhurst told the Hull Daily Mail: “The building should remain as a memorial and the decision is a slap in the face for the people of this city.” Alan Canvess, then secretary of the NCWW2MT argued that both the NPT and adjoining Swann Pub were worth saving, saying:
…the former NPT is the last remaining bombed ruin of its type in the whole country. Together these two buildings would have provided a welcome escape from the war for an hour or two, and therefore would now provide a fitting tribute to the 1200 civilians that died during the Blitz. There is also the educational aspect of the NPT that is extremely important.
What is important here is the way that, in tryin to make their case, both sides of this argument acknowledged that the ruins are a powerful symbol that deserved appropriate respect. Both, sought to map their own narrative of history and what it means in the present onto the ruins. On one hand by interpreting them as worthless and undesirable – and insult to the memory of the dead, played out through neglect – and considering that the dead were adequately memorialised elsewhere, the council and developers motivated a version of the past which looks at the bombing as a starting point and constructed the narrative from that juncture onwards as one of progress and change. The continued existence of the ruins was then problematic and contradictory to this narrative. In contrast those who wished to preserve tand memorialise the NPT conceived of the ruins as almost frozen in time – their history is everything that went before the moment when the NPT was transformed in a moment of extreme violence from a functioning building to a ruin. The purpose of the runins in the present was thus as a potential lodestone for memory, in which today’s Hull could enact the memory of its defiant, wartime past. For both groups the ruins are imbued with meaning, yet the interpretation of them is utterly different.
Whilst its continued existence may be largely accidental, the NPT nevertheless became a battleground for competing narratives of the past. Indeed, for competing narratives of both Britain’s finest hour and the subsequent years of post-war neglect suffered by Hull at the hands of successive national governments. Yet it has also become recognized as a potential repository and transmitter of ideas about the past – a view that ultimately won and can be seen being enacted today. Since, perhaps understandably, local governments showed little appetite for the preservation of relatively mundane bombed buildings in the post-war period, there are few, if any, left. Once again the campaigners saw (and indeed, still see) the ruined building as frozen at the moment of destruction – a site which gives us access to the past and allows the story of the Blitz a permanence that memory alone may not provide. In promotional material the campaigners illustrated this idea:
The National Picture Theatre is now a well-know focus for the city’s wartime memories. It is a dramatic site that vividly brings home the impacts [sic] of wartime bombing, and it conveys so much more than pictures or written accounts…here is probably the closest you can get to the reality of the 1940s Blitz
Strongly implied here is the idea that experience is more than just a powerful adjunct to the historical narrative, but that it works as a preeminent mode of transmission. However, the plans for the conversion of the ruins into a memorial space also showed a recognition that there is a need for a framework of historical information to guide the visitor:
Inside the foyer would be largely left as a bombed ruin, with dramatic lighting and films projected onto the walls. The rear auditorium will be an open garden with an education room…there would be a ‘wall of remembrance’ containing the names of the 1200 people who died during the Blitz of Hull.
Alongside this, for the conservationists, the preservation of the NPT would allow Hull to buy into a national narrative of the Blitz from which there is evidence that it feels excluded. This “Myth of the Blitz” as articulated by Calder and Ponting remains a powerfully positive national symbol. Tom Robinson, Chair of the NCWW2MT showed this when saying: “[it] would be a fitting memorial to the spirit and fortitude of ordinary people across the nation who also served during those dark days.”
The NPT then represents a fascinating study of how narratives of the past can be mapped onto a physical form. In the plans of the NCWW2MT there remains an implied belief both in the efficacy of the ruins as a site for the transmission of the past. What is clear is that the conservation campaign sees the NPT as, in Pierre Nora’s parlance, a potential Lieu de Memoire– a terrain of memory or as Nora himself describes them:
…any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community. 
What is more, the transition of the council’s position, from supporting redevelopement, not only reflects the simple changing of personel, but also echoes the recent, vibrant engagement of Hull’s people and institutions with it’s past. A process that has produced some of the most active official and grassroots historical and heritage projects to rival anywhere in the last ten years.
We, for one, cannot wait to see what is made of the NPT going forward.
More information about events in the next two weeks can be found here:
- 7 March at Hull History Centre, 1.30 – 3pm. Free, booking essential
Talk on the historic / modern projection by Hull Independent Cinema Company
- 8 March at Hull History Centre, 1.30 – 3pm. Free, booking essential
Talk on the history of the National Picture Theatre and renovation project.
- 9 March at Hull History Centre, 1.30 – 3pm. Free, booking essential
Cinema doodle workshop by artist Charlotte Eldred
- 13 March, 10am – 11.30am. Free, booking essential
Site tour of National Picture Theatre and talk by Hilary and Tom, trustees of NCWW2MT
- 14 March, 1.30 – 3pm, Free, booking essential
Stepney Station talk / National Picture Theatre mini model craft workshop
 Hull History Centre Local Government File ‘C TAY’ – damage reports 20th June 1940 -17 March 1945
 It seems that of the remaining Blitz ruins, 14 in total, 12 are churches or ecclesiastical and the other is an old naval dockyard ropery.
 See: Nick Bullock, Building the Post-war World (London, 20002)
 Louise Campbell “Towards a New Cathedral: The Competition for Coventry Cathedral 1950-51” Architectural History, Vol. 35 (1992), pp. 208-234
 Following the destruction of the Cathedral in 1940, Provost Dick Howard made a commitment not to revenge, but to forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible. Using a national radio broadcast from the cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over he would work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.’ http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/about-us/our-reconciliation-ministry.php accessed 8th December 2010
 Tourist Sign at Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall, Hiroshima Japan.
 Comment below the line from user ‘Mike Radford’ made on Hull Daily Mail article dated 16 October 2008,
 Hull Daily Mail, Planners Back Bomb Site Development, 16 October 2009.
 Promotional material, NCWW2MT
 Promotional material, NCWW2MT
 Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, Representations No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), pp. 7-24