Plaque to Yvonne Blenkinsop at Hull's Maritime Museum, photo Ian S/CC
Plaque to Yvonne Blenkinsop at Hull's Maritime Museum, photo Ian S/CC

Clare Wilkins, Nottingham Socialist Party

Yvonne Marie Blenkinsop, the last survivor of four ‘Headscarf Revolutionaries’, fisheries workers and family members of trawlermen, who led a campaign for trawler safety in Hull in 1968, died on 24 April aged eighty-three.

Two trawlers were lost in dangerous Icelandic waters in January 1968 – St Romanus and Kingston Peridot, each with 20 lives lost. Lilian Belocca decided that this was the final straw for the Hessle Road fishing community. Safety measures were needed, including ships not leaving port undercrewed and radio operators on all ships. As the campaign started, the Ross Cleveland sank with nineteen lives lost. The shock of the triple trawler tragedy galvanised the campaign.

Women attended mass meetings and got 10,000 signatures on a petition in ten days. They marched on the docks, and picketed and stormed fishing industry company offices when bosses refused to meet them. They tried to physically stop ships sailing without a radio operator.

They were told they were interfering in ‘men’s business’. Lilian received death threats and was blacklisted. Marie was punched in the face in a restaurant. But the men were at sea for three weeks or more at a time, and would lose their jobs or not be picked for crews if they campaigned when they were on shore.

The Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) leaders refused the women’s request to speak at its conference. But they stormed into the conference hall demanding to be heard. Delegates supported the women’s call to be able to speak, and conference voted that they should be supported.

Lilian threatened that they would picket Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s house if he would not meet them. He did, along with the minister of the board of trade, TGWU officers and the fishing industry bosses.

The campaigners won 88 safety measures on ships, including fully and better trained crews, and companion ships with doctors accompanying each expedition, saving thousands of lives.

Safety at sea and conditions for workers are currently in the headlines with the sacking of 800 P&O workers and their replacement with agency workers on lower pay. Ships have been stopped from leaving port after failing safety inspections by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and on 26 April a P&O ferry was adrift off Larne in the Irish Sea for a number of hours.

The Headscarf Revolutionaries’ campaign is an inspiration, and a lesson in campaigning, and the role of women in workers’ struggle. It can inform current and future struggles.