Hull and Beyond


Three Ships in the Sky

I’ve never knowingly been to Hull.  It’s not that I’ve anything against Hull, just that the question of going there has never arisen.  I became a little more aware of it when it owned the accolade as UK City of Culture 2018, but it is only recently that it has cropped up even more.

The reason for this is the mural/mosaic Three Ships by Alan Boyson (in the picture above by Esther Johnson).

“Designed by Alan Boyson in 1963 for a Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society store, the mural is a curved concrete screen depicting three stylised trawlers. The structure spells ‘HULL’ in the masts and bears the motto ‘prosper through industry’. The mosaic comprises 1,061,775 individual cubes. It was commissioned by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (now the Co-op Group) to celebrate the city’s maritime heritage.” (Co-operative News, August 2018)

What caught my attention was a campaign to protect the mural/mosaic from development and to obtain listed status for it (see @BhsMuralHull on twitter).  The ins and outs of this campaign are too much for this blog and are expertly covered elsewhere in any case.  Listed status was not yet been granted. Recently, and more worryingly, it was announced that despite promises the mural/mosaic would be ‘lost’ as the structure has asbestos in it.

The mural/mosaic has a number of things going for it in my book.  First, (whilst I appreciate art is in the eye of the beholder) it is in my view lovely, as well as being one of the largest (if not the largest in the UK) mosaics around.  Secondly, it is a mural/mosaic on a shop, and a Co-op shop to boot (though it did become a BHS in due course). This makes it part of retail heritage and many people know my interest in this.  And thirdly, there are lots of people who see it as an emblematic and iconic piece of art of its place. And it is this last point that I feel especially engaged with.

I am not an expert on listing or asbestos so what follows may be inaccurate and uninformed but REALLY?  We have a cultural icon, an emblem of a city, an identifiable association with place and a damn fine piece in its own right.  I fail to see why it would not be protected, especially given some of the things that are ….

And then if asbestos is protected/enclosed then the danger can be minimised and with safe handling could we achieve a solution?  Is this really beyond us, or is this a failure of will and money?  It’s of course so much easier to destroy then to conserve. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is so true in such situations.

I think campaigns such as this are important, as places are built on these shared icons and assets.  Memories and behaviours are constructed around them.  They act as symbols and identifiers of our shared heritage, and a shared future.  We are all diminished by this potential loss of The Three Ships, even if I have never seen it in the flesh.  It is a place anchor and as we lose these we lose our places. This is said so much better by Esther Johnson here, but as someone interested in the nature of, and focus on, thriving and identifiable places, it needs reiterating every time such central, iconic and memorable assets (and that is what it is) come under threat.

Now some might say, so what, that’s the way it goes. Hull has other things that say Hull. Hull might have, but the interest in, campaign about, and stories around the Three Ships suggests it is something special. From a retail perspective it is also of a time when retailers actually built shops that made a positive statement and became part of a place.

If you want to know more about the Three Ships and the various campaigns, films, events and memory and artefact capture around it, then take a look at the Ships in the Sky website (and which contains some great drone footage of the Three Ships) , set-up by Esther Johnson and project research assistant Leigh Bird through a shared exuberance for the Hull Coop/BHS building and the work of Alan Boyson, and follow on twitter.

There are two other murals by Boyson in the building and the hope is that these can be saved. There is also some hope that listing might yet be obtained for Three Ships, if the other works are also seen as valuable. It is for all these reasons above that I was more than pleased to sign the petition noted below



About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Art, BHS, Buildings, Cooperative Group, Cooperatives, Department Stores, Design, Historic Shops, History, Hull, Places, Public Realm, Regeneration, Retail History, Spaces, Uncategorized, Urban History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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