On the corner of Pease Street and Anlaby Road in Hull, there is a vivid mural painted on the gable end of the Goodwin Community Hub. The port city’s coat of arms—three crowns, somewhat ironically—sits above scenes of women and men walking, eyes downcast, and of a single trawler ploughing its way through a roiling sea. The mural’s focal point, though, is the figure of a woman; her steely glare passes above the heads of any observers, from beneath a headscarf. Painted in 2016 by Mike Ervine and Kev Largey, the mural commemorates the Triple Trawler Tragedy of 1968 and the remarkable social movement led by Lillian ‘Big Lil’ Bilocca that sprang up in its wake. The movement may have been short-lived, but it bears important testament to the power of direct action and community organising.
In three weeks in January and February 1968, the Hull trawlers St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland all sank in freezing North Atlantic waters. Fifty-eight men from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community died. After the St Romanus and Kingston Peridot were reported missing, and with her own son on board a trawler north of Iceland, Bilocca started a petition demanding safer working conditions. The petition was soon circulating widely; hundreds of women collected thousands of signatures. As Brian W. Lavery notes in his detailed account of the ‘Headscarf Revolutionaries’, the Secretary of the Hull branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union encouraged any men not at sea to assist the ‘fighting fishwives’—they had drawn more attention to the issue in a few days than the union had managed in years.
After a crowded, raucous meeting at the city’s Victoria Hall on February 2nd , a large group marched to the headquarters of the Hull Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association on St Andrew’s Dock, where the trawler fleet was based. A deputation led by Bilocca was finally allowed into the building, but officials made it clear that the owners of the St Romanus and Kingston Peridot were not prepared to meet with them. Hundreds more women chanted and jeered outside. Early the following morning, Bilocca returned to the dock; a famous photo shows three police officers trying to restrain her as she attempts to board the St Keverne, to prevent it from sailing.
On the 4th, the Ross Cleveland sank just off the north-west coast of Iceland. Miraculously, Harry Eddom, the sole survivor from the three trawlers, made it to shore. He was found on the 6th. The same day, Bilocca, Yvonne Blenkinsop, and Mary Denness delivered the petition (now signed by over 10,000 people) to Harold Wilson’s Labour government at 10 Downing Street. They also delivered a list of 88 proposals outlining how to make the industry safer, all of which would eventually be adopted.
Christine Smallbone, the sister of the Ross Cleveland skipper Philip Gay, had met with the managers of Hellyer Bros., the ship’s owners, on the morning of the 5th. Lavery’s book records her impression of the firm’s offices: ‘“Look at this big room, beautiful big polished oak or walnut table…really really big…beautiful carpets…that’s how the trawler owners live…nice…comfortable”’. The extent to which the trawler owners’ profits were prioritised over the safety of the trawlermen, some of whom were as young as 14, was no secret in Hull. But with the British media gripped by the story of the missing trawlers, the Headscarf Revolutionaries made it a national issue.
The movement burned brightly, but it quickly burnt out. Its leaders, Bilocca in particular, faced misogyny and condescension from parts of the media. They were also met with hostility closer to home, from within the deeply patriarchal fishing community. Bilocca received torrid abuse and even death threats for interfering in ‘men’s business’. In the following years she was also blacklisted from working back on the docks. James Johnson, Labour MP for Hull West, repeatedly raised Bilocca’s blacklisting in Parliament, but to little avail—national attention had moved on. Bilocca took on other jobs in the city but remained justifiably aggrieved at her treatment. She died from cancer in 1988 at the age of 59.
By that time, Hull’s trawler fleet was already long gone. The review of the industry ordered by Harold Wilson in early 1968 resulted in sweeping changes by the end of the year. Yet with the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970s, the fleet entered a terminal decline. St Andrew’s Dock was closed in 1975 and filled in the late 1980s, though the remarkable Lord Line building, its Modernist centrepiece, still stands. Some in the city blamed the actions of the Headscarf Revolutionaries for the industry’s decline; the Hull playwright and artist Val Holmes recalled how Bilocca’s name was ‘often used with this lingering hate’.
Hull’s year as the 2017 UK City of Culture provided a long overdue opportunity for the record to be put straight. Holmes’s play Lil was performed in November that year. Maxine Peake and Sarah Frankcom’s immersive production The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, with a cast featuring local residents, premiered the same month at the Guildhall. A BBC documentary—Hull’s Headscarf Heroes—followed in early 2018. ‘I think people are just realising what she did actually achieve’, Holmes said, ‘The thousands of lives that were saved because of her and the other women’s actions’.