Hull's Headscarf Heroes (2018) - full transcript

Lucy Beaumont presents this documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the triple trawler tragedy of 1968 and the protest by trawler-men's wives against the dangerous working conditions.

There are few jobs as dangerous as
deep sea fishing in the Arctic,

where gale-force winds and
mountainous seas

have claimed the lives of thousands
of men.

In January 1968,

trawlers from Hull's vast fishing

headed into these icy waters

in their quest for the biggest

It was a journey that would descend
into tragedy.

The waves must have been 30, 40 foot
high, some of them.

You know, you've got hundreds of
tonnes of water

crashing onto the ship.

And I actually thought we were going
to sink.

We was fighting for our lives.

Within three weeks, three ships had

and 58 men had lost their lives.

For their families back home in
Hull, the news was devastating.

Your brain's thinking...

.."What was the last words they

"Was he shouting for me, for his
mam, for his bairns?"

"Would he have been fighting to
get out of the water?"

All that plays with your head.

But out of this tragedy came
something extraordinary.

Fuelled by years of suffering and

in which over 6,000 of their men
had died at sea,

the women of Hull rose up

to protest against the dangerous
working conditions.

They were led by an indomitable
character called Lillian Bilocca.

My mother just looked horrified...

..and she thumped her hands and she
said, "Virginia, enough is enough!"

"I'm going to do something about

I've always been concerned,

but I've never had the guts to do
owt about it.

But now I think that it's time
somebody did.

What Lillian and the others wanted
was a safer fishing industry,

and they were prepared to do
anything to get it.

But this was a man's world,
where women weren't welcome.

I got a punch in the face
when I was first doing it.

JOURNALIST: Are you a fisherman's

I'm a fisherman's daughter who
died at sea

four years ago. My mother was
widowed with six children...

But I wouldn't have stopped under
any circumstances.

I wanted something put right that
was wrong.

People should never put money before
people's lives.

This is the epic story of a disaster

that tore through the heart of
Hull's fishing community,

and of the remarkable women who
risked everything

in their fight to ensure

it never happened again.

The circumstances that led to the
women's protest have their roots

in Hull's unique fishing culture,

and the dangerous working practices
that developed

over the course of a century.

By the 1960s, the city was home

to the greatest deep-sea fishery on

150 deep-water trawlers were based
at St Andrew's Dock,

and every year, they brought in up
to a quarter of a million tonnes

of fish, 25% of Britain's total

To bring in such large quantities,

Hull's trawlermen had to take
enormous risks

because the best hunting grounds

were 1,000 miles away in the
Arctic waters around Iceland.

For the Hull trawlermen,

the North Sea was,

more or less, a highway,

a watery highway which led

to the fishing grounds,

which led to them fishing
under the Northern lights.

They went as far as a man could go
without hitting ice, basically,

without hitting the Poles, as it
were, to fish.

Of course, because they went

and as far as you could go...

..the risk becomes greater.

It's the most dangerous profession
on earth.

Not the most dangerous job in

..the most dangerous profession on

You're 17 times more likely to die
on a trawler

than if you were just
an ordinary working person.

Because of the extraordinary
distances involved,

the trawlermen were away from home
for at least three weeks at a time.

As a result, Hull's fishing

which was based around Hessle Road,

developed a culture all of its own,

one where men and women lived very
separate lives.

One man who knows more about this
community than anyone else is

photographer and historian
Alec Gill.

He's been documenting people's
stories here for over 40 years.

There are many dynamic features of
Hessle Road,

and one well worth stressing is that
it was a strong matriarchy.

The women are the unsung heroes,
really, of the community.

Because, while the men were away for
three weeks,

they had to be mother and father
both to the children,

and so they did form this,

this, like, sisterhood if you like.

And it was a wonderful community
that was close-knit.

And it survived adversity
after adversity.

For Hull's women, the fact that
their loved ones could die at work

at any time was a constant worry,

made bearable only by the joy of
their return.

At St Andrew's Dock, families
gathered to welcome back their men.

But this would be only a brief

because after just three days
at home,

they would be back to sea again.

Lil Bilocca's sister Minnie

was married to trawler skipper
Dick King.

I loved the three days.

You'd look forward to that for three
weeks, to get them three days.

It's a different world.

It's a different world from what
you've lived before.

You've got your man, your husband

or your boyfriend or whoever it
might be.

He's yours, he's back.

For children, too,

it was always a treat to have Dad
return after three weeks away.

Jean Shakesby was one of seven

When Dad came home, it was really

Especially for the younger children.

Because, as soon as he put his bag
down, he had sweets.

So we couldn't wait for Dad to come
home, you know.

I know we loved to see Dad,

but it was the sweets as well,

everybody got sweets

and we was all treat, you know?

So it was lovely.

And he was really a lovely man.

Trawlermen were prepared to put up
with this time away from home

because of the money. They were paid
a weekly wage,

plus a share of the profits from the

earning them the nickname
the Three-day Millionaires.

