Buried walls of the blockhouse marked out in yellow paint in July 2017 as part of an event marking the CBA Festival of Archaeology. (Image: Octovision Media 2017)
In 1997, archaeologists excavating ahead of the construction of an access road for The Deep – the aquarium on the east bank of the River Hull – discovered that the Tudor-era South Blockhouse survived almost intact, with nothing built on it. One of the major finds included a breech-loading canon, similar to those on the Mary Rose. (It has now been restored and is on display at the Hull & East Riding Museum). The scope of the excavations was relatively limited, however, so it was not possible to explore the site in depth.
Built as part of a defensive fortress, the South Blockhouse was commissioned by Henry VIII in the mid-16th century to defend the eastern side of the town and its harbour. In addition to its function as an artillery fort and a storehouse, in the late 16th and 17th centuries the blockhouse was also used as a prison to house Catholic dissidents. It would have been a dismal prison, as rooms were often flooded at high tide. In the late 17th century, the South Blockhouse was incorporated into the Hull Citadel, a large triangular artillery fort.
Drone photograph showing brick floors within the blockhouse and parts of an original gun port and side chamber, taken during the recent excavations. (Image: Octovision Media 2017)
Since the 1997 excavations, Humber Field Archaeology has hoped that full excavation of the blockhouse site might one day be possible. In 2017, in coincide with Hull’s tenure as the UK City of Culture, they decided to raise public awareness of the site’s potential. Inclusion of the site in the Hull Old Town Heritage Action Zone helped secure funding from Historic England and Hull City Council for a series of events.
In July, as part of the CBA Festival of Archaeology, the lines of the monument were marked out in paint and archaeologist were on hand to provide information about the site and show finds from previous excavations. And in September, two trial trenches were excavated, exposing further well-preserved elements of the 16th-century building, including intact brick walls, gun ports, and the original brick floors. A series of open days allowed the public to visit and see the remains for themselves.
Historic England has designated the South Blockhouse a site of national importance because it is a rare example of late medieval fortification design. In particular, it is ‘notable for its rarity, the survival of remains from phases of its construction, and the clear influence the fort had on later land-use’. It is hoped that further funds will be raised to help realise the potential of this important historical monument so that it can be fully exposed and made into a national heritage site open to the public. Close to the aquarium, Hull’s Museum Quarter, and foot traffic along the river walk, it would be welcome addition to Hull’s cultural heritage.
This article will be published in CA 334.