The story of Hull's triple trawler tragedy fifty years ago in 1968, in which 58 deep sea fishermen died, and the protest by local women who fought for greater safety at sea.
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There are few jobs as dangerous as deep sea fishing in the Arctic,
where gale-force winds and mountainous seas
have claimed the lives of thousands of men.
In January 1968,
trawlers from Hull's fast fishing fleet
headed into these icy waters
in their quest for the biggest catch.
It was a journey that would descend into tragedy.
The waves must have been 30, 40 foot high, some of them.
You know, you've got hundreds of tonnes of water
crashing onto the ship.
And I actually thought we were 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 Hull, the news was devastating.
Your brain's thinking...
.."What was the last words they said?
"Was he shouting for me, for his mam, for his bairns?"
"Would he have been fighting to get out of the water?"
All that plays with 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 Lillian Bilocca.
My mother just looked horrified...
..and she thumped her hands and she said, "Virginia, enough is enough!"
"I'm going to do something about this."
I've always been concerned,
but I've never had the guts to do owt about it.
But now I think that it's time somebody did.
What Lillian and the others wanted was a safer fishing industry,
and they were prepared to do anything to get it.
But this was a man's world, where women weren't welcome.
I got a punch in the face when I was first doing it.
JOURNALIST: Are you a fisherman's wife?
I'm a fisherman's daughter who died at sea
four years ago. My mother was widowed with six children...
But I wouldn't have stopped under any circumstances.
I wanted something put right that was wrong.
People should never put money before people's lives.
This is 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.
The circumstances that led to the women's protest have their roots
in Hull's unique fishing culture,
and the dangerous working practices that developed
over the course of a century.
By the 1960s, the city was home
to the greatest deep-sea fishery on earth.
150 deep-water trawlers were based at St Andrew's Dock,
and every year, they brought in up to a quarter of a million tonnes
of fish, 25% of Britain's total catch.
To bring in such large quantities,
Hull's trawlermen had to take enormous risks
because the best hunting grounds
were 1,000 miles away in the Arctic waters around Iceland.
For the Hull trawlermen,
the North Sea was,
more or less, a highway,
a watery highway which led
to the fishing grounds,
which led to them fishing under the Northern lights.
They went as far as a man could go without hitting ice, basically,
without hitting the Poles, as it were, to fish.
Of course, because they went further,
and as far as you could go...
..the risk becomes greater.
It's the most dangerous profession on earth.
Not the most dangerous job in Britain...
..the most dangerous profession on earth.
You're 17 times more likely to die on a trawler
than if you were just an ordinary working person.
Because of the extraordinary distances involved,
the trawlermen were away from home for at least three weeks at a time.
As a result, Hull's fishing community,
which was based around Hessle Road,
developed a culture all of its own,
one where men and women lived very separate lives.
One man who knows more about this community than anyone else is
photographer and historian Alec Gill.
He's been documenting people's stories here for over 40 years.
There are many dynamic features of Hessle Road,
and one well worth stressing is that it was a strong matriarchy.
The women are the unsung heroes, really, of the community.
Because, while the men were away for three weeks,
they had to be mother and father both to the children,
and so they did form this,
this, like, sisterhood if you like.
And it was a wonderful community that was close-knit.
And it survived adversity after adversity.
For Hull's women, the fact that their loved ones could die at work
at any time was a constant worry,
made bearable only by the joy of their return.
At St Andrew's Dock, families gathered to welcome back their men.
But this would be only a brief reunion,
because after just three days at home,
they would be back to sea again.
Lil Bilocca's sister Minnie
was married to trawler skipper Dick King.
I loved the three days.
You'd look forward to that for three weeks, to get them three days.
It's a different world.
It's a different world from what you've lived before.
You've got your man, your husband
or your boyfriend or whoever it might be.
He's yours, he's back.
For children, too,
it was always a treat to have Dad return after three weeks away.
Jean Shakesby was one of seven children.
When Dad came home, it was really exciting.
Especially for the younger children.
Because, as soon as he put his bag down, he had sweets.
So we couldn't wait for Dad to come home, you know.
I know we loved to see Dad,
but it was the sweets as well,
everybody got sweets
and we was all treat, you know?
So it was lovely.
And he was really a lovely man.
Trawlermen were prepared to put up with this time away from home
because of the money. They were paid a weekly wage,
plus a share of the profits from the catch,
earning them the nickname the Three-day Millionaires.
After three hard weeks at sea,
some of the younger men let off steam in heavy drinking sessions,
giving Hessle Road a reputation for trouble.
But most married men, like Minnie King's husband Dick,
spent their time and money providing for the family.
They didn't talk about work for fear of worrying their wives.
And they knew they'd soon be packing their kit bag
ready for the next journey.
And when they put that over their shoulder,
that's not a nice feeling.
You know where they're going.
You know he's going from you and your children.
I'm not going to see him next trip, or whenever.
You never know. You never know.
So you always had that at the back of your mind.