After three hard weeks at sea,

some of the younger men let off
steam in heavy drinking sessions,

giving Hessle Road a reputation for

But most married men, like
Minnie King's husband Dick,

spent their time and money providing
for the family.

They didn't talk about work for fear
of worrying their wives.

And they knew they'd soon be
packing their kit bag

ready for the next journey.

And when they put that over
their shoulder,

that's not a nice feeling.

You know where they're going.

You know he's going from you and
your children.

I'm not going to see him next trip,
or whenever.

You never know. You never know.

So you always had that at the back
of your mind.

On the dreaded sailing day,

age-old superstitions kept Hull's
women out of their men's world.

It was taboo for them to go to the
docks to see their men off,

and they never waved them goodbye

for fear an actual wave might wash
them overboard.

And the strange rituals didn't end

There was a little ditty in Hull
which goes,

"Never wash on sailing day
or you'll wash your man away."

And so it meant washing his clothes.

Because when you think about

if you're washing somebody's garment
or shirt or whatever,

you're washing the soul out of them,
washing the spirit out of the house.

Also you're mimicking plunging them
under the water.

And so for a seafaring family,

you know, you're mimicking drowning

The hardships of a life at sea

were well known to Hull's fishing

..but many of Hessle Road's boys
still wanted to go.

Among them was Ernie Bilocca.

It was tradition.

My father was in the Merchant Navy,

my uncle was a skipper on the

My grandad was a chief engineer on
the trawlers,

and all my friends was
all on the trawlers.

And it looked so
glamorous when they was coming home

after the three weeks, all dressed
in smart suits,

a few quid in their pockets, making
us quite jealous of what they had.

However, young Ernie faced
opposition to his plans

from his mother, Lil Bilocca.

My mum weren't very keen on the idea
at all.

Didn't want me to go. There was no
two ways about that.

Because she knew the dangers of the

But I insisted,

and in the end, she realised

that she wasn't going to be able to
stop me.

At 16, Ernie didn't need his mum's
permission to work on a trawler.

And while no boys under the age of
15 were officially allowed at sea,

some skippers did turn a blind eye.

Hessle Road boy Ken Shakesby first
worked on a trawler

when he was just 13 years old.

For me, you know, a young boy,
I thought,

"Well, this is my vision and this is
what I'd like to do."

And, of course,

you look up and you see the skipper
who's in control of the vessel

and you think, "Well, that could be
me up there in so many years' time."

And that was my intentions in life.

Both Ken and Ernie were soon heading
out towards the Arctic

as inexperienced but enthusiastic
trainee deckhands,

known in the industry
as decky learners.

It seemed, at the beginning, that it
would be a great adventure.

The reality was something quite

They were about to experience some
of the dangerous working conditions

that would so anger Ernie's mum,
Lil Bilocca,

and the other headscarf heroes.

I just couldn't believe how rough
the seas were,

what the conditions was like,
the hours that we was worked.

Just the all-round working

You know, your life's in danger,
there's no doubt about that.

It's in danger.

In the 1960s,

Hull's fishing fleet was largely
made up

of old-fashioned trawlers known
as sidewinders.

On these vessels, the fish had to be
gutted on the exposed deck,

where the men often worked 24-hour
shifts in appalling conditions.

The health and safety aspect was

All they used to say was,

"You keep one eye on the job and one
eye on the weather."

And they were the simple,
basic "safety" tools you had.

"One eye on the job, one eye on the

Because when it was bad and

what we call the white horses would

they would just come on board like
nobody's business,

and they would knock...

It doesn't matter who you was,

it would knock you down like it's

Being swept overboard was a risk,

but the ship's moving equipment was
more dangerous,

and it wasn't governed by the same
safety laws as machinery on land.

Deep sea trawlers were full of

that could cause death or serious

in an instant.

The wires that they used for towing
the trawler,

they're under that much strain.

You know, you're talking about maybe
50 tonnes of strain.

That snaps, it'd take your head off.

It'd cut you in half. No doubt
about that whatsoever.

Despite the dangers,

many decky learners had little to no
training before going to sea.

So they had to learn from the more
experienced deckhands.

You know, when you was young and
green, you would, like...

Like latch onto the older, mature
people and you would learn from him.

And then I used to think,
"Well, he's an old man,

"he's been doing it for many years,
and he's managed all these years.

"So what he's doing, it must be the
right thing,

"so I'm going to learn from him, and
hopefully that will get me through."

It's like, as we say in this day and

it's an accident waiting to happen.

But accidents did happen,
some fatal.

And it was Hessle Road's women who
were left to suffer.

One such accident occurred
in August, 1963.

The last time I saw my dad was early
in the morning

when the taxi came for him.

He kissed us all bye-bye and that,

and then my mum went down
the passageway of our house

to the front door with him,
and he kissed her...

