The Fishing Murals of Hull

5397489_adab349eFishing Mural Hull

The city of Hull was the 2017 UK Capital of Culture which came as rather a surprise to a lot of people but not to me as it was in competition with the city of Coventry which is a truly dreadful place!

As part of the celebrations the City came up with an idea to bring in tourists – wall paintings to commemorate the fishing heritage of Hull.

One day in May I crossed the River Humber and went to see them.

Fifty year ago the Hull trawler fleet was the biggest fishing fleet in the world (see footnote) and deep sea fishing in Arctic waters was amongst the most dangerous work anywhere. A trawlerman was seventeen times more likely to be killed at work than the average British industrial worker including coal miners.

At the beginning of 1968 some of the worst ever winter storms hit the Icelandic fishing grounds. In the space of three weeks three Hull trawlers were lost and a total of fifty-eight crew members died.

Hull Fishing Mural

The St Romanus sailed from Hull on January 10th 1968 without a full and experienced crew, most significantly without a properly qualified radio operator to work the ship’s main transmitter. This left communications to the relatively inexperienced skipper with his much less powerful bridge-mounted radio telephone. The last contact was a radio telephone call on the evening of the day they sailed. Despite hearing nothing the owners did not raise the alarm until January 26th.

A life raft found on January 13th had come from the St Romanus. A search began, but by January 30th the families were told that there was little hope for the vessel and her crew.

The second trawler the Kingston Peridot had also sailed from Hull on January 10th with a crew of twenty and by January 26th she was fishing off north-east Iceland in really bad weather.

The ship radioed another trawler that she was having difficulties with ice build-up and moved east to join them. No further contact was established and on January 29th one of her life rafts was washed ashore. News of her loss reached Hull on January 30th just as hope was fading for the crew of St Romanus.

The third lost trawler, the Ross Cleveland, sailed on January 20th, before the loss of the first two trawlers became known. She was bound for the north coast of Iceland.

Conditions were atrocious and on February 3rd she made for a relatively sheltered inlet on Iceland’s north-west coast. A number of other ships were gathered there to wait out the long and hurricane-force snowy storm. A dangerous amount of ice was forming on the vessels superstructure and radar masts. The captain attempted to move her to a safer position but the ship was overwhelmed by the wind and sea, capsized and sank.

News of the Ross Cleveland sinking reached Hull on February and at first it was believed all aboard had died, but on February 6th Harry Eddom, the mate, washed ashore in a life raft barely still alive, the other two men in the raft had died of exposure.

Lilian Bilocca Wall Mural

The news of the three lost trawlers devastated the whole of the Hull fishing community but a group of women fishermen’s family members decided to do something more than mourn – they would fight to make the industry safer.

Lillian Bilocca, Christine Jensen, Mary Denness and Yvonne Blenkinsop called a meeting which resulted in the formation of the Hessle Road Women’s Committee. The group became known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries. Bilocca and her women comrades led a direct action campaign to prevent undermanned trawlers from putting to sea, particularly when the ship had no properly qualified radio operator.

Bilocca was a working class woman of Hull. She married a Maltese sailor who worked as a trawlerman. Her father, husband and son all worked on the Hull fishing trawlers. She worked on-shore filleting the catch.

They gathered over ten thousand signatures on a petition (that was a lot pre internet and social media) for a fishermen’s charter and sent to the Minister for Fisheries in Harold Wilson’s government.

As well as radio operators the women had other demands including improved weather forecasts, better training for trainee crew, more safety equipment and a mother ship with medical facilities to accompany the fleet.

Eventually Prime Minister Harold Wilson met the women and subsequently government ministers granted all of their demands.

9-lil_bilocca_mural

Lillian received death threats from some of the trawler owners and letters telling her not to interfere in men’s work. She lost her job and was blacklisted and she never found work in the fishing industry again.

In 1990 Hull City Council unveiled a plaque inscribed: “In recognition of the contributions to the fishing industry by the women of Hessle Road, led by Lillian Bilocca, who successfully campaigned for better safety measures following the loss of three Hull trawlers in 1968.”

This brave woman should have been included in the One Hundred Greatest Britons but that was never going to happen, the list only included thirteen women anyway!

This is not Hull, there are no statues of Lillian, it is a statue in the Portuguese city of Póvoa de Varzim but it seems to fit the story quite well.

Fishwives Pavoa de Varzim

Footnote: The port town of Grimsby on the south bank of the Humber makes a similar claim and they are probably both correct because they use different criteria.

This is my account of a day out in Grimsby

Grimsby Fishing Fleet

47 responses to “The Fishing Murals of Hull

  1. “Do not to interfere in men’s work.” Isn’t it a shame that many times it is the women who do things that men won’t do, and then they get punished for it. Great story Andrew.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. BBC Radio 4 recently ran an excellent programme on the Headscarf Revolutionaries, and I have high hopes that the brilliant Last Testament of Lilian Bilocca, staged at Hull Guildhall last year can somehow be staged as a conventional theatre work. It was incredibly moving.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brilliant post Andrew, one of your best! But when I first got the alert I thought it said The fishing MORALS of Hull! Let’s hope that Gove et al can bring about a regeneration of the fishing industry, but I’m not holding my breath because it also needs a change in people’s eating and shopping habits as well as a few more fishmongers around.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great — and sad — story.

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  5. That is a really good story and thanks for sharing it. It’s a pity that Lillian Bilocca and the others are not commemorated more fully than a plaque. There should be a statue of them or some kind of annual event where people could join in, like “Headscarf Day”.

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  6. this is a great story, even with the sadness involved –

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  7. There can’t be many tougher jobs than fisherman. Such strong women too. A fascinating article.

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  8. Excellent post, Andrew….what a truly dangerous life, and good to hear of those women

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  9. A great advocacy highlighting little-known history

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  10. Very cool story. Let’s hear it for the women!

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  11. What a horrific story! I don’t remember any of this, though I’d have been about 10 so I ought to. Good that the work of the women is getting more recognition now.

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  12. I was 13 but don’t remember it. It was probably covered on local TV?

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  13. This was really interesting. I hadn’t realized commercial fishing could be so dangerous. Bravo to the women who stepped up to campaign for safer conditions.

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  14. those fisherman were what kept us fed during the war, we didn’t have much by way of meat, but we were never wanting for fish.
    It has always inspired in me, the greatest respect and admiration, for these men that went down to the sea in their ships,
    Now I must add their wives. Poor Lillian died at the very young age of 59,
    And the governments give pop singers the awards and knighthoods little or no justice or rewards for those deserving of them like Big Lil.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Pingback: The Headscarf Revolutionaries | Have Bag, Will Travel

  16. Such an interesting account. Such a shame that the women received no recognition for their efforts in saving the lives of the future generations of fishermen.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Most interesting and informative story, thanks

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  18. I only came across the Headscarf Revolutionaries some time last year, and I think it must have been via the BBC programme Stella mentions. A great story about a tenacious group of women

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  19. Love the murals, Andrew! Doubt I’ll get to Hull to see them. Poor lass- they gave her a rough time!

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  20. Well worth re-reading. Perhaps the reason this passed me by at the time was because I was a widowed single parent preparing to marry for the second time. Thank you for the reminder, Andrew

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  21. I knew nothing of this piece of history, nor if Hull’s murals. All very interesting.

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  22. What a shame it’s left to a blogger to bring this event to our notice. You are to be congratulated, Andrew, in bringing this story to the notice of people like me who were unaware of the sacrifices made by these women. Losing one’s job because of standing up for rights was only one part of a mismanaged past in the fishing industry.

    Like

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