Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/845/20166
Review: Turning the Tide
When women's solidarity won the battle for trawlermen's lives
Turning the Tide by local historian Rupert Creed is a true story, detailing the 1968 tragedy that saw the loss of 58 Hull trawlermen's lives. It recounts the successful campaign for improved safety by the women of the Hessle Road fishing community. The book came out in 1998. It is also a theatre production, appearing for a weekend recently at Hull truck theatre and is promised to return next year. This story of class struggle and resistance is well worth reading.
These days, no one would imagine boarding any ship that had no safety and survival equipment, such as adequate life jackets and a radio to alert rescue services if the ship got into trouble. But fishermen faced such dangerous work conditions until 1968, when a triple trawler tragedy united the women of Hessle Road, Hull in grief and spurred them into action.
Being a deep sea trawlerman was one of Britain's most dangerous jobs; imagine trying to haul in nets of fish when mountainous waves are crashing down upon you! The accident rate was twice as high as coal mining, and ten times that in manufacturing. Many fishermen lost fingers, hands could be crushed and men could even be dragged bodily into the winch mechanism.
Between 1948 and 1964, 757 British fishermen were killed or drowned at sea. There were no safety laws governing trawlers. The 1894 Merchant Shipping Act gave the skipper absolute authority and ruled that any criticism, challenge or disobedience was like mutiny and would lead to criminal prosecution.
The men were casually hired for only the voyage's duration. They spent three weeks at sea and it wasn't uncommon for them to work 300 hours over that period concentrated into ten or eleven days on the fishing grounds. If the fishing was good, men sometimes worked 24 to 36 hours on deck, as their pay was determined by how much was caught.
These factors helped create insecurity and undermined the potential for solidarity, collective organisation and action.
If you became labelled a troublemaker, you could easily be blacklisted and victimised. Health and safety were way down the trawler owners' priorities. The trawlermen even had to purchase their own oil-frocks, and knives and mattress for the bunks on ship.
For the women of Hessle Road, life on shore was also a struggle with the men away for three weeks, then only back for a 36-hour turnaround. The women were, in reality, single parents bringing their families up on the minimum deck hand wage issued at the dock office. Their husbands only received their share of the profit after the landing of the catch.
During the voyage women feared that their husbands, brothers, fathers may not be seen again, or return crippled and unable to work. If a ship was wrecked wages stopped immediately. If the ship was lost and the trawler men died, widows only received 13 weeks' pay.
Proving the trawler owners negligent was hard - most accidents at sea were deemed acts of god! Resilience and solidarity helped the community through hard times but the trawler owners took the lions' share of profits from the catch.
By 1968 very little had been done to improve safety; with a non-unionised workforce Hull trawler owners put profits first. In January 1968 two Hull trawlers, the St Romanus and the Kingston Peridot, were lost with all hands: 40 men in total. The mood in Hull turned to anger and with the help of the Transport and General Workers' Union a meeting was organised.
Six hundred, mostly women, met on Hessle Road on 2 February 1968, the day the trawlers should have returned. Outside were prams, inside the women held children and babies; the outpouring of grief was said to be unbearable to watch. The union had secured an agreement by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson to meet a delegation of wives.
The meeting elected Lillian Bilocca, Yvonne Blenkinsop, Christine Jenson and Mary Denness. The mood was so strong they resolved to march down to St Andrews Quay and confront the trawler owners at the dock office.
Disgracefully the St Romanus and Kingston Peridot's owners refused to face the wives, but the Hull Fishing Vessel Owners Association agreed to meet a small deputation. Dissatisfied with their response, 'Big Lil' Bilocca, as she was known, proposed more militant direct action.
Next day she led a group of women to St Andrews Quay dock gates resolving to stop any trawler leaving port without a radio operator aboard. When the St Keverne entered the lock the crew told Lil they had no operator.
At risk of life and limb Big Lil launched herself at the trawler to try to board, and was only prevented by several police officers. Although unsuccessful in preventing the trawler leaving, the vessel's owners - with the world's press watching - hurriedly arranged for a radio operator to be taken to the ship in the Humber.
The women's action had given confidence to the trawlermen. The crew of the St Andronicus refused to sail due to the poor condition of their life jackets, demanding that union officials investigate their grievances.
The news of a third trawler, The Ross Cleveland, lost with only one survivor, was announced on 5 February, the day before the delegation was due to meet Wilson. This brought the lost trawlermen to 58. As the trawler was swamped by mountainous waves, the last message from skipper Phil Gay was "Help me. I'm going over. Give my love and the crew's love to the wives and families". Three crewmen made it to a life raft but only one, Harry Eddom, survived the bitter cold.
In one traumatic fortnight, three trawlers had gone down! Next day the women boarded the train for London armed with 10,000 signatures.
The tragedy and protests made national headlines and the solidarity of the working class was stirred with petitions organised in Fleetwood, Lancashire, another fishing community. The women met the Labour government ministers with a fishermen's charter! They demanded:
- The provision of full-time radio operators on all crews
- Trawlers to report every 12 hours and if no contact for 24 hours, search and rescue services to be alerted
- Improved safety equipment, adequate training, the prevention of young boys being allowed to sail in winter
- Union health and safety representatives aboard each trawler. A full inquiry into health and safety
Lil Bilocca let the government know how determined the women were to see real change, threatening: "If I don't get satisfaction I'll be at that Wilson's private house, until I do get satisfaction".
The women's campaign got many new safety measures introduced, including every trawler having a full-time radio operator. This helped save the lives of thousands of fishermen. Within weeks the women had set in motion changes to an industry that had seen little change or reform in a century.
The Hessle Road women's solidarity was forged through their life experience of struggle and could challenge the dominance of the trawler bosses. Faced by the united women and a community campaign involving direct militant action, the trawler owners and government conceded the women's demands.
Not to do so risked the campaign escalating with the possibility of the trawlermen gaining confidence from the women and taking collective industrial action.
If the trawler owners had ignored the women's campaign they risked their workforce becoming more militant and organised like Hull's dockers. Better to concede on health and safety than risk a proposal such as the 'National Dock Labour Scheme' that would end casual labour and the trawler owners' power.
The scale of the tragedy brought sympathy and solidarity to the women's cause, exposing the terrible conditions and risks faced by the trawlermen. Facing such a militant stance and bad publicity, the trawler owners' ruthless prioritising of profit and reckless attitude towards health and safety could not be sustained.
In The Socialist 25 February 2015:
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