SOBS: Sorry.

And he said, "Bye-bye," and...

..that was it. We never saw him no

He was fine, you know?

There was nothing wrong with him.

He just went out of the door
and that was it.

Jean's dad Stan was dragged

when a shark became caught in the

His body was never found.

With nobody to bury,

it was almost impossible for loved

to come to terms with their loss.

The thing that was sad for my mother
was, she always thought,

"He's lost,

"he'll get found, and he's lost his

And she believed that for years.

With seven children to support,

Jean's mum sought compensation from
the trawler owners.

But they claimed her father's death
was an act of God

and refused to pay out,

leaving the family with
financial worry on top of grief.

In the meantime, there was some
happiness for Jean,

as not long after her father died,

she married decky
learner Ken Shakesby.

I was 19. Jean was, like, 11 months
younger than me.

For me, in them days it was, like,
this is...

It's something there, what you get
inside of you.

This is it.

It was nice, you know?

So... The only thing was, it was his

I used to worry all the time because
I used to think of my dad.

And I know it sounds silly,

but I used to think "When he gets
past 40, I'll feel better,"

because my dad was
just 40 when he died.

And I don't know why, it just stuck
in my head, that.

What happened to Jean's mother and
the family was not unusual.

Without proof of negligence against
the owners,

few accident claims resulted in a

But in the 1960s,

the bosses that ran Hull's fishing
fleet were all-powerful.

People would often describe the
trawler owners as almost feudal.

That's not quite accurate.

They were entirely feudal.

They couldn't be further removed
from those that worked for them.

And I'm not saying that individually
as human beings they were monstrous.

Their practices were monstrous.

To send a man... sea

with scant regard or even concern
for his safety.

They're concerned only with what
they brought back.

In the quest for maximum profit,

the trawler owners put enormous
pressure on the ships' skippers

to bring back more fish than their

They even awarded an annual trophy,
called the Silver Cod,

to the man who landed the largest

In this competitive environment,

skippers expected the trawlermen to
work even in the worst conditions.

Everybody's got a different opinion
of what bad weather is.

You get levels of storm, though,

weather forecasts ranging from one
to 12.

Up to a seven, yeah,

it's all right, but it's starting to
get a little bit dodgy, you know,

a bit naughty. Eight's "No, I don't
really work in this."

So when you get to nines, you would
get some of the skippers...

..they'd fish in that, and that was

Very dangerous. But you'd no option.

The bottom line was profit.

But whatever the men thought,

in the 1960s, they had few
employment rights,

and arguing with the skipper could
prove costly.

The skipper was God.

His word was God's.

Whatever he did, we did.

And that's how it was because,
you know,

they had the power to do what they

They had the power to either make
you or break you.

It's not very often you, um,

challenge the skipper's...

..word or authority.

If you did, you could almost

you'd get the sack when you got

And what they done, they called it

And they made sure you stopped out
of work for two or three weeks,

until you'd learned your lesson.

This constant threat to their

meant the men rarely complained,

despite the working conditions.

They might have complained that,
unlike some continental fleets,

Hull's trawlers sailed without the
support of a mothership -

a rescue vessel, which carried
medical staff and equipment.

Instead, responsibility for medical
emergencies lay with the skipper,

who usually only had basic training.

In 1963,

Yvonne Blenkinsop's father had a
heart attack

while at sea on a trawler.

The skipper was a good skipper and
sent him down... get in his bed and rest.

But he needed treatment.

He needed someone to get him
the right medicine.

He was never ill.

He was not once, that I can
remember, ill in his life, my dad.

Not once. I can never remember him
going to the doctors.

Nobody expected him to die,
not one in the family.

It was like a bolt out of the blue
when we got told he'd died.

He just went away a happy man,
as usual...

..and it was not that he'd been
swept overboard,

or the ship had gone down,

it's because he needed somebody who
knew what they were doing.

I know the skipper knows so much
about it but they're not doctors.

But, when you sit down to think
about it,

it's the thing that they should have

They could have got him off and got
him home,

and I could even still have my dad.

I know he'd be old, he'd be
in his 90s.

But, even so, he would still have a
chance of being alive.

Yvonne's mother was left with six
children to bring up.

The women of Hessle Road had lived
with tragedy for generations.

But, in early 1968,

they were to suffer a bereavement of
such magnitude,

they could remain silent no longer.

The triple trawler disaster

would thrust the issues of their
close-knit community

to the very height of national


It began on the tenth of January

when a fleet of trawlers left
St Andrew's Dock

on the early morning tide.

Among them was the St Romanus,
a vessel with a poor reputation.

Dick King was offered the job of

Dick was supposed to take that

..and he said to me,
"I don't fancy going, Min".

And he'd been to sea all his life.

He'd never, ever refused a ship.

He said, "I don't fancy going,

I said, "Well, don't go, love.

"Please don't go."

You know, there's something about it
he didn't like.