On the dreaded sailing day,
age-old superstitions kept Hull's women out of their men's world.
It was taboo for them to go to the docks to see their men off,
and they never waved them goodbye
for fear an actual wave might wash them overboard.
And the strange rituals didn't end there.
There was a little ditty in Hull which goes,
"Never wash on sailing day or you'll wash your man away."
And so it meant washing his clothes.
Because when you think about washing,
if you're washing somebody's garment or shirt or whatever,
you're washing the soul out of them, washing the spirit out of the house.
Also you're mimicking plunging them under the water.
And so for a seafaring family,
you know, you're mimicking drowning them.
The hardships of a life at sea
were well known to Hull's fishing families...
..but many of Hessle Road's boys still wanted to go.
Among them was Ernie Bilocca.
It was tradition.
My father was in the Merchant Navy,
my uncle was a skipper on the trawlers.
My grandad was a chief engineer on the trawlers,
and all my friends was all on the trawlers.
And it looked so glamorous when they was coming home
after the three weeks, all dressed in smart suits,
a few quid in their pockets, making us quite jealous of what they had.
However, young Ernie faced opposition to his plans
from his mother, Lil Bilocca.
My mum weren't very keen on the idea at all.
Didn't want me to go. There was no two ways about that.
Because she knew the dangers of the sea.
But I insisted,
and in the end, she realised
that she wasn't going to be able to stop me.
At 16, Ernie didn't need his mum's permission to work on a trawler.
And while no boys under the age of 15 were officially allowed at sea,
some skippers did turn a blind eye.
Hessle Road boy Ken Shakesby first worked on a trawler
when he was just 13 years old.
For me, you know, a young boy, I thought,
"Well, this is my vision and this is what I'd like to do."
And, of course,
you look up and you see the skipper who's in control of the vessel
and you think, "Well, that could be me up there in so many years' time."
And that was my intentions in life.
Both Ken and Ernie were soon heading out towards the Arctic
as inexperienced but enthusiastic trainee deckhands,
known in the industry as decky learners.
It seemed, at the beginning, that it would be a great adventure.
The reality was something quite different.
They were about to experience some of the dangerous working conditions
that would so anger Ernie's mum, Lil Bilocca,
and the other headscarf heroes.
I just couldn't believe how rough the seas were,
what the conditions was like, the hours that we was worked.
Just the all-round working environment.
You know, your life's in danger, there's no doubt about that.
It's in danger.
In the 1960s,
Hull's fishing fleet was largely made up
of old-fashioned trawlers known as sidewinders.
On these vessels, the fish had to be gutted on the exposed deck,
where the men often worked 24-hour shifts in appalling conditions.
The health and safety aspect was non-existent.
All they used to say was,
"You keep one eye on the job and one eye on the weather."
And they were the simple, basic "safety" tools you had.
"One eye on the job, one eye on the weather."
Because when it was bad and these,
what we call the white horses would break,
they would just come on board like nobody's business,
and they would knock...
It doesn't matter who you was,
it would knock you down like it's anything.
Being swept overboard was a risk,
but the ship's moving equipment was more dangerous,
and it wasn't governed by the same safety laws as machinery on land.
Deep sea trawlers were full of hazards
that could cause death or serious injury
in an instant.
The wires that they used for towing the trawler,
they're under that much strain.
You know, you're talking about maybe 50 tonnes of strain.
That snaps, it'd take your head off.
It'd cut you in half. No doubt about that whatsoever.
Despite the dangers,
many decky learners had little to no training before going to sea.
So they had to learn from the more experienced deckhands.
You know, when you was young and green, you would, like...
Like latch onto the older, mature people and you would learn from him.
And then I used to think, "Well, he's an old man,
"he's been doing it for many years, and he's managed all these years.
"So what he's doing, it must be the right thing,
"so I'm going to learn from him, and hopefully that will get me through."
It's like, as we say in this day and age,
it's an accident waiting to happen.
But accidents did happen, some fatal.
And it was Hessle Road's women who were left to suffer.
One such accident occurred in August, 1963.
The last time I saw my dad was early in the morning
when the taxi came for him.
He kissed us all bye-bye and that,
and then my mum went down the passageway of our house
to the front door with him, and he kissed her...
And he said, "Bye-bye," and...
..that was it. We never saw him no more.
He was fine, you know?
There was nothing wrong with him.
He just went out of the door and that was it.
Jean's dad Stan was dragged overboard
when a shark became caught in the net.
His body was never found.
With nobody to bury,
it was almost impossible for loved ones
to come to terms with their loss.
The thing that was sad for my mother was, she always thought,
"he'll get found, and he's lost his memory."
And she believed that for years.
With seven children to support,
Jean's mum sought compensation from the trawler owners.
But they claimed her father's death was an act of God
and refused to pay out,
leaving the family with financial worry on top of grief.
In the meantime, there was some happiness for Jean,
as not long after her father died,
she married decky learner Ken Shakesby.
I was 19. Jean was, like, 11 months younger than me.
For me, in them days it was, like, this is...
