The Victorian developer who nearly stopped Hull Fair in its tracks

Victorian property tycoon James Beeton is a largely forgotten figure in his home city today, yet he once came close to preventing Hull Fair from becoming established at its now traditional home in Walton Street.

Well before the fair moved to the site in 1888, the western side of the street had already become a new residential working-class suburb of Hull.

The man was responsible for most of the new housing was Beeton, the owner of a successful basket-making company in Hull’s High Street and by the late 1850s also a significant landowner and tax collector.

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Initially purchased to grow willow trees to supply his business with raw materials, two of his most significant landholdings were either side of the River Hull. One plot was off Holderness Road while the other was off Anlaby Road.

But with Hull rapidly expanding and its populaton growing, Beeton spotted an opportunity and started to develop his land with new housing.

It was no coincidence that he was also a prominent figure in the Hull, Beverley and East Riding Freehold Land Society at the time, acting as its secretary at one stage.



Beetonville featured many small enclosed terraces like this one in Arundel Street in east Hull pictured in 1975
Beetonville featured many small enclosed terraces like this one in Arundel Street in east Hull pictured in 1975

The society was instrumental in supporting the expansion of Hull’s suburbs, having initially been founded by a group of freehold land owners as a way of securing the legal right to vote in local elections.

As such, the society’s members were powerful figures.

In typical Victorian style, Beeton named a street after himself in the new Somer’s Town estate in east Hull but he went one step further in his western development by calling it Beetonville.

Most of the new housing, corner shops and pubs to the west of Walton Street started to take shape in the 1860s, being built in a network of closely-packed terraced streets stretching towards Albert Avenue which was laid out from 1874.

Before he started building, Walton Street itself was little more than a country lane linking Anlaby Road to the ancient watecourse to the north known as Derringhan Bank and, later, Spring Bank West.

Marking Hull’s old municpal and parliamentary boundary, the lane was bordered by open land as well as the odd farm property but Beeton’s new housing changed all that and not everyone was impressed with the results.

One prominent alderman dismissed Beetonville as a “paradise for frogs” while other critics described the area as a “perfect quagmire” and a “dismal swamp” thanks to its poor drainage and insanitary living conditions.



Some of the Victoria era props used in the recent filming of Enola Holmes 2 in Hull included several willow products made and sold by James Beeton in over 150 years ago in High Street where many of the scenes were shot
Some of the Victoria era props used in the recent filming of Enola Holmes 2 in Hull included several willow products made and sold by James Beeton over 150 years ago in High Street where many of the scenes were shot

The problem lay in the fact that all of the sewage from the new district ran into an old open agricultural drain running parallel along the eastern side of Walton Street that had not been designed to handle human effluent. From the drain, the sewage flowed into a brick pond which became a vast cesspool.

At the time, the whole area was peppered with brick ponds created to quarry valuable clay used to make the bricks for all of the new housing.

Together with its surviving pig farms, diaries and cow sheds, Beetonville became infamous for its toxic mix of animal manure and human sewage although that did not stop Beeton himself moving there to live, initially in a house just off Walton Street called Willow Glen and later at his own purpose-built self-named Beetonville Hall off Albert Avenue.

Apart from not being in his ownership, the presence of the drain and the brick pond perhaps partly explains why Beeton did not attempt to build houses on the eastern side of Walton Street where Hull Fair is based today.



Fair ground attraction at the Hull Fair of 1910
Fairground attraction at the Hull Fair of 1910

However, two other factors were also probably at play.

Opened in 1846, the Hull to Bridlington railway line formed a boundary at far side of the open land off Walton Street, most of which had been acquired by the North Eastern Railway Company to build the line and construct a sidings yard for train carriages.

Overall, the company owned around 50 acres, including the land occupied today by the fair.


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Whether Beeton attempted to buy the site off the railway company is not known but as a keen house-builder it would have been a logical move even with the complications posed by the open drain.

The land’s immediate future was undoubtedly a talking point at the time as speculation about plans for a new recreation ground and public park had first aired in a local newspaper in 1861 when his vision of Beetonville was already starting to take shape.

Had he been able to extend his land ownership, it’s almost certain he would have built more housing across the road.



The settlements of Beetonville in Hull
The settlements of Beetonville in Hull

As it turned out, ownership of the land eventually changed hands in 1878 six years after Beeton’s death when Hull Corporation – the forerunner of today’s city council – agreed to buy it.

Again, we know nothing of Beeton’s relations with the Corporation but, as a key figure in the Freehold Land Society, it’s more than likely they did not see eye to eye on development issues.

The Corporation’s vision for a new public park was realised in 1885 when West Park was officially opened covering 32 acres of the 50-acre site while the remaining land to the north was set aside for visiting fairs and shows.

By then, Beetonville on the other side of Walton Street was fully-built with Beeton’s eccentric son John now in charge of the family business which was based in a shop in Blanket Row near the Fruit Market selling baskets, hampers, brooms, fencing, chairs and prams made from willow wood.

Beeton junior also oversaw a manufacturing base in Barrow on the south bank of the Humber where employees – including many children – were paid with ‘Beeton shillings’, an octagonal token only redeemable in certain shops. Under the arrangement, Beeton would receive one penny back from the shopkeeper for each token accepted.

Willow was extensively cultivated and harvested at the Barrow site where Beeton built a grand house called Down Hall in 1877 which also included space on the upper floor and attic where items were made.

As well as having a glass tower built on the roof of the house for him to keep watch his workers in the fields, it’s claimed he lined the drive to the hall with skulls removed from a Saxon burial ground which was disturbed during the building.

True or not, Beeton junior’s odd repuation was cemented by builder John Sleight who was reportedly commissioned to construct the house using his client’s own calendar-based system of measurement.which required him to use the numbers seven, 52 and even 365 when working out the size of windows, doors and other fittings. According to Sleight, the stress of the job nearly killed him.



Housing in Walton Street in 1982, originally built over 100 years earlier as part of Beetonsville
Housing in Walton Street in 1982, originally built over 100 years earlier as part of Beetonsville

Back in Hull, Beetonville remained an indentifiable neighbourhood for decades right up until the 1980s when most of the original housing now regarded as slum dwellings was condemned and bulldozed to make way for new council homes. Beeton’s old residence Beetonville Hall also no longer exists.

The last physical sight of the name disappeared from the Post Office branch on Anlaby Road a few years ago.

However, Beeton’s legacy resurfaced in 2019 when Walton Street was closed to traffic for nearly nearly three months while Yorkshire Water contractors re-built a collapsed sewer which orginally dated back to his development of the area.

The Beetonville name also bizarrely still lives on in online property searches for anyone looking to buy a home in HU3 in a modern quirk which I’m sure the Victorian housing developer would appreciate.