architecture, East Riding of Yorkshire, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, public park, sham church

The Ruins, Pearson Park, Hull

Early in 1860 the Mayor of Hull, Zachariah Pearson, gave 27 acres of land to the Hull Corporation, on condition that they made an immediate start on laying it out as a public park. Initially known as the People’s Park, it was soon renamed Pearson Park in honour of the Mayor’s munificence. It was formally opened in September 1860, and quickly became a popular destination with all the usual attractions of lake, aviary, refreshment rooms and drinking fountain. But a couple of years after opening a less common feature joined the growing list of attractions in the park: a folly in the form of a sham ruin with a rather fascinating provenance.

Frederick Schultz Smith (1860-1925). Vespertine view of Pearson Park with the statue of Prince Albert, erected in 1868, and the Ruins. Courtesy of Hull Museums.

To step back in time, the Ruins, as the folly in the park became known, had already been a feature in another Hull attraction. Much of the masonry had first been erected as an eye-catcher in Hull’s Zoological Gardens, a short-lived enterprise that operated for two decades before the money ran out. The Zoo opened in 1840 as a ‘place of resort for healthful exercise’ where the mind was to be stimulated by ‘the picturesque and tasteful arrangement of the grounds and architecture’.

In the early years ‘further architectural embellishments’ were added each season to encourage return visits: there was a Swiss chalet for the goats, a Moorish temple to house the elephants, and a ‘Heathen Temple’ which displayed what were then described as ‘curiosities associated with Buddhist mythology’. Supervising the layout was one of the Vice-presidents of the Zoological Gardens, the architect Henry Francis Lockwood. Lockwood (1811-1878) was then practicing in Hull, but would become famous for his later partnership with William Mawson, which produced buildings such as Bradford Town Hall and the mill, village and church in the model village of Saltaire, also in the West Riding.

Plan of the Zoological Gardens created by Hull History Centre from two pages of the 1854 OS map. ©Hull History Centre.

Whilst the ruin in the Zoological Gardens was a sham, it was not intended to fool anyone, and was marked on the plan of the gardens as ‘Ruins (Artificial)’. But most of the masonry used was genuinely ancient, and had an excellent provenance, for it was purchased at the auction of surplus ‘reliques’ after the great fire at York Minster in May 1840. Material from the Minster was salvaged after the fire and made into small mementoes such as snuff boxes and candlesticks, but there was also also money to be made from the substantial pieces of timber and masonry that could not be reused when the damaged section of the church was rebuilt.

York Minster, as it appeared on the Night of the Fire, Wednesday, the 20th May, 1840. Lithograph by Charles Hullmadel. Courtesy of York Art Gallery YORAG:R2611. Public Domain.

In 1844 the York auctioneer Mr Vaile informed ‘Antiquarians, Connossieurs [sic], Architects, Builders &c’ that he had been directed by the Restoration Committee of York Minster to sell the ‘Ancient and Valuable Reliques’. Present at the auction was Thomas Dalton Hammond, a Hull chemist and druggist and one of the Honorary Secretaries of the Zoological Society, and when bidding began for the masonry he was quick off the mark and snapped up the first lot. This was an ‘Ancient perforated Stone Parapet from the top of the North-West Tower’ at a cost of one guinea, and Hammond then went on to buy a total of 27 lots. His haul included keystones, quatrefoils, carved flowers and carved lion heads, mouldings, marble flooring and his most expensive purchase, at £1.12.0, was ‘Two Canopies, with Buttresses, Crockets, Springer and Finials complete’ which had been part of the South Side of the Nave. These fragments, as well as decorative masonry from other churches, then began the second phase of their lives as a folly in the Zoological Gardens, but sadly no view is known to survive.

Meanwhile, plans had been progressing for another recreational facility for the people of Hull, and Pearson Park, on the land donated by Pearson, had opened in 1860 to a design by Mr J.C. Niven, the Curator of the town’s Botanical Gardens (Kingston upon Hull did not gain city status in 1897). As the park was being developed the Zoological Gardens were struggling to survive, and eventually failed.

The animals were dispersed, and in 1862 the ‘costly and ornamental buildings’ were offered at auction. The Folly Flâneuse would love to know what happened to the ‘large and handsome’ Elephant House, or the ‘exceedingly beautiful’ Menagerie as well as the many other buildings and artefacts. But we do know that the ‘Ancient Church Architecture’ was bought by Alderman Moss of Hull. With civic funds at his disposal he expended £45 on portions of the ruins: according to the sale catalogue these comprised a ‘fine screen’ from York Minster, as well as fragments from Holy Trinity Church in Hull, and a church at Owthorne (possibly St Nicholas near Withernsea which had stood derelict before being restored in 1858). The fragments were then used for the third time as rather fine folly in Pearson Park.

