Reflections on the 2017 meeting in Hull

David Hamilton

We couldn’t initially find the conference hotel in Hull since it has repeatedly changed its identity. Known locally as the ‘Station’ Hotel, it was part of the Mercure network (when we booked) and, when we arrived, we discovered it has become a Britannia Hotel. Yet, as befits a station hotel built in the 1840s, it can still be entered directly from the station concourse.

Patronised by Queen Victoria – which attracted the addition of ‘royal’ to its branding in the nineteenth century, it is also celebrated in Philip Larkin’s poem: ‘Friday night at the Royal Station Hotel’ (1966).  Although qualifying as a ‘shabby chic’ hotel, its resources, staff and cuisine proved to be much more chic than shabby.

Although the continued survival of Martineau Society is questioned annually, its annual conferences have survived for more than 20 years. It is no great surprise to me, therefore, that the 2017 conference in Hull, proved a great success.  For myself, scarcely a Martineau scholar, the 2017 version was notable for three reasons. First, the announcement that plans are in place for the online publication of the authoritative biography of Harriet Martineau currently being completed by Elizabeth Sanders Arbuckle (also incoming president of the Martineau Society). Secondly, the publication of Stuart Hobday’s Encounters with Harriet Martineau (2017), currently available as an e-book (Kindle) or as a paperback from your local bookshop (ISBN no: 9781911586210). Thirdly, all the other conference papers (see the programme on this website) continue to advance the field of Martineau scholarship.

In turn, a major intellectual problem with past Harriet Martineau research is gradually dissolving when seen in the light of the conference and its products. Her writings fall between (or among) the intellectual disciplines that gradually became identified and consolidated in the early part of the nineteenth century. As recognised in a work edited by society members Valerie Sanders and Gaby Weiner, Harriet Martineau and the Birth of Disciplines (Routledge, 2017), she is probably more easily remembered as a latter-day eighteenth century philosophe (someone who embraces all knowledge) rather than as someone shaped by the rising disciplinary boundaries that framed – even constrained – the intellectual life of the late nineteenth century.  As several of the conference presenters demonstrated, Harriet Martineau’s intellectual discipline (i.e. humanity) can be traced throughout her life and work.

But why did the Martineau Society meet in Hull? As a location, it does not feature strongly in Harriet’s life.  Nevertheless, her anti-slavery position parallels the contemporaneous work of William Wilberforce (of Hull), while her general position as a philosophe meant that there was every reason for Society members to come together in the 2017 UK City of Culture.

Goodness knows when a future Martineau Conference will reconvene in Hull. The transport hub – of which the Royal Station Hotel merely forms one element – also integrates a bus station and opportunities to hire bicycles, electro-cycles and mobility scooters. In the absence of a Martineau Society conference, Hull would still be an ideal setting for a post-brexit, staycation that embraces a ‘Tour de Yorkshire’, if not a ‘Tour de Martineau’.

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Valerie Sanders

Did Harriet Martineau ever come to Hull? We so far haven’t found any evidence that she did, but this being Hull’s year as UK City of Culture we felt the Martineau Society should take advantage of the moment and station itself at what used to be called the Royal Station Hotel for three days of papers, city walking tours, news of publications and achievements, and reunions with fellow Martineau scholars who come together from the UK, US, and Japan once a year to hear papers and explore the local area.

As this year’s host I felt responsibility for the weather, the walking routes, the bus and train times, and the  early closure of  the churches and galleries we wanted to see. Few of the group had been to Hull before, which made it easier in some ways as we could focus on the city’s highlights. In two trips we covered Wilberforce House and Museums Quarter, the Ferens Art Gallery, the two Minsters (Hull and Beverley), the Andrew Marvell statue and old Grammar School, and St Mary’s Church, Beverley, with its ‘messenger rabbit’ sculpture. Others in the group made their own way to the University’s art collection and Philip Larkin exhibition. Being distracted by the shops was allowed, especially as we all had to provide something for our evening auction. Again we had to use our ingenuity in pretending that Harriet Martineau had collected Chinese bookmarks or City of Culture mugs, but she took her revenge in a quiz round about her life and writing (and the names of her servants).

As for the serious business of the meeting, we began with the University’s Dr Nick Evans on Hull women who had challenged the slave trade: slavery being a theme picked up later by other speakers, especially our Chair, Professor John Vint on Martineau’s Political Economy Tale, Demerara (1832) and its commentary on slaves as property and their disincentives to work hard. Many aspects of Martineau’s life and writing were addressed through the three days, including her journalism – ‘Female Industry’ (1859) (Keiko Funaki) and links with the American Southern Rose (Iain Crawford) –  and her often complex relationships with other people, such as Charlotte Brontë (Stuart Hobday), Julia Wedgwood (Sue Brown), and her own nephews (Elisabeth Arbuckle). John Warren came closest to linking Martineau with Hull by discussing her gruelling children’s story, Settlers at Home (1841) set in Lincolnshire.  Our AGM was a good deal livelier than the average business meeting. We might have been discussing the next Olympic bid for all the energy that went into claims for London, Manchester, Norwich and Ambleside, even France. Someone suggested retracing Martineau’s 1834-6 tour of America, but perhaps we’ll leave that for another time.