He said it wasn't seaworthy.

The ship was eventually taken out by
a young skipper called Jim Wealden.

As well as being considered

there was no radio operator among
his crew.

The idea of going to sea without a
radio operator

is like a blind man
going without a cane, or a dog... a dark street.

In times of trouble,

a Mayday signal sent by the operator

from the powerful equipment held in
the radio room

would be heard around the world.

But the radio in the skipper's

had only a limited range,

leaving the ship isolated.

Now that, in itself, is astounding.

What's even more astounding is that
that wasn't illegal.

At around 7.30am on the tenth of

Jim Wealden was struggling to get
his basic radio to work.

He contacted the trawler owners to
give his position,

then called his wife

to tell her he was unhappy with the

She never heard from him again.


Over the next ten days,

the owners tried in vain to contact
the St Romanus,

but took no further action,

as skippers often maintained radio

if the fishing was good,

to avoid giving away their position
to their competitors.

It wasn't until the 24th of January,

two weeks after initial contact was

that the owners finally alerted the

The same day, in houses off
Hessle Road,

the wives of the crew were informed
that the ship was missing.

Among them was 17-year-old
mother-of-two Denise Hilton,

whose 19-year-old husband Brian was
on board.

I sent him a telegram for our first
wedding anniversary...

..and then these two men were
knocking on the door... say that

they've had no contact with the
ship for so many days

and they're hoping
everything will be all right, like.

So, you're thinking,
"Course it will be.

"Course it will be." You'll get a
telegram tomorrow, or you'll get,

as often you did, a bouquet of
flowers or a basket of fruit.

You're thinking,
"It'll be all right."

But then they come back again and
they said they still haven't heard.

And you're sort of living in a

You feel sick and you don't want to

You're looking at your babies and
you're thinking,

"He has to come back for them."

News of the missing ship spread
gloom across the community.

Ernie Blocher was about to set off
for his next voyage to Iceland.

When I was in the
Kingston Almandine,

we'd actually set sail from Hull

knowing that one ship had already
gone missing,

which was the St Romanus.

There was a lot of sadness aboard
the ship from everybody

because they all thought for the
people back home.

the Kingston Almandine's sister

the Kingston Peridot, announced
she was struggling in bad weather.

In force 12 winds, a build-up of ice
was making her top heavy.

It was every skipper's nightmare.

Ice gathers at a remarkable rate on
a ship.

A ship of 450 tonnes will turn over,
what they call turn turtle,

where the ice is packed upon it,

and it turns very rapidly and

Although no-one received a Mayday
signal from the Peridot,

as the storm passed, and there was
no further contact with her,

nearby vessels were alerted.

We'd been fishing on the east coast
of Iceland

when we got a message from
the insurance buildings in Hull,

telling us that the Kingston Peridot
was missing

in that area where we were.

And would we keep an eye out for it

or look and see if we could find any
signs of it whatsoever?

But we never found anything at all.

On the 29th of January,

the discovery of a life raft
belonging to the ship

led to a full air and sea search.

And when three other life buoys

were found near an oil slick on the

the Kingston Peridot was assumed

along with their crew of 20 men.

More bad news followed,

as the loss of the St Romanus was
officially confirmed.

Another 20 men had perished.

The people of Hessle Road were in

Everyone was talking about it.

Everybody knew one of the men on the

It was a horrible time.

You just walked down Hessle Road and

that would be the topic of

whatever shop you went in.

Hull was home to a fishermen's

a church-run charity that provided
emotional support in time of need.

And it was the job of the port

to break the bad news to the
waiting women.

It was a daunting task for newly
qualified Donald Woolley

who'd only recently been posted to
Hessle Road.

Many of the people who lost their
husbands or partners...

..were of no age at all.

Sometimes late teens.

As were their partners.

But nevertheless, those people,
being young people...

..must have been terribly

by what had happened to them.

One minute, they were happy.

Another minute, they were content.

Another time, they were looking
forward to coming home.

But in actual fact, they were never
to come home.

17-year-old Denise Hilton was the
youngest of the widows.

My brain's thinking,
"Did he fall overboard?

"Was he sleeping in his bunk?

"Was he shouting for me,
for his mam, for his bairns?"

You know, "Was he all fighting
to get out?

"Was it quick?"

And you think,
"God, I hope so."

You look at your children and you

EMOTIONALLY: ..excuse me...

..they're never going to see their
father, grow up.

It was...


Despite the shocking loss of 40
fishermen in two weeks,

it was business as usual for owners
and crews at St Andrew's Dock.

But the women of Hessle Road could
contain themselves no longer.

Wives, mothers, sisters and

now vented their anger at the lack
of safety on the trawlers.

For a start off, there should be a
wireless operator on every ship

because a skipper can't be on the

and in the wireless room at
the same time, can he?

And the owners,
they don't care.

All they're interested in, the fish.

