Gilchrist’s slips through the net

The forthcoming loss of a listed Smokehouse in Hull underlines the need for local action on neglected historic buildings.

By the end of the 1970’s, the great Northern ports of Grimsby and Hull had come to the end of the line as the two great centres of the North Sea Fisheries. Ever since, both places have struggled to hang on to their unique histories as working fishing ports. The dockyard spaces, trading houses, markets and smokehouses have disappeared as fast as the fisherman and the fish, leaving only a few scattered buildings as a reminder of what were, at one time, the two largest fishing ports in the world.

Gilchrist’s Smokehouse (c1890), in Subway Street, Hull, is one of these remnants. A lofty, elegant brick structure in the heart of the Hessle Road area were fish were smoked on a 24 hour cycle and people would come to get parcels of delicious smoked fish. The importance of Gilchrist’s to our wider, national heritage, was underlined in 1994, when the building was listed Grade II after an English Heritage recommendation and Hull City Council added it to their list of locally important historic buildings a few years later. Both listings were made despite the fact that the building had suffered from fire damage but the 9 kilns, the sawdust fireplaces, doors and some of the racking remained and it could have been saved. Unfortunately, it was allowed to become derelict and unsafe, no work was done and the local authority did not enforce any repairs – something all councils have the power to do for listed buildings. Despite its conservation status, Gilchrist’s was slipping through the net.

In 2011, the owners applied for demolition and Hull City Council approved, citing a 2007 archaeological report as evidence that the building could not be saved. The CBA, alongside the AIA (Association for Industrial Archaeology), strongly objected to the proposals, arguing that the council should have enforced repairs at an earlier stage, that it should have been offered for sale and suggesting a series of alternative futures for the structure. Because of our objections, the case went before the National Casework Planning Unit for potential call-in to the Secretary of State. Again, Gilchrist’s slipped through and demolition has now been approved by the council.

This sad end could have been avoided. Enforcement, purchase or local pressure could have saved a building that has so much to tell us about Hull’s extraordinary past. The CBA has just undertaken a survey of the remaining smokehouses in the city and is looking at the potential for listing others. Listing, however, is only half the fight, if we don’t want to lose special buildings like Gilchrist’s again, we must stand up for them or many more will slip through the net.

You can watch some extraordinary film footage of the decline of the North Sea Fisheries.