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2018—21 // UK // twitter // instagram // facebook

a social history arts project by
Esther Johnson

project assistant
Leigh Bird

oral history recordings with
Untold Hull Hull Central Library

further project information HERE on
· Timelines
· Galleries
· Contributor call-out
· Three Ships campaign

funded by
James Reckitt Library Trust

R&D supported by
Untold Hull at Hull Libraries, Hull Culture and Leisure
Hull Trinity Old Boys’ Association
Art and Design Research Centre Sheffield Hallam University

If you have built castles in the air,
your work need not be lost;
that is where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them.
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

SHIPS in the SKY is a social history arts project recording the many lives of Hull’s former Co-op and BHS building.

Looking at the effects of public art on peoples’ navigation and memories of the public realm, this research will lead to a collection of oral history recordings, an artist moving-image work, and an exhibition all focusing on the social history of the former Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society store (later a BHS), a post war modernist building in Hull city centre.

The building has had many lives – a department store, an indoor market, a dance hall, a music venue and nightclub. Memories of the building will be recorded from many perspectives – from store shoppers and employees, to construction workers, and recollections of gigs in the buildings Skyline Ballroom, later Bailey’s nightclub and then Romeo’s & Juliet’s.


Central themes of SHIPS in the SKY include, Three Ships, the UKs largest mosaic, designed in 1963 by Alan Boyson and adorning the store front. In 1961 Boyson made a smaller interior Fish Mural placed in a corridor near the fourth floor Skyline Ballroom and a geometric sponge printed tile mural in the Skyline bar, which was rediscovered during R&D for this project.
Emphasis is also given to how buildings and associated public art can be crucial for civic place and memory-making, and geographical and historical local identity. For instance, the Three Ships mural has an explicit connection to Hull’s fishing and maritime heritage.

On closure in 2016, the building canopy acted as shelter for the homeless. Canopy hoardings now proclaim, ‘A Prime Opportunity in the Heart of the City’, as the building lays empty ahead of imminent demolition and redevelopment.

November 2019 update:
Three Ships has been granted Grade II Listing status by the secretary of state and DCMS

Growing up in Hull, this unmissable piece of public art was formative in my love of modernism and wanting to study art. My Dad comes from a long line of trawler-men and seafaring folk, and during our weekly trip for fried egg sandwiches from Fletchers [a local deli] opposite the mural, he’d tell me tales of his first trawler trip at the age of 12 to Murmansk and beyond the Arctic Circle. Aside from an avid fondness for Boyson’s graphic modernist aesthetic, I associate the Three Ships with stories of fantastical voyages that began in Hull, and as a metaphor for where life might lead me; its destruction would break my heart.
– Esther Johnson


Charity t-shirt, tote and turntable slip mat campaign during the 2020 lockdown


SHIPS in the SKY research webinar, British Association of Modern Mosaics Forum 2020 14:00 10.10.20

SHIPS in the SKY Hull History Centre 12:30 10.12.19

SHIPS in the SKY Oral History Masterclass for Absolutely Cultured Volunteers, Hull Central Library 14:00 14.06.19

SHIPS in the SKY launch event Hull Central Library 18:00 27.02.19 booking here

Modernist Society Leeds launch event at Colours May Vary Leeds 18:00 24.10.18 booking here


Harmony and Disharmony: Bringing Together Many Voices XXI IOHA International Oral History Association Conference, National Library, Singapore 22—26.06.20 — POSTPONED due to CoViD-19


Johnson, E. (2020) ‘Hull’s Three Ships Badge’ for Hull in 100 Objects University of Hull, in-press

Johnson, E., Bird, L. (2019) ‘Fish and Ships’, in Critical Fish issue 2, Nov 2019, pp.36–42

Johnson, E. (2019) ‘Hull’s Ships in the Sky’, in Tribune Magazine May 2019

Johnson, E., Bird, L. (2018) ‘Building Ships in the Sky’, in The Modernist issue 27, high, summer 2018, pp.54–57


SHIPS in the SKY featured in BBC Radio 4 programme Sketches: Stories of Art and PeopleLost and Found first broadcast 16:00 17.08.20

SHIPS in the SKY BBC Radio Humberside special dedicated to the project, first broadcast 18:00 27.12.19

S.O.S. Give Your Memories Of Hull’s Co-Op BHS and 3 Ships Mural to SAVE OUR SHIPS! by Carrie Henderson, House of Mirelle 16.02.19

Save Two, Get One Free by Neil Mudd, Culture Vulture 20.09.18

A third forgotten mural… by Angus Young , Hull Daily Mail 19.09.18

I Saw Three Ships… by Neil Mudd, Culture Vulture 04.09.18

New documentary to tell story of Hull’s iconic co-operative heritage mural by Anca Voinea, Coop News 11.08.18