The Boathouse: Hull’s forgotten, underground, creative hub

By September 28, 2020 Culture, Hull, News
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Since City of Culture, Kingston upon Hull has seen an influx of creatives and creative opportunities. We have seen artists, poets, musicians and our city buildings lit up with projected animations. But culture existed in this Northern town before it got the title of City of Culture 2017. Before City of culture, there was The Boathouse.

When I say The Boathouse, I am referring to something that predates the similarly named pub in West Hull. The Boathouse, and its garden, were originally the farmhouse and yard of a farm that consisted of the whole of Oak Road playing fields, and slightly beyond. Its ruins still stand there now. It thrived in the early 2000s, attracting up to 300 people in a single night, and shut down in 2011.

In the year 2000, two artists arrived in Hull with some funding from the arts council. Paul Burwell and Harry Palmer (though Palmer’s name is not his real name), had a grant with a brief in which they had to put on five events relating to the River Hull. The artists took a walk down the riverbank for inspiration and came across a semi-derelict barn house and boatshed. They found out that members of a rowing club were its owner and only two living members were left. Paul and Harry bought The Boathouse for an absolute steal of only £2500. The owners had a right to sell but couldn’t charge a higher figure – they had to charge the same amount that they paid for it, as specified in a contract written prior to inflation.

Paul and Harry argued. Harry left and Paul took control of the Boathouse. Paul drank, experimented with drugs and The Boathouse soon attracted underground artists and musicians from all over the country. Paul was a founding member of a musical group from London called The Bow Gamelan Ensemble, which was formed with Richard Wilson and Anne Bean in 1983; the group disbanded in 1990. Gamelan music is “the traditional ensemble music of the Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese peoples of Indonesia, made up predominantly of percussive instruments.”[1] The music form enabled a DIY, urban twist, in which musicians would use random bits of metal, wood and material to make noise. Gamelan performances became a theatrical experience that bordered on eccentricity.

Everyone could get involved with gamelan – it brought crowds of people together with the sole goal of making music.

Mike Bisby, now a retired Hull businessman and sculptor, met Paul twice. On both occasions, Bisby recounts that Paul was completely drunk. Paul was a “controversial character.” But he also injected a scene of creativity, community and vulgarity into an almost derelict site. The Boathouse had a varied attendance, sometimes hundreds showed up and other times less than ten. It wasn’t quite a rave scene, but people made music, art and experimented with pyrotechnics. Bisby was introduced to The Boathouse by two good friends, one of which, Brian Gillson, was a close friend of Paul Burwell. Brian also worked as gardener and maintained the grounds at The Boathouse. The other friend, Steve Shepherd, was an artist, and it was with his insistence to look at the wacky place, that Bisby discovered the gritty freedom of The Boathouse.

Paul died in 2008, drunk, Bisby stated, “he was probably chasing vandals and slipped on the ice.” He stayed where he fell and froze to death. After Paul’s death, people drifted away. But Mike Bisby had found a gem of a place. He found himself in an administrative role and set up a social enterprise to keep it running. People would often have birthday parties at The Boathouse and the site was funded solely through donations. Some days they were up on money, other days they were down. Bisby’s personal experience with business, money and legal issues meant he was more than capable of continuing The Boathouse’s legacy after Paul passed away. Bisby was a part of a team who ensured the place stayed afloat, and that people could continue to thrive and experiment in this creative hub.

Phill Wilson was one of the people The Boathouse nourished. When asked how The Boathouse helped him as a musician, he stated, “Well, I had been performing as MyOneManBand for a few years doing prewritten singer songwriter stuff using loops…but I was getting tired of playing the same songs over and over again. So, because of the loose nature of the boathouse, I decided to jump into improvisation with both feet and put on a show there that I would just make up on the spot. It was the scariest but most rewarding leap of faith I’ve ever done…and it’s fair to say that it was one of those defining moments that, because of the open-minded audience and the response. I was hooked from the get-go and have been performing in purely an improvised manner ever since.” You can find a video of MyOneManBand’s live Boathouse performance on YouTube; his music is both atmospheric and reminiscent of shoegaze.

Unfortunately, Paul’s sons sold The Boathouse to a man named Nigel who neglected to care for the property and the place ended up burning down. The Boathouse now, according to Laurie Welton, who used to be a regular, is a “factory of dreams and arena of expression reduced to ashes.” Maybe one day, Hull will breathe life back into this creative hub, until then, The Boathouse remains, solitary, itching with history, behind Oak Road playing fields.

The Boathouse is Hull culture before culture became corporate.


Words: Jemima Mitra