The documentary Hull’s Headscarf Heroes, will air on BBC Four, Monday 5 February at 9pm. Here, producer and director Steve Humphries shares the story of the remarkable women who fought for safer work conditions.
There’s never been a more dangerous job than deep sea fishing in the Arctic, where gale-force winds and mountainous seas have claimed the lives of thousands of men. But in January 1968, when trawlers from Hull’s vast fishing fleet headed into these icy waters in their quest for the biggest catch, it was a journey that would descend into tragedy. Ernie Bilocca, who was a young seaman with the fleet, remembers: “The waves must have been 30, 40ft high, you’ve got hundreds of tons of water crashing onto the ship and I actually thought we was going to sink. We was fighting for our lives.”
Within three weeks, three ships had sunk and 58 men had lost their lives. For their families back home in the Hessle Road area of Hull, the news was devastating. The youngest widow, just 17 at the time and with two young children, was Denise Hilton. “Your brain is thinking what was the last words he said, was he shouting for me, for his mam for his bairns, would he have been fighting to get out of the water over the place in your head.”
But out of this tragedy came something extraordinary. Fuelled by years of suffering and loss, in which over 6,000 of their men had died at sea, the women of Hull rose up to protest against the dangerous working conditions. They were led by an indomitable character called Lilian Bilocca. Her daughter Virginia remembers: “My mother just looked horrified, and she just looked at me and she thumped her hands and said, ‘Virginia, enough is enough, I’m going to do something about this.’”
In Hull’s Headscarf Heroes, we use heartfelt testimony and rare archive film to tell the epic story of a disaster that tore through the heart of Hull’s fishing community – and of the remarkable women who risked everything in their fight to ensure it never happened again. For me, interviewing and filming these men and women was one of the biggest challenges I have ever experienced as a producer and director. Fifty years on, the emotions of those involved remain as raw as they were at the time.
A unique fishing community
The circumstances that led to the women’s protest have their roots in Hull’s unique fishing culture, and the dangerous working practices that had developed over the course of a century. By the 1960s, the city was home to the greatest deep sea fishery on earth. A fleet of 150 deep water trawlers were based at St Andrew’s Dock, and every year they brought in up to a quarter of a million tons of fish – 25% of Britain’s total catch. To bring in such large quantities, Hull’s trawler men had to take enormous risks, and the best hunting grounds were 1,000 miles away, in the Arctic waters around Iceland. Health and safety procedures on the trawlers were almost non-existent and fatal accidents in which men were lost overboard or killed by unsafe equipment were commonplace.
But these individual deaths which routinely happened almost every month were as nothing compared to the dramatic events of the winter of 1968. The women of Hessle Road had lived with tragedy for generations. But in early 1968, they were to suffer a bereavement of such magnitude they could remain silent no longer. The tragedy known as the ‘Triple Trawler Disaster’ would thrust the issues of their close-knit community to the very height of national attention. Three trawlers – the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland – all sank in January and early February of that year. One of the worst storms in living memory – and the mountainous seas that they whipped up – brought inevitable tragedy: 58 men lost their lives. The people of Hessle Road were in shock
The women of Hessle Road could contain themselves no longer. Wives, sisters and daughters now vented their anger at the lack of safety on the trawlers. Emotions were raw – the triple tragedy touched every woman in the community.
An impassioned protest
Lil Bilocca worked as a cod skinner in a fish factory off St Andrew’s Dock. In response to the tragedy, she started a petition for better safety measures at sea which almost everyone in the area signed. Suddenly ‘Big Lil’ as she was known became the effective leader of an extraordinary movement of angry and grief-stricken women. The pent up feelings of generations of women boiled over. On 2 February 1968, Lil took her petition to the Victoria Hall where over 500 women gathered to demand action.
Among them was Yvonne Blenkinsopp – now the last survivor of the women’s leaders. After the death of her father four years earlier, she was desperate to get involved.
“You couldn’t move, it was packed with people. There was loads there, and I mean loads. There was women of all ages, from young ones who’s just become wives of young trawlermen, there was older ones, there was people who’d already lost people at sea. There was all sorts of people there.”
Yvonne was called to speak. She recounts: “I just started speaking on the microphone. And I told them about my mum and dad and being left alone with six kids, having to bring them up and how hard it was. I said I know how all you out there, if it’s hit anyone of you in this room, now we know exactly what you’re feeling, I said, and it’s got to change. We’ve got to have better safety, we can’t go on like this for ever and ever and nobody doing anything. And I said we’ve got to see the owners.”
