Friday 29 April 2022

Britain says "Farewell" and "Thankyou" to the last of Hull's 'Headscarf Heroes', Yvonne Blenkinsop

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In 1968, the news of what became known as 'The Triple Trawler Tragedy' and the deaths of the 58 seamen from Hull, hit hard at the whole of its  fishing community. Then, unexpectedly, a redoubtable group of four women, led by Lillian Bilocca with Christine Jensen, Mary Denness and Yvonne Blenkinsop, who were fishermen’s family members, sprang into life and decided to do something more than weep : They would fight to make the industry safer. Those four women have now taken their place in Britain's history as 'The  Headscarf Heroes of Hull' and the last remaining member of the four, Yvonne Blenkinsop, has now passed away at the age of eighty-three.(link)

Eighty years ago, the Hull trawler fleet was the biggest fishing fleet in the world and deep sea fishing in Arctic waters a thousand miles away was the most dangerous work anywhere on the face of the globe. Every year the trawlermen brought in up to a quarter of a million tons of fish – 25% of Britain’s total catch. However, health and safety procedures on the trawlers were almost non-existent and fatal accidents in which men were lost overboard or killed by unsafe equipment were commonplace. As a result a hull trawlerman was 17 times more likely to be killed at work than the average British industrial worker. 

The trawler, the 'St Romanus' sailed from Hull and on into those wintery waters in January 1968. It had either a full and experienced crew, nor a properly qualified radio operator to work the ship’s powerful main transmitter. Communications with home was left in the hands of the young and relatively inexperienced skipper, using a much less powerful bridge-mounted radio telephone. The last contact with the boat came in a the telephone call on the evening of the day they sailed, January 10th. Then, on hearing nothing more, the owners, thinking the skipper wanted to keep their position from other trawlers did nothing. They finally decided to raise the alarm on January 26th and a search began, but by January 30 the families were told that there was little hope for the vessel and her crew of 20.(link) 

A second trawler, the 'Kingston Peridot' had also sailed from Hull on January 10 with a crew of 20, and by January 26 she was fishing off north-east Iceland in foul weather. She radioed another trawler that she was having difficulties with ice build-up on the ship and moved east to join them. Nothing further was heard from the boat and on January 29 one of her life rafts was washed ashore. News of her loss reached Hull on January 30, just as hope was fading for the crew of  'The St Romanus'.(link)

The third trawler, the 'Ross Cleveland'
, sailed on January 20, before the loss of the first two trawlers became known. She was bound for the north coast of Iceland with a full crew. Conditions at sea atrocious and on February 3 she made for Isafjordur, a narrow and relatively sheltered inlet on Iceland’s north-west coast. A hurricane-force snowy storm was raging and a dangerous amount of ice was forming on the vessels’ superstructure and radar masts.
The captain attempted to move her to a safer position on the evening of February 4, but the ship, overwhelmed by the wind and sea, capsized began to sink. Skipper Phil Gay, sent this final tragic radio message : “I am going over. We are laying over. Help me. I am going over. Give my love and the crew’s love to the