As Northern English cities go, Hull is generally regarded as punching under its weight. It’s got character though – oh aye, bags of that.
Hull is most famous for its cream-coloured municipal telephone boxes, for its Rugby League teams, and for a distinctive local accent that pronounces “phone” as “fern” and “smoke” as “smirk”. Less well known is the immense popularity that the late (and rather scarily camp) singer Dorothy Squires enjoyed in the city.
But – and this is really important – the city has a very strong working class culture.
The Headscarf Revolutionaries, a new book by Brian W. Lavery, lionises that working class culture – mainly by examining and artfully chronicling the heroic struggle by a group of Hull women to improve the safety of fishermen.
It all began with a petition raised by fishwife Lily ‘Big Lil’ Bilocca in response to disappearance of three Hull trawlers in early 1968. All three vessels (the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot, and the Ross Cleveland) went down within three weeks of each other. Fifty-eight crew members died. There was just one survivor.
The tragedy – and the bold actions of Bilocca and fellow women campaigners – brought widespread national publicity to the dangerous working conditions endured by fishing crews of that era, and to the lack of efficient radio communications on board trawlers.
Bilocca led an army of fishwives to the docks, to the newspapers, and also on a memorable raid on Parliament. She organised a huge petition calling for reform of the fishing trade, and in particular for an end to sailing without a full crew. She and her supporters carried out direct action, trying to stop boats leaving Hull’s dockside and even threatening to picket the then Prime Minister’s Harold Wilson’s house if he didn’t bring in reforms.
Her campaign eventually succeeded, with many new safety measures introduced, including making it compulsory for every trawler to have a full-time radio operator.
The first thing the author Lavery does in the book is tell us about the old fishing docks by the city’s Hessle Road. It was a scene of clattering clogs, knockers-up rapping on bedroom windows with poles, and “two-up-two-down houses, nestled among processing factories, smokehouses, pubs, shops and icehouses”.
I have strong memories of hearing the Humber fog horns (as described by the author, among many other colourful and atmospheric details) on nights that I walked back to the city centre along Hessle Road after mammoth drinking sessions. I lived in the city from 2001 to 2002 when I was a staff columnist on the Hull Daily Mail and, as a writer, always tried to hold to account the bombastic and self-important elements of Hull – including the former MP and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
The notoriously media-sensitive Prescott once directed a version of Alex Ferguson’s ‘hairdryer’ treatment down the phone to my editor at the Hull Daily Mail, during which the Deputy PM described me in the most vulgar and insulting of terms. Prezza’s outburst was all because I’d written a mildly satirical diary column piece about him and his wife Pauline. Hey, I’m a hack; I can take it. We’ll let it pass.
And Prescott – to his credit – writes in a glowing foreword to this book: “There was great personal cost for Lily, who was not only targeted by death threats and attacks in her own community but was blacklisted, lost her job and crucified in the press.”
As for Lavery, he goes into great detail about the personal circumstances of the key players in this story; not just of Bilocca and her pals but also of the trawler skippers and crew. It’s genuinely moving when he recreates the moment Bilocca returns home from her shift at the fish-house, during the anxious time of the missing ships, and decides to take action by drawing up a petition and writing to the Hull Daily Mail and the ship owners. At that time, Bilocca’s 21-year-old son was out on a trawler (not one of the missing ones) and her other half, Charlie, was aboard a cargo ship. They were in the same rough cold seas off Scandinavia as the missing men.
Bilocca and her friends in the campaign didn’t just ruffle the vested interests of the ship and fish factory owners. Some of the local working class resented the campaigners’ highlighting of the fact that drunken crew members were often signed up for service at sea. The masters – ever in pursuit of maximum profits – were quite willing to cut corners, even when safety would be jeopardised.
Also, when Bilocca went on the Eamonn Andrews TV show in the late 1960s, lots of people sent vitriolic letters to her saying she was common, fat, ugly and a whore. Some of those comments are replicated in this book – and they read like the vile trollery found in today’s social media.
Overall, this book pays homage to Bilocca and her gutsy fellow women campaigners. Among my favourite parts are the account of sole survivor of the tragedy, Harry Eddom, waking up on a life raft to realise that a teenage ‘decky’ lad had saved his life; Bilocca trying to jump aboard a trawler because it had no radio operator on board and her subsequent scuffle with the police; and reporters being told by their news desk to ask a trade union official, ‘are you a Commie?’.
On a personal note, I also enjoyed the references to the beautiful St Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic church in Hull as that was my parish church when I lived there. The author is incorrect, though, to describe it as a cathedral.
Small errors aside, this book gives rise to a timely philosophical reflection on what working class communities can achieve in their struggles – something to think about as the new Tory Government creaks into action.
The 200-odd pages might also serve as a marker for Hull as it prepares to stun us as the UK City of Culture 2017. I do hope there will be some interesting fringe cabaret shows, maybe about Dorothy Squires?
By Steve Regan
To read Brian W. Lavery’s account of writing the book for Northern Soul, click here