Hull's Headscarf Heroes on BBC iPlayer tells the story of a inspiring fight by working-class women in Hull to put workers’ safety at sea ahead of profits.
In 1968, the deep water fishing industry employed thousands, not just on the ships but on shore processing. A whole community centred around Hessle Road depended on the trawlers. The trawlers were an extremely dangerous industry, only partially organised in unions. Even though many women worked in the industry onshore, the trawlers themselves were operated only by men. In the Hessle Road community, women were relatively marginalised, culturally, politically and industrially.
The documentary doesn’t patronise or romanticise the community. It’s based on the voices of the surviving women involved. On 11 January 1968, the Hull trawler St. Romanus was lost, with all 20 crew members, in the North Sea. On 26 January, another Hull trawler, the Kingston Peridot, was lost with another 20 men off Iceland. The coastguards and navy did not start the search for days because both trawlers had been put to sea at the most treacherous time of the year without radio operators. The trawler owners delayed raising the alarm. By 29 January it was obvious to all on Hessle Road that forty men had been lost. Anger began to rise.
Lilian Bilocca had not lost her trawlerman husband and son in the disaster, but she and other working-class women on Hessle Road went door to door organising petitions and a meeting. At the meeting the local Labour MP offered sympathy and the local official from the National Union of Seamen, John Prescott, talked of solidarity from the merchant seamen, but it was the women in the hall that demanded “march on the dock. Let the owners have it.” With Christine Jensen, Mary Denness, and Yvonne Blenkinsop, Bilocca formed the Hessle Road Women’s Committee.
The next day, the women and others marched into the owners' offices on St Andrews Dock and demanded that the owners meet their six point safety charter: full crewing of ships, radio operators on every ship, improved weather forecasts, better training for trainee crew, more safety equipment and a “mother ship” with medical facilities to accompany the fleet. The owners refused to make any serious concessions. The next day the women discovered a trawler was sailing with no radio operator, so they attempted to climb on board and block the dock’s lock gates to stop it sailing. They failed, but the trawlermen aboard another boat about to leave were inspired to strike and refuse to sail until there trawler met the safety demands.
A day later, news reached Hull of the loss of a third Hull trawler, the Ross Cleveland. with 18 hands. 58 workers had been lost in the triple trawler tragedy, and the minute that loss was known the owners as usual stopped pay. Now the TGWU (the main trawler union) and Labour MPs began to listen to the demands of the Hull women.
The women marched down to the docks offices daily until all the six safety demands were met, and went to put their case to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Under pressure, the Labour government dragged the trawler owners to a conference where they were pretty much forced to meet most of the demands. According to the documentary, Lilian and the others were particularly proud of the “mother ship” which provided medical care and welfare at sea.
In a deeply sexist and deprived working-class community, the women's solidarity had made a real difference to safety at sea. This documentary tells that tale in the voices of the heroic women involved.