It's something there, what you get inside of you.
This is it.
It was nice, you know?
So... The only thing was, it was his job.
I used to worry all the time because I used to think of my dad.
And I know it sounds silly,
but I used to think "When he gets past 40, I'll feel better,"
because my dad was just 40 when he died.
And I don't know why, it just stuck in my head, that.
What happened to Jean's mother and the family was not unusual.
Without proof of negligence against the owners,
few accident claims resulted in a pay-out.
But in the 1960s,
the bosses that ran Hull's fishing fleet were all-powerful.
People would often describe the trawler owners as almost feudal.
That's not quite accurate.
They were entirely feudal.
They couldn't be further removed from those that worked for them.
And I'm not saying that individually as human beings they were monstrous.
Their practices were monstrous.
To send a man...
with scant regard or even concern for his safety.
They're concerned only with what they brought back.
In the quest for maximum profit,
the trawler owners put enormous pressure on the ships' skippers
to bring back more fish than their rivals.
They even awarded an annual trophy, called the Silver Cod,
to the man who landed the largest catch.
In this competitive environment,
skippers expected the trawlermen to work even in the worst conditions.
Everybody's got a different opinion of what bad weather is.
You get levels of storm, though,
weather forecasts ranging from one to 12.
Up to a seven, yeah,
it's all right, but it's starting to get a little bit dodgy, you know,
a bit naughty. Eight's "No, I don't really work in this."
So when you get to nines, you would get some of the skippers...
..they'd fish in that, and that was dangerous.
Very dangerous. But you'd no option.
The bottom line was profit.
But whatever the men thought,
in the 1960s, they had few employment rights,
and arguing with the skipper could prove costly.
The skipper was God.
His word was God's.
Whatever he did, we did.
And that's how it was because, you know,
they had the power to do what they wanted.
They had the power to either make you or break you.
It's not very often you, um,
challenge the skipper's...
..word or authority.
If you did, you could almost guarantee
you'd get the sack when you got home.
And what they done, they called it walkabout.
And they made sure you stopped out of work for two or three weeks,
until you'd learned your lesson.
This constant threat to their livelihoods
meant the men rarely complained,
despite the working conditions.
They might have complained that, unlike some continental fleets,
Hull's trawlers sailed without the support of a mothership -
a rescue vessel, which carried medical staff and equipment.
Instead, responsibility for medical emergencies lay with the skipper,
who usually only had basic training.
Yvonne Blenkinsop's father had a heart attack
while at sea on a trawler.
The skipper was a good skipper and sent him down...
..to get in his bed and rest.
But he needed treatment.
He needed someone to get him the right medicine.
He was never ill.
He was not once, that I can remember, ill in his life, my dad.
Not once. I can never remember him going to the doctors.
Nobody expected him to die, not one in the family.
It was like a bolt out of the blue when we got told he'd died.
He just went away a happy man, as usual...
..and it was not that he'd been swept overboard,
or the ship had gone down,
it's because he needed somebody who knew what they were doing.
I know the skipper knows so much about it but they're not doctors.
But, when you sit down to think about it,
it's the thing that they should have had.
They could have got him off and got him home,
and I could even still have my dad.
I know he'd be old, he'd be in his 90s.
But, even so, he would still have a chance of being alive.
Yvonne's mother was left with six children to bring up.
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 triple trawler disaster
would thrust the issues of their close-knit community
to the very height of national attention.
SHIP'S HORN SOUNDS
It began on the tenth of January
when a fleet of trawlers left St Andrew's Dock
on the early morning tide.
Among them was the St Romanus, a vessel with a poor reputation.
Dick King was offered the job of skipper.
Dick was supposed to take that ship...
..and he said to me, "I don't fancy going, Min".
And he'd been to sea all his life.
He'd never, ever refused a ship.
He said, "I don't fancy going, Min."
I said, "Well, don't go, love.
"Please don't go."
You know, there's something about it he didn't like.
He said it wasn't seaworthy.
The ship was eventually taken out by a young skipper called Jim Wealden.
As well as being considered unseaworthy,
there was no radio operator among his crew.
The idea of going to sea without a radio operator
is like a blind man going without a cane, or a dog...
..in a dark street.
In times of trouble,
a Mayday signal sent by the operator
from the powerful equipment held in the radio room
would be heard around the world.
But the radio in the skipper's wheelhouse
had only a limited range,
leaving the ship isolated.
Now that, in itself, is astounding.
What's even more astounding is that that wasn't illegal.
At around 7.30am on the tenth of January,
Jim Wealden was struggling to get his basic radio to work.
He contacted the trawler owners to give his position,
then called his wife
to tell her he was unhappy with the ship.
She never heard from him again.
Over the next ten days,
the owners tried in vain to contact the St Romanus,
but took no further action,
as skippers often maintained radio silence
if the fishing was good,
to avoid giving away their position to their competitors.
It wasn't until the 24th of January,
two weeks after initial contact was lost,
that the owners finally alerted the coastguard.