Undated early 20th postcard courtesy of a private collection.

In 1864 the local historian Sheahan wrote that the Ruins would soon mellow and ‘form a pretty feature’. Publishers agreed and the scene was soon featured on countless picture postcards.

Early 20th century postcard courtesy of a private collection.

By 1929 the once pristine area around the folly had become overgrown, and a letter to the editor of the Hull Daily Mail suggested that a ‘suitable inscription’ be placed near the Ruins to explain the forgotten history of the stones. But the folly continued to fall out of fashion and favour, and it was cleared when the park was ‘modernised’ in the 1950s to save money on maintenance and staffing. Sadly there was no auction this time, and the Folly Flâneuse has not (yet) discovered what happened to the ancient stones. Pearson Park remains an amenity for the people of Hull.

The monument to Pearson in the park that bears his name on a cold and foggy day. And a supercilious seagull who refused to budge.

There’s an excellent history of the Zoological Gardens on the Hull History Centre website here

Thanks to Chris Hand for mentioning the Ruins and setting in motion a most enjoyable piece of research, and to the teams at Hull History Centre and York Minster Archives.

Please scroll down to the comments box if you would like to share any thoughts or further information. Thank you very much for reading.

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12 thoughts on “The Ruins, Pearson Park, Hull”

  1. archaeogail says:

    Absolutely fascinating! I used to live in Hull & never knew about The Ruins.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gail Isn’t it an amazing structure. I really enjoyed researching the fascinating history of the folly. Very pleased you enjoyed reading about it.

  2. Judy Rossiter says:

    What an extraordinary story, thank you so much for unearthing it. Quite amazing that you were able to piece together so much of the history from such an array of sources. It does seem quite challenging to make artificial ruins sit comfortably in the landscape, the Libyan relics look so out of place in Virginia Water !

    1. Graham Elsam says:

      What a fascinating article and a great shame the component parts have been lost along with their provenance. Half way through the construction of my own folly. Surprisingly it has similar features and design although on a smaller scale. Have had to use new reconstituted stone features, how wonderful it would have been to salvage and use the stone from Hull

      1. Editor says:

        Good afternoon Graham. I really hope someone did salvage the stone in Hull, and that the masonry rests quietly in a garden rockery somewhere in the city. Good luck with your own folly.

    2. Editor says:

      Hello Judy, and I’m pleased you found the story of the Ruins interesting, it was great fun following the journey of the stones through time. Think the Ruins in Hull succeeded because they were so clearly just an ornamental hotch-potch, rather than an attempt to recreate a ruin from a foreign land.

  3. Gwyn says:

    Fascinating. Never heard of this before. Great piece of research, as always, and I loved the map!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gwyn. It was only mentioned to me a few weeks ago and I dropped everything else to investigate as it is such a great story. The map is wonderful: the zoo must have been a fabulous attraction in its heyday.

  4. Digby Harris says:

    Although Pearson Park was my babyhood home and I was probably wheeled past the ruins, I have no recollection of them. What does survive however, perched rather improbably on top of a mound, is the cupola of Cuthbert Brodrick’s Town Hall of 1862, moved here when it was demolished in 1912.

    1. Editor says:

      Good afternoon Digby. I visited Pearson Park for the first time a couple of weeks ago when researching this post. I was pleased to see that the cupola was still extant, and I was very impressed by the handsome villas around the park.

  5. Sally Osgerby says:

    The Cupolar does look good now. It was cleaned a few years ago when the Park had a major overhaul, & all the graffiti was removed!
    Did you see the magnificent archway at the Beverley Road entrance? This has been restored to how it was, when installed in the 1860s, using an original drawing and old photos found in the Hull History Centre. It really is spectacular and well worth a visit. The gates and archway were given ‘listed status’ by the Royal Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 2021.
    You mentioned the handsome villas around the Park. The benefactor, Zachariah Pearson, lived in No 64 until he died in 1891. Philip Larkin lived in the top floor flat of No 32 where he wrote his poem ‘High Windows’.
    Pearson Park is still the People’s Park. The public were kept involved during the Lottery Restoration Project. I even had a go at scanning the ground with radar, thanks to the East Riding Archaeological Society. They found the exact location of the foundations behind the Prince Albert Statue!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Sally. Thanks for this great comment and all the info. Yes I saw the arch but didn’t have space to include it (and it was not a good day for photos). I’m so pleased you were able to get involved. The park was busy with people of all ages when we visited – even on a very cold and foggy day.

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