The men, they don't mean a thing to

They couldn't care less what
happened to them.

As long as they're bringing the
fish back.

There's been that many men lost in
the last five years,

that we just aren't going to put up
with it any more.

Even now the owners are trying to...

Emotions were raw.

The double tragedy touched every
woman in the community.

Lil Bilocca worked as a cod skinner
in a fish factory

off St Andrew's Dock.

Her daughter, Virginia, remembers
how her mother reacted to the news.

Even though she was such a private
person normally,

she was shocked and horrified.

She just looked at me and she
thumped her hand

and she said,
"Virginia, enough is enough".

"I'm going to do something about

And I looked at me mam, and I
thought, "Whoa, she means business."

And she said, "I'm going to start a

"for better safety conditions at

Lil Bilocca was not alone.

The pent-up feelings of generations
of women boiled over.

Thousands eagerly signed the

I remember Lil knocking on the doors
with the other ladies,

to sign the petition.

Those in the streets,

those on Hessle Road, clipboards and
signatures, were getting signed.

I don't think there'll be anybody in
Hull that never signed that.

I certainly signed it,
and my family signed it.

That petition got 10,000 signatures
in three days.

In an area that only has 14,000

Imagine that's practically everyone

who could pick up a pen
had signed it.

On Friday the second of February,

Lil Bilocca took her petition to the
Victoria Hall,

where over 500 women gathered to
demand action.

Among them was Yvonne Blenkinsop.

After the death of her father five
years earlier,

she was desperate to get involved.

You couldn't move. It was packed
with people.

There were loads there.

And I mean loads.

There were women of all ages,

from young ones who'd just become
wives of young trawlermen,

there was older ones,

there was people who had already
lost people at sea.

There was all sorts of people there.

Lil told the gathering they were
there to talk about

what they were going to do after the
loss of the two ships.

Action was needed.

She was prepared to go to jail

if it would win better and safer

for men on trawlers.

And she intended to meet

the Prime Minister next week,

and not come back until she had.

Yvonne Blenkinsop was then called to

I just started speaking on the

And I told them about my mum and

and being left alone with six kids,

having to bring them up, and how
hard it was.

I said, "I know how all you out

"if it's hit any one of you in this
room now,

"we know exactly what you're

I said, "And it's got to change.

"We've got to have better safety.

"We can't go on like this for ever
and ever and nobody do anything."

And I said, "We've got to see the

The meeting voted for Yvonne,
Mary Denness,

Lil Bilocca and Chrissy Jensen to
form a committee

to take their demands forward.

Jean Shakespeare was impressed by
what she saw.

Their spirit in Victoria Road,
them ladies,

when they were on stage speaking,

they were saying what we were all
thinking, and wanted to say.

And it was wonderful.

You felt as if something's going to
be done.

The women of Hessle Road were
speaking out like never before.

Do you think, as conditions are at
the moment, they're safe at sea?

Well, no, because they don't have a
regular check

of the safety equipment.

Often it's not even touched and they
don't know what condition it's in.

What do you feel about this

Well, I think it's gone on long

And if we don't do something about
it, nobody will.

The men can't, because they're not
home long enough

to all get together and organise

So we have to do it.

I've always been concerned,

but I've never had the
guts to do owt about it.

But now, I think it's time somebody

And I've made a start. It's up to
these other people to follow me.

And to make these owners sit up and
take bloody notice.

And now, not next year, or the year

Many of the women wanted action
there and then,

so Lil led over 200 of them on a
march down Hessle Road

to confront the owners at
St Andrew's Dock.

We just walked silently down
Hessle Road.

And it was fantastic.

You felt as if, "Right, something is
going to be done."

You know, it was wonderful.

While a deputation of women met with
the owners,

the rest voiced their feelings to
the press.

This was the chance for
Jean Shakesby and her mother

to speak out.

You can see my mother is really

Because it's bad enough losing one

but to lose full ships of men was
just too hard to take.

Lil and the others were fast
becoming a formidable force.

But what can be done?

Lots of things can be done, petal,
and will be done.

We need a safety ship patrolling the
areas 24 hours a day.

Are you a fisherman's wife?
I'm a fisherman's daughter,

who died at sea four years ago.

My mother was widowed with six

I've been born and bred in the
fishing family.

But that's apart from the fact.

We are fighting for the fishermen
who's there now.

I was thinking about getting the job
done for the safety of the men.

That was all.

No! The thing is, our
men are hard-working men.

I wanted something put right that
was wrong.

People should never put money before
people's lives.

For the first time,

Hessle Road's women had stepped out
of their traditional domestic roles,

into a world where they'd previously
been excluded.

And they were getting noticed.

Nothing like this had ever happened

It was a man's domain.

Women sort of, like, never spoke up.

But Mum, with her three other

had the guts and the courage,

and the determination to change

However, the women were about to

just how hard it would be to take on
the system.