The same day, in houses off Hessle Road,
the wives of the crew were informed that the ship was missing.
Among them was 17-year-old mother-of-two Denise Hilton,
whose 19-year-old husband Brian was on board.
I sent him a telegram for our first wedding anniversary...
..and then these two men were knocking on the door...
..to say that
they've had no contact with the ship for so many days
and they're hoping everything will be all right, like.
So, you're thinking, "Course it will be.
"Course it will be." You'll get a telegram tomorrow, or you'll get,
as often you did, a bouquet of flowers or a basket of fruit.
You're thinking, "It'll be all right."
But then they come back again and they said they still haven't heard.
And you're sort of living in a dream.
You feel sick and you don't want to eat.
You're looking at your babies and you're thinking,
"He has to come back for them."
News of the missing ship spread gloom across the community.
Ernie Blocher was about to set off for his next voyage to Iceland.
When I was in the Kingston Almandine,
we'd actually set sail from Hull
knowing that one ship had already gone missing,
which was the St Romanus.
There was a lot of sadness aboard the ship from everybody
because they all thought for the people back home.
Meanwhile, off Iceland's east coast,
the Kingston Almandine's sister ship,
the Kingston Peridot, announced she was struggling in bad weather.
In force 12 winds, a build-up of ice was making her top heavy.
It was every skipper's nightmare.
Ice gathers at a remarkable rate on a ship.
A ship of 450 tonnes will turn over, what they call turn turtle,
where the ice is packed upon it,
and it turns very rapidly and disappears.
Although no-one received a Mayday signal from the Peridot,
as the storm passed, and there was no further contact with her,
nearby vessels were alerted.
We'd been fishing on the east coast of Iceland
when we got a message from the insurance buildings in Hull,
telling us that the Kingston Peridot was missing
in that area where we were.
And would we keep an eye out for it
or look and see if we could find any signs of it whatsoever?
But we never found anything at all.
On the 29th of January,
the discovery of a life raft belonging to the ship
led to a full air and sea search.
And when three other life buoys
were found near an oil slick on the water,
the Kingston Peridot was assumed lost,
along with their crew of 20 men.
More bad news followed,
as the loss of the St Romanus was officially confirmed.
Another 20 men had perished.
The people of Hessle Road were in shock.
Everyone was talking about it.
Everybody knew one of the men on the ships.
It was a horrible time.
You just walked down Hessle Road and everyone,
that would be the topic of conversation,
whatever shop you went in.
Hull was home to a fishermen's mission,
a church-run charity that provided emotional support in time of need.
And it was the job of the port missionary
to break the bad news to the waiting women.
It was a daunting task for newly qualified Donald Woolley
who'd only recently been posted to Hessle Road.
Many of the people who lost their husbands or partners...
..were of no age at all.
Sometimes late teens.
As were their partners.
But nevertheless, those people, being young people...
..must have been terribly traumatised
by what had happened to them.
One minute, they were happy.
Another minute, they were content.
Another time, they were looking forward to coming home.
But in actual fact, they were never to come home.
17-year-old Denise Hilton was the youngest of the widows.
My brain's thinking, "Did he fall overboard?
"Was he sleeping in his bunk?
"Was he shouting for me, for his mam, for his bairns?"
You know, "Was he all fighting to get out?
"Was it quick?"
And you think, "God, I hope so."
You look at your children and you think...
..they're never going to see their father, grow up.
Despite the shocking loss of 40 fishermen in two weeks,
it was business as usual for owners and crews at St Andrew's Dock.
But the women of Hessle Road could contain themselves no longer.
Wives, mothers, sisters and daughters
now vented their anger at the lack of safety on the trawlers.
For a start off, there should be a wireless operator on every ship
because a skipper can't be on the bridge
and in the wireless room at the same time, can he?
And the owners, they don't care.
All they're interested in, the fish.
The men, they don't mean a thing to them.
They couldn't care less what happened to them.
As long as they're bringing the fish back.
There's been that many men lost in the last five years,
that we just aren't going to put up with it any more.
Even now the owners are trying to...
Emotions were raw.
The double tragedy touched every woman in the community.
Lil Bilocca worked as a cod skinner in a fish factory
off St Andrew's Dock.
Her daughter, Virginia, remembers how her mother reacted to the news.
Even though she was such a private person normally,
she was shocked and horrified.
She just looked at me and she thumped her hand
and she said, "Virginia, enough is enough".
"I'm going to do something about this".
And I looked at me mam, and I thought, "Whoa, she means business."
And she said, "I'm going to start a petition
"for better safety conditions at sea."
Lil Bilocca was not alone.
The pent-up feelings of generations of women boiled over.
Thousands eagerly signed the petition.
I remember Lil knocking on the doors with the other ladies,
to sign the petition.
Those in the streets,
those on Hessle Road, clipboards and signatures, were getting signed.
I don't think there'll be anybody in Hull that never signed that.
I certainly signed it, and my family signed it.
That petition got 10,000 signatures in three days.
In an area that only has 14,000 people.