Lillian Bilocca and Yvonne Blenkinsopp speaking to the press, circa February 1968. (Image credit: Testimony Films/ Mirrorpix)
Archive footage shows an impassioned ‘Big Lil’ speaking out: “I’ve always been concerned but I’ve never had the guts to do owt about it, but now it’s time somebody did and I’ve made a start. It’s up to other people to follow me and make these owners sit up and take bloody notice and now, not next year or the year after.”
Many of the women wanted action there and then, so Lil led over 200 of them on a march down Hessle Road to confront the owners at St Andrews Dock. While a deputation of women met with the owners, the rest voiced their feelings to the press. They were fast becoming a formidable force.
For the first time, Hessle Road’s women were stepping out of their traditional, domestic roles, into a world from which they’d previously been excluded – and they were getting noticed.
A fight for safer waters
There was opposition from the trawler bosses – and even the trawlermen themselves who feared a backlash – but nobody was going to tell Lil Bilocca what to do. She wasn’t even worried about breaking the age-old taboo that prevented women from going to the docks on sailing day. She was going down on the next tide to stop any trawler setting sail without a radio operator. Her daughter Virginia remembers: “It was seen to be unlucky for a woman to go on the dock. But I remember a photograph of my mother struggling with six policemen and women, and there she is struggling ‘cos she, Mum, was trying to jump on board a trawler that Mum thought didn’t have a radio operator on board.”
As the grief-stricken community of Hessle Road tried to come to terms with the loss of 58 of their men, the government ordered an inquiry and summoned the trawler owners for discussions on safety in the fishing industry. But it was the women’s campaign that still drove the impetus for change. The next day, Lil Bilocca and Yvonne Blenkinsop travelled to London to a special meeting with top government ministers to demand better safety measures for the trawlermen. Yvonne remembers:
“I was dead centre to this one in the middle who turned out to be the head minister, and as I sat down I said ‘I hope we’re going to get these things… I aren’t going out of here until I know I’ve got em.’ I said there should always have a radio operator on board the trawler, always. I said we needed a mother ship. We needed more modern materials to use on our ships. Why can’t we use some of this stuff that’s used in the aeroplanes, that’s light and can be used? Why can’t they find something that could maybe stop the ice going so far, and being so heavy, there must be something in this day and age?”
The women also wanted trawlers designed for better safety, restrictions placed on the use of inexperienced ‘deckie’ learners, and a ban on fishing in poor weather.
Yvonne remembers: “When we was coming out I said, ‘Petal, are we going to have these things then?’ And he said, ‘You are, my dear.’ Real nice, with a big smile. He agreed with everything all of us was saying because they all needed doing. Everything. Every one. Now that’s good.”
Lillian Bilocca leads the wives on their protest march to try to meet the trawler owners on the dockside. (Image credit: Testimony Films/ Mirrorpix)
The Triple Trawler Disaster and the women’s campaign for safety quickly became an international news story, knocking Vietnam off the front pages. Following their success in London, Lil Bilocca and the others returned to Hull, where they reported back to the women of Hessle Road. They were greeted as heroes. Eighty-eight safety measures were enacted immediately in response to the women’s campaign. The first to be implemented was a mother ship, complete with up-to-date medical and radio facilities. Their fishermen’s charter laid the foundations for safety at sea for generations to come, welcomed by all, including those who’d once been resistant change.
Despite the success of the women’s campaign, by the early 1970s the future of Hull’s fishing fleet was looking increasingly uncertain. In 1972, the ‘Cod War’ broke out between the United Kingdom and Iceland, as Iceland imposed restrictions on fishing rights in its waters. In the ensuing battle the Royal Navy was called in as Icelandic gunships rammed Hull’s trawlers and cut their nets. By the end of 1976, Iceland had won the Cod War. With access denied to its rich fishing grounds, Hull’s fishing industry fell into a sharp decline from which it never recovered. The effect on the Hessle Road community was devastating. As the old fishing industry slowly disappeared, so too did the memory of what Lil Bilocca and the other campaigners had achieved. And when Lil died in 1988, at the age of 59, there was little fanfare.
But today, with Hull as City of Culture for 2017, the ‘headscarf heroes’ are remembered and honoured on new memorial benches and street murals. Lil Bilocca and the women of Hessle Road are recognised as having driven one of the most successful protest movements of the last 50 years. Together they transformed the attitude to safety at sea and helped save the lives of untold thousands of men.
Hull’s Headscarf Heroes will be broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 5 February 2018 at 9pm