After they'd met with the owners,

Michael Burton, chairman of

the Hull Fishing Vessels Owners
Association was asked

if he was sympathetic to the women's

I have much more sympathy with the
relatives who have been lost at sea,

frankly, than...

..a lot of women who are trying

Well, they're not trying,

but are getting carried away on a
wave of mass hysteria.

Well, believe you me,

I wish they'd had put me or my
mother in that room with him.

I'd have shown him what hysterical

because, how dare he...?

He hadn't lost no-one.

You know, that was horrible, to say

We weren't hysterical women.

We were trying to get our husbands,
sons, brothers, whatever, safe.

Dads. We wanted them safe.

But despite the women's good

some of the trawlermen also
disapproved of their actions,

because they lived in fear of the

and were well aware that complaining
could cost you your job.

Frankly, the ordinary fisherman
is a bit sick of all these women

interfering in their own business.

The sooner we get down to dealing
with the men who matter,

rather than the women, the better.

Things took a darker turn when the
women were sent death threats,

and Yvonne Blenkinsop was attacked
in a restaurant off Hessle Road.

As I get to near the door,

he comes straight up to me and
punches me in my face.

Said something about the fishing.
I couldn't hear what he said.

And off he went. Well, I just turned
around and came back again,

didn't go into the toilet.

I said, "I've just been punched in
the face.

"A big one, right in my nose.

"It was a wallop."

They didn't like women standing up
and doing anything then.

Women should be at home,
looking after the children...

..and looking after...

You know what, cleaning, cooking.

They shouldn't be doing that sort of

That's what they were saying.

At home.

But nobody was going to tell
Lil Bilocca what to do.

She wasn't even worried about
breaking the age-old taboo

that prevented women from going to
the docks on sailing day.

She was going down on the next tide
to stop any trawler setting sail

without a radio operator.

I'm going to get aboard that trawler
and stop on unless...

I'll have to be moved off that ship,

I'll have to be carried off.

Unless that ship's got a full
crew, including the radio operator.

The next day, Lil was at the lock

as a batch of trawlers were
leaving for Iceland.

Have you got a full crew, lads?

ALL: Yes! Radio operator?

All the best, flowers.

Then, when a crew told her they had
no radio operator on board,

her moment came.

Lil tried to jump onto the trawler.

I remember my mother struggling,
with six policemen and women.

There she is, struggling, because
she, Mum,

was trying to jump on board a

that Mum thought didn't have
a radio operator on board.

When she went on the dock, when she
was struggling,

police were holding her back. She's
a big woman, don't forget.

But she was a strong woman, an' all.

I worried about her, then.

"Oh, crikey, Lil,"
I said, "Be careful, Lil."

"I'm all right, don't worry about

"I'm all right." That's all you got
from her, you know?

She's that kind of a woman.

She was strong. Whatever she wanted
to do, she'd do it.

That became the photograph on every
front page,

this woman wrestling with the

But the courage involved in that,
what people missed,

had she have managed to jump,

the chances are she would have
killed herself.

It was an extremely dangerous and
headstrong thing to do.

But she was a very headstrong woman.

Do you think you're doing any good
with this vigil?

Certainly. Certainly.

What do you think you're doing?

Well, it stops a ship from going

without a radio operator,
haven't we?

That's a start. It's not the finish,
it's a start.

How much more of this do you intend
to do?

The rest of my life.

How do you regard yourself,
Mrs Bilocca?

As a sort of suffragette?

Don't be daft! How, then?

Why are you doing this?
Because I'm a mother.

As a mother, Lil had once tried to
prevent her son, Ernie,

from becoming a trawlerman.

Now she knew he was fishing in the
same treacherous waters

that had just claimed the lives of
40 men.

But what she didn't know was the
worst storm in living memory

was bearing down on the fleet.

The weather had got that bad... increased from medium-heavy
weather to just unworkable.

In the space of...

..30 minutes.
It happened very, very quickly.

So what we did, we hauled

all the gear back on board the

..tied it down. What you call
lashing it down.

Tied it all down. Secured it.

And by then, it was a full-blown
raging storm.

Over a dozen Hull trawlers battled
through the waves

to get to the shelter
of a nearby fjord.

As hurricane-force winds brought
driving snow,

deadly ice started to build up on
the ships.

While his wife, Jean, was protesting
on Hessle Road,

Ken Shakesby was
on the Kingston Garnet.

The seas were absolutely ridiculous.

Everybody's off the deck,

and we have a watch looking out on
the bridge,

radar, three or four men, skipper,
mate, watch keepers, looking out,

listening and everything, you know?

Trying to get to safety, because it
was so big, the seas.

They would have just filled us.

And with the ice top-up, we would
have just eventually keeled over.

After hours spent hacking ice from
the Kingston Almandine,

in a desperate attempt to stop her

an exhausted Ernie Bilocca had taken
to his bunk

while the storm raged on.