Imagine that's practically everyone
who could pick up a pen had signed it.
On Friday the second of February,
Lil Bilocca took her petition to the Victoria Hall,
where over 500 women gathered to demand action.
Among them was Yvonne Blenkinsop.
After the death of her father five years earlier,
she was desperate to get involved.
You couldn't move. It was packed with people.
There were loads there.
And I mean loads.
There were women of all ages,
from young ones who'd just become wives of young trawlermen,
there was older ones,
there was people who had already lost people at sea.
There was all sorts of people there.
Lil told the gathering they were there to talk about
what they were going to do after the loss of the two ships.
Action was needed.
She was prepared to go to jail
if it would win better and safer conditions
for men on trawlers.
And she intended to meet
the Prime Minister next week,
and not come back until she had.
Yvonne Blenkinsop was then called to speak.
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 any one 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 do anything."
And I said, "We've got to see the owners."
The meeting voted for Yvonne, Mary Denness,
Lil Bilocca and Chrissy Jensen to form a committee
to take their demands forward.
Jean Shakespeare was impressed by what she saw.
Their spirit in Victoria Road, them ladies,
when they were on stage speaking,
they were saying what we were all thinking, and wanted to say.
And it was wonderful.
You felt as if something's going to be done.
The women of Hessle Road were speaking out like never before.
Do you think, as conditions are at the moment, they're safe at sea?
Well, no, because they don't have a regular check
of the safety equipment.
Often it's not even touched and they don't know what condition it's in.
What do you feel about this business?
Well, I think it's gone on long enough.
And if we don't do something about it, nobody will.
The men can't, because they're not home long enough
to all get together and organise something.
So we have to do it.
I've always been concerned,
but I've never had the guts to do owt about it.
But now, I think it's time somebody did.
And I've made a start. It's up to these other people to follow me.
And to 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 Andrew's Dock.
We just walked silently down Hessle Road.
And it was fantastic.
You felt as if, "Right, something is going to be done."
You know, it was wonderful.
While a deputation of women met with the owners,
the rest voiced their feelings to the press.
This was the chance for Jean Shakesby and her mother
to speak out.
You can see my mother is really verbal.
Because it's bad enough losing one man,
but to lose full ships of men was just too hard to take.
Lil and the others were fast becoming a formidable force.
But what can be done?
Lots of things can be done, petal, and will be done.
We need a safety ship patrolling the areas 24 hours a day.
-Are you a fisherman's wife?
-I'm a fisherman's daughter,
who died at sea four years ago.
My mother was widowed with six children.
I've been born and bred in the fishing family.
But that's apart from the fact.
We are fighting for the fishermen who's there now.
I was thinking about getting the job done for the safety of the men.
That was all.
No! The thing is, our men are hard-working men.
I wanted something put right that was wrong.
People should never put money before people's lives.
For the first time,
Hessle Road's women had stepped out of their traditional domestic roles,
into a world where they'd previously been excluded.
And they were getting noticed.
Nothing like this had ever happened before.
It was a man's domain.
Women sort of, like, never spoke up.
But Mum, with her three other ladies,
had the guts and the courage,
and the determination to change something.
However, the women were about to discover
just how hard it would be to take on the system.
After they'd met with the owners,
Michael Burton, chairman of
the Hull Fishing Vessels Owners Association was asked
if he was sympathetic to the women's cause.
I have much more sympathy with the relatives who have been lost at sea,
..a lot of women who are trying to...
Well, they're not trying,
but are getting carried away on a wave of mass hysteria.
Well, believe you me,
I wish they'd had put me or my mother in that room with him.
I'd have shown him what hysterical was,
because, how dare he...?
He hadn't lost no-one.
You know, that was horrible, to say that.
We weren't hysterical women.
We were trying to get our husbands, sons, brothers, whatever, safe.
Dads. We wanted them safe.
But despite the women's good intentions,
some of the trawlermen also disapproved of their actions,
because they lived in fear of the owners,
and were well aware that complaining could cost you your job.
Frankly, the ordinary fisherman is a bit sick of all these women
interfering in their own business.
The sooner we get down to dealing with the men who matter,
rather than the women, the better.
Things took a darker turn when the women were sent death threats,
and Yvonne Blenkinsop was attacked in a restaurant off Hessle Road.
As I get to near the door,
he comes straight up to me and punches me in my face.
Said something about the fishing. I couldn't hear what he said.
And off he went. Well, I just turned around and came back again,
didn't go into the toilet.
I said, "I've just been punched in the face.
"A big one, right in my nose.
"It was a wallop."
They didn't like women standing up and doing anything then.
Women should be at home, looking after the children...
..and looking after...
You know what, cleaning, cooking.
They shouldn't be doing that sort of thing.
That's what they were saying.
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.
I'm going to get aboard that trawler and stop on unless...
I'll have to be moved off that ship, forcibly.
I'll have to be carried off.
Unless that ship's got a full crew, including the radio operator.
The next day, Lil was at the lock gates
as a batch of trawlers were leaving for Iceland.
Have you got a full crew, lads?
All the best, flowers.
Then, when a crew told her they had no radio operator on board,
her moment came.
Lil tried to jump onto the trawler.
I remember my mother struggling, with six policemen and women.
There she is, struggling, because she, Mum,
was trying to jump on board a trawler
that Mum thought didn't have a radio operator on board.
When she went on the dock, when she was struggling,
police were holding her back. She's a big woman, don't forget.
But she was a strong woman, an' all.
I worried about her, then.
"Oh, crikey, Lil," I said, "Be careful, Lil."
"I'm all right, don't worry about me.
"I'm all right." That's all you got from her, you know?
She's that kind of a woman.
She was strong. Whatever she wanted to do, she'd do it.
That became the photograph on every front page,
this woman wrestling with the police.
But the courage involved in that, what people missed,
had she have managed to jump,
the chances are she would have killed herself.
It was an extremely dangerous and headstrong thing to do.
But she was a very headstrong woman.
Do you think you're doing any good with this vigil?
What do you think you're doing?
Well, it stops a ship from going
without a radio operator, haven't we?
That's a start. It's not the finish, it's a start.
How much more of this do you intend to do?
The rest of my life.
How do you regard yourself, Mrs Bilocca?
As a sort of suffragette?
-Don't be daft!
-Why are you doing this?
-Because I'm a mother.
As a mother, Lil had once tried to prevent her son, Ernie,
from becoming a trawlerman.
Now she knew he was fishing in the same treacherous waters
that had just claimed the lives of 40 men.
But what she didn't know was the worst storm in living memory
was bearing down on the fleet.
The weather had got that bad...
..it increased from medium-heavy weather to just unworkable.
In the space of...
..30 minutes. It happened very, very quickly.
So what we did, we hauled
all the gear back on board the ship...
..tied it down. What you call lashing it down.
Tied it all down. Secured it.
And by then, it was a full-blown raging storm.
Over a dozen Hull trawlers battled through the waves
to get to the shelter of a nearby fjord.
As hurricane-force winds brought driving snow,
deadly ice started to build up on the ships.
While his wife, Jean, was protesting on Hessle Road,
Ken Shakesby was on the Kingston Garnet.
The seas were absolutely ridiculous.
Everybody's off the deck,
and we have a watch looking out on the bridge,
radar, three or four men, skipper, mate, watch keepers, looking out,
listening and everything, you know?
Trying to get to safety, because it was so big, the seas.
They would have just filled us.
And with the ice top-up, we would have just eventually keeled over.
After hours spent hacking ice from the Kingston Almandine,
in a desperate attempt to stop her sinking,
an exhausted Ernie Bilocca had taken to his bunk
while the storm raged on.
You get to know the motion of a ship after a while.
You know when it goes to one side, it'll come back up again,
goes to the other, comes back up again.
This particular time, you can feel the actual seas
and you can hear them pounding aboard the ship.
You know, you've got hundreds of tonnes of water
crashing onto the ship.
And you know, boom-boom-boom-boom, that's OK.
Boom-boom-boom. Blimey, that's getting a bit...
By then, you expect it to start to come back.
I actually thought, we was going to sink.
We were laid out at an angle, where...
..I didn't think things were going to come up right again.
Well, I was that exhausted at the time,
because of the work and what we'd been doing on the deck,
the long hours,
I never had the energy...
..to get out of my bunk.
If that ship had have sank, I would have still been laid in my bunk.
Back on the Kingston Garnet,
Ken Shakesby heard on the radio
that the nearby Ross Cleveland was in trouble.
And through the blizzard, he could just about see her.
You could see the flashing of his light.
Bearing in mind, he's moving up and down,
and you're looking for the light.
And sometimes the snow, it gives you false images.
But then we would say, "There's the light."
And then we heard the skipper saying, this Phil Gay,
he kept saying, "She's going, she's going.
"And I can't do anything about it.
"Give my love to my wife and to the crew's families."
We're looking, and then...
..the lights have gone.
And there's nothing on the screen and...
It was just after midnight, on Monday the fifth of February,
when the Ross Cleveland sank.
Another 19 fishermen were presumed dead.
News of the Cleveland's loss stunned the Hessle Road community.
A double trawler tragedy
now became the triple trawler disaster.
Despite the enormous losses,
port missionary Donald Woolley witnessed an extraordinary spirit
of resilience amongst the women.
These people were really quite remarkable in themselves.
Some of them were older, some of them were younger,
but I think I've never seen bravery as I saw during those few days.
They were brave because they had to carry on.
They were brave because they had to manage a home.
They were brave because the children had to go to school.
They wanted to show not only...
..their own love to their children...
..but sometimes I think they wanted them to...
..show their dad's love.
But he was never going to be there again.
However, some women still struggled to accept the loss of their men.
The local church arranged a memorial service to help them.
And there's hundreds, hundreds of people.
And you walk in there, and all the flowers are laid out,
and then they start playing Abide With Me and...
all that kind of thing.