You get to know the motion of a ship
after a while.

You know when it goes to one side,
it'll come back up again,

goes to the other, comes back up

This particular time, you can feel
the actual seas

and you can hear them pounding
aboard the ship.

You know, you've got hundreds
of tonnes of water

crashing onto the ship.

And you know, boom-boom-boom-boom,
that's OK.

Boom-boom-boom. Blimey, that's
getting a bit...

By then, you expect it to start to
come back.

I actually thought, we was going to

We were laid out at an angle,

..I didn't think things were going
to come up right again.

Well, I was that exhausted at the

because of the work and what we'd
been doing on the deck,

the long hours,

I never had the energy... get out of my bunk.

If that ship had have sank, I would
have still been laid in my bunk.

Back on the Kingston Garnet,

Ken Shakesby heard on the radio

that the nearby Ross Cleveland was
in trouble.

And through the blizzard,
he could just about see her.

You could see the flashing
of his light.

Bearing in mind,
he's moving up and down,

and you're looking for the light.

And sometimes the snow,
it gives you false images.

But then we would say,
"There's the light."

And then we heard the skipper
saying, this Phil Gay,

he kept saying,
"She's going, she's going.

"And I can't do anything about it.

"Give my love to my wife
and to the crew's families."

We're looking, and then...

..the lights have gone.

And there's nothing on the screen

It was just after midnight,
on Monday the fifth of February,

when the Ross Cleveland sank.

Another 19 fishermen
were presumed dead.

News of the Cleveland's loss
stunned the Hessle Road community.

A double trawler tragedy

now became
the triple trawler disaster.

Despite the enormous losses,

port missionary Donald Woolley
witnessed an extraordinary spirit

of resilience amongst the women.

These people were really quite
remarkable in themselves.

Some of them were older,
some of them were younger,

but I think I've never seen bravery
as I saw during those few days.

They were brave
because they had to carry on.

They were brave
because they had to manage a home.

They were brave because the children
had to go to school.

They wanted to show not only...

..their own love to their

..but sometimes I think they wanted
them to... their dad's love.

But he was never going to be there

However, some women still struggled
to accept the loss of their men.

The local church arranged a memorial
service to help them.

And there's hundreds,
hundreds of people.

And you walk in there, and
all the flowers are laid out,

and then they start playing
Abide With Me and...


all that kind of thing.

And that makes it real.

That made it real. Even though
you didn't have a body...

..all them people coming together,
not just my family,

all of the other trawlermen's
families, that's what made it real.

Meanwhile, the Government
ordered an inquiry,

and summoned the trawler owners for

on safety in the fishing industry.

But it was the women's campaign that
still drove the impetus for change.

The next day, Lil, Yvonne and Mary

travelled to London
to a special meeting

with top government ministers.

I was dead centre to this one in the

who turned out to be the head

As I sat down, I said,

"I hope we're going to get these

and just said that, as I sat down,
"All of them."

And he just smiled at
me, to begin with.

Then they started at the end
and came through.

Each of them, saying what they were
saying, the girls and whatever.

He came to me.
Then I said all my things.

I said, "I've got a lot here,
I'm afraid."

But I said, "I'm not going out of
here until I know I've got them.

"And I hope I do get them."

I said, "They should always have a
radio operator

"on board the trawler, always."

I said we needed a mothership.

We needed more modern materials
to use on our ships.

Why can't we use some of the stuff
that's used in the aeroplanes,

that's light and can be used?

Why can't they find something that
could maybe...

..stop the ice going so far
and being so heavy?

There must be something
in this day and age.

The women also wanted trawlers
designed for better safety,

restrictions placed on the use of
inexperienced decky learners

and a ban on fishing in poor

When we was coming out, I said,

"Petal, are we going to have these
things, then?"

And he said, "You are, my dear."

Real nice. With a big smile.

He agreed with everything
all of us were saying,

because it all needed doing.

Everything. Every one.

Now that was good.

There was more good news to follow.

Reports of a miracle survivor.

This is Isafjordur, the wild, icy
north-west coast of Iceland,

some of the worst weather the island
has ever seen.

Now into this remote, freezing
fishing port

has come a British seaman
who survived a dying ship.

26-year-old Harry Eddom was
the mate on the Ross Cleveland.

He survived in a life raft in which
two of his colleagues had died.

The news was broken to
Yvonne Blenkinsop

and the others while they were still
in London.

Somebody comes in the door.

"They've found one!

"They've found one!"

A survivor? A survivor?

Yes! It was Harry Eddom.

I thought that was marvellous.

"They've found one,
they've found one!"

We were all absolutely thrilled.

Harry Eddom's miraculous survival
quickly gained huge press attention,

making the triple trawler disaster
and the women's campaign for safety

an international news story.

Newsreel cameras were there to film
him reunited with his young family.

TELEVISION: Now the ordeal of
Harry Eddom was over.