And that makes it real.
That made it real. Even though you didn't have a body...
..all them people coming together, not just my family,
all of the other trawlermen's families, that's what made it real.
Meanwhile, 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, Yvonne and Mary
travelled to London to a special meeting
with top government ministers.
I was dead centre to this one in the middle,
who turned out to be the head minister.
As I sat down, I said,
"I hope we're going to get these things,"
and just said that, as I sat down, "All of them."
And he just smiled at me, to begin with.
Then they started at the end and came through.
Each of them, saying what they were saying, the girls and whatever.
He came to me. Then I said all my things.
I said, "I've got a lot here, I'm afraid."
But I said, "I'm not going out of here until I know I've got them.
"And I hope I do get them."
I said, "They should always have a radio operator
"on board the trawler, always."
I said we needed a mothership.
We needed more modern materials to use on our ships.
Why can't we use some of the 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 decky learners
and a ban on fishing in poor weather.
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 were saying,
because it all needed doing.
Everything. Every one.
Now that was good.
There was more good news to follow.
Reports of a miracle survivor.
This is Isafjordur, the wild, icy north-west coast of Iceland,
where British trawlermen have been battling against
some of the worst weather the island has ever seen.
Now into this remote, freezing fishing port
has come a British seaman who survived a dying ship.
26-year-old Harry Eddom was the mate on the Ross Cleveland.
He survived in a life raft in which two of his colleagues had died.
The news was broken to Yvonne Blenkinsop
and the others while they were still in London.
Somebody comes in the door.
"They've found one!
"They've found one!"
A survivor? A survivor?
Yes! It was Harry Eddom.
I thought that was marvellous.
"They've found one, they've found one!"
We were all absolutely thrilled.
Harry Eddom's miraculous survival quickly gained huge press attention,
making the triple trawler disaster and the women's campaign for safety
an international news story.
Newsreel cameras were there to film him reunited with his young family.
-Now the ordeal of Harry Eddom was over.
He was back with his wife, Rita,
and their seven-month-old daughter, Natalie.
The Eddom family were news, good news in a time of tragedy.
The lone survivor will be a key witness
in Government and Board of Trade inquiries into the disasters.
But first, there was the happiness of being home to enjoy.
Despite appearing in front of the cameras,
Harry was so traumatised by his ordeal
that he's never spoken publicly about it.
But he did speak privately to port missionary Donald Woolley,
who previously comforted his wife Rita.
When Harry came back, I had the privilege of going to see him.
And we had
a natter about the things that...
..had happened to him.
But before I left his home, he said to me...
"I've got something for you."
And he went to the sideboard
and he took out a copy of the New Testament,
which had been given to him in Iceland.
And he said, "Do you have any family?"
And I said, "Yes. We had the one son, Richard."
And so Harry took his pen and signed inside that New Testament,
to Richard, from Harry Eddom.
That New Testament has been on our shelves in our little office
for 50 years.
We are proud to have received it from Harry,
a man who I respect tremendously.
Following the success in London,
Lil Bilocca and the others returned to Hull,
where they reported back to the women of Hessle Road.
Of course it was wonderful to say, "Well, I've met with Parliament,
"we've got what we've asked for."
It just erupted.
All the women, it was so lovely.
You just felt euphoric after all the tragedy that had gone on,
that something is going to be done.
It won't bring our men back, we know that.
But it would help maybe the future men.
And at the time, my husband was one of them.
But it was a wonderful atmosphere in that hall.
88 safety measures were enacted immediately
in response to the women's campaign.
The first to be implemented was a mothership,
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 had once been resistant to change.
As Mrs Denness said upon her return...
..to Hull, "We did more in six days
"than trade unions and politicians have done in a century."
There's no doubt about it, there's people walking the streets today
who otherwise wouldn't be, countless thousands of lives,
future lives saved by making the most dangerous...
..industry on earth that much more safer.
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,
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.
Sadly, trawlers were getting scrapped on one hand,
and also the bulldozers were moving in to the streets of Hessle Road.
And the fishing families and the Hessle Roaders
were being moved out to modern estates.
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.
I said to Audrey, my partner, "Let's go to the funeral,"
expecting there to be lots of people.
You know? I knew it was going to be at the Boulevard Baptist.
We thought there'd be loads there.
Just the family group went in, and the hearse comes along,
and nobody in the streets.
For a woman who had fought for trawler safety,
it was a sad way for her to end her life.
Once home to the largest deep-sea fishing fleet on earth,
St Andrew's Dock is now a wasteland.
But it's also a place of remembrance
for some of the families of Hull's lost trawlermen.
Denise Hilton comes here to remember her husband, Brian.
There's never an 18th of January I forget,
which would have been our wedding anniversary.
His birthday's the ninth of September.
The time he got lost, the tenth and the 11th of January.
And my children have always known about Brian.
The grandchildren, even the great-grandchildren.
My little Ayla, she's going to be nine this week.
They've just been doing something at school about the trawlers.
Obviously she could say, "Well, my great-grandad was on there."
Because they don't know him, but they know of him.
Any questions they've ever wanted answered, I've answered them.
They say, "Will they see us, Nana?"
I say, "Yeah, but they're just in another room."
They're always in here.
And that's all you can say about it.
They're always in here. Can't take that away from them.
Lil Bilocca led the women of Hessle Road
on one of the most successful protest movements
of the last 50 years.
Together with Mary Denness, Chrissy Jensen
and Yvonne Blenkinsop,
she transformed the attitude to safety at sea
and helped save the lives of untold thousands of men.
They should have an award...
..for what they did.
And I was happy, proud,
and so was my mother, to march behind them ladies.
And I'd do it again tomorrow.
Today, Yvonne Blenkinsop is the last surviving leader
of Hull's Headscarf Heroes.
I'm so pleased and so proud I did do it.
I just wanted to do a job, and do it properly.
And get the safety for our men.
Because our trawlermen more than deserved it.
More than deserved it.
Documentary which marks the 50th anniversary of the triple trawler tragedy during January and February of 1968, in which 58 men died. It was one of Britain's deadliest maritime disasters, which tore through the heart of Hull's Hessle Road fishing community. The film tells the epic story of the Hull fishermen who did the most dangerous job in Britain and their wives whose protest ensured such a disaster never happened again. The women's campaign was one of the biggest and most successful civil action campaigns of the 20th century. Combining rare archive and emotional testimony - including that of Yvonne Blenkinsop, the last surviving leader of the women - those who lived through the tragedy and fought for change tell their incredible stories for the first time.
By the 1960s Hull was home to the greatest deep sea fishery on earth. 150 deep sea trawlers were based at St Andrews Dock and every year they brought in up to a quarter of a million tons of fish - 25 per cent of Britain's total catch. But to bring in such large quantities Hull's trawlermen had to take enormous risks, because the best hunting grounds were 1,000 miles away in the dangerous Arctic waters around Iceland. There was little regard for the men's health and safety, making this by far the most dangerous job in Britain with 6,000 Hull men lost at sea.
For Hull's women the fact that their men could die at work at any time was a constant worry, made bearable only by the joy of their return. We hear tragic stories of lost loved ones that cast a shadow over family life. This long history of hurt formed the background to the triple trawler disaster of January and early February 1968- an event which rocked even this extraordinarily stoic community.
In January 1968, Hull's trawlers headed into the Arctic in their quest for the biggest catch. By early February it became clear that three of them had sunk, first the St Romanus, then the Kingston Peridot and finally the Ross Cleveland. The last two were fishing in Arctic waters when they were hit by the worst storm in living memory and were obliterated by the hurricane force winds, blizzards and ferocious waves. Altogether 58 men were drowned.
Among those who lost a loved one was 17-year-old mother-of-two Denise Wilson. She tells the story of how she became the youngest widow in Hull. The man whose task was to break the news to the families was young port missionary Donald Woolley. He reveals that despite the grief and devastation at the catastrophic loss of so many fathers, brothers and sons, there was an extraordinary spirit of resilience amongst the young wives and mothers.
Fuelled by years of suffering and loss, the headscarfed women rose up to protest against the dangerous working conditions. They were led by larger-than-life fishwife Lilian Bilocca. Her daughter Virginia remembers how she began a petition that was signed by almost everyone in Hessle Road. This was followed by mass meetings, a march on the trawler bosses' offices and dramatic attempts to stop any unsafe trawlers going to sea. What they all wanted was a safer fishing industry - and they were prepared to do anything to get it.
Unbeknown to 'Big Lil' as she came to be known, while she was protesting, her young son Ernie was also caught up in the storm and fighting for his life. He tells the story of his nightmare ordeal. So too does trawlerman Ken Shakesby, who also nearly died in the storm. His wife Jean was another headscarf protester who almost lost her husband.
Yvonne Blenkinsop is the last survivor amongst the women who led the protest. She tells how she was inspired to fight for change by the death of her own father at sea a few years before. She made passionate speeches to the women of Hessle Road about the need for greater safety at sea. After preventing unsafe ships from leaving St Andrews Dock in Hull, during the first week of February 1968 three of the leaders - including Yvonne - travelled to London for top-level talks with the government. 88 safety measures were enacted immediately. The first to be implemented was a mother ship complete with up to date medical and radio facilities. The new fishermen's charter laid the foundations for safety at sea for generations to come, and was welcomed by all.
But in the 1970s the Hull fishing industry fell into rapid decline with the Cod Wars and sadly the old fishing industry disappeared. As it went the memory of what Yvonne, Lil Bilocca and the other women had achieved also faded. When Lil died in 1988 at the age of 59 there was little fanfare. Nevertheless today, with Hull as City of Culture there is now at last new recognition for the women who led one of the most successful protest movements of the last 50 years: Lil Bilocca and the 'headscarf heroes,' including the last surviving leader, the extraordinary Yvonne Blenkinsop.