He was back with his wife, Rita,

and their seven-month-old daughter,

The Eddom family were news,
good news in a time of tragedy.

The lone survivor will be a key

in Government and Board of Trade
inquiries into the disasters.

But first, there was the happiness
of being home to enjoy.

Despite appearing in front of the

Harry was so traumatised by his

that he's never spoken publicly
about it.

But he did speak privately to port
missionary Donald Woolley,

who previously comforted his wife

When Harry came back, I had the
privilege of going to see him.

And we had

a natter about the things that...

..had happened to him.

But before I left his home, he said
to me...

"I've got something for you."

And he went to the sideboard

and he took out a copy of
the New Testament,

which had been given to him in

And he said, "Do you have any

And I said, "Yes. We had the one
son, Richard."

And so Harry took his pen and signed
inside that New Testament,

to Richard, from Harry Eddom.

That New Testament has been on our
shelves in our little office

for 50 years.

We are proud to have received it
from Harry,

a man who I respect tremendously.

Following the success in London,

Lil Bilocca and the others returned
to Hull,

where they reported back to the
women of Hessle Road.

Of course it was wonderful to say,
"Well, I've met with Parliament,

"we've got what we've asked for."

It just erupted.

All the women, it was so lovely.

You just felt euphoric after all the
tragedy that had gone on,

that something is going to be done.

It won't bring our men back,
we know that.

But it would help maybe the future

And at the time, my husband was one
of them.

But it was a wonderful atmosphere in
that hall.

88 safety measures were enacted

in response to the women's campaign.

The first to be implemented was a

complete with up-to-date medical and
radio facilities.

Their Fishermen's Charter laid the

for safety at sea
for generations to come.

Welcomed by all, including those who
had once been resistant to change.

As Mrs Denness said upon her
return... Hull, "We did more in six days

"than trade unions and politicians
have done in a century."

There's no doubt about it, there's
people walking the streets today

who otherwise wouldn't be,
countless thousands of lives,

future lives saved by making
the most dangerous...

..industry on earth that much more

Despite the success of the women's

by the early 1970s, the future of
Hull's fishing fleet

was looking increasingly uncertain.

In 1972, the Cod War broke out,

as Iceland imposed restrictions on
fishing rights in its waters.

In the ensuing battle,
the Royal Navy was called in,

as Icelandic gunships rammed Hull's
trawlers and cut their nets.

By the end of 1976,
Iceland had won the Cod War.

With access denied to its rich
fishing grounds,

Hull's fishing industry fell into a
sharp decline

from which it never recovered.

The effect on the Hessle Road
community was devastating.

Sadly, trawlers were getting
scrapped on one hand,

and also the bulldozers were moving
in to the streets of Hessle Road.

And the fishing families and the
Hessle Roaders

were being moved out to modern

As the old fishing industry slowly

so too did the memory of what
Lil Bilocca

and the other campaigners had

And when Lil died in 1988 at the
age of 59, there was little fanfare.

I said to Audrey, my partner,
"Let's go to the funeral,"

expecting there to be lots of

You know? I knew it was going to be
at the Boulevard Baptist.

We thought there'd be loads there.

Anyway, nobody.

Just the family group went in,
and the hearse comes along,

and nobody in the streets.

For a woman who had fought for
trawler safety,

it was a sad way for her
to end her life.

Once home to the largest deep-sea
fishing fleet on earth,

St Andrew's Dock is now a wasteland.

But it's also a place of remembrance

for some of the families of Hull's
lost trawlermen.

Denise Hilton comes here to remember
her husband, Brian.

There's never an 18th of January
I forget,

which would have been our
wedding anniversary.

His birthday's the ninth of

The time he got lost, the tenth
and the 11th of January.

And my children have always known
about Brian.

The grandchildren,
even the great-grandchildren.

My little Ayla, she's going to be
nine this week.

They've just been doing something at
school about the trawlers.

Obviously she could say, "Well, my
great-grandad was on there."

Because they don't know him,
but they know of him.

Any questions they've ever wanted
answered, I've answered them.

They say, "Will they see us, Nana?"

I say, "Yeah, but they're just
in another room."

They're always in here.

And that's all you can say about

They're always in here.
Can't take that away from them.

In 1968,

Lil Bilocca led the women of
Hessle Road

on one of the most successful
protest movements

of the last 50 years.

Together with Mary Denness,
Chrissy Jensen

and Yvonne Blenkinsop,

she transformed the attitude to
safety at sea

and helped save the lives of
untold thousands of men.

They should have an award...

..for what they did.

And I was happy, proud,

and so was my mother, to march
behind them ladies.

And I'd do it again tomorrow.

Today, Yvonne Blenkinsop is the last
surviving leader

of Hull's Headscarf Heroes.

I'm so pleased
and so proud I did do it.

I just wanted to do a job, and do it

And get the safety for our men.

Because our trawlermen more than
deserved it.

More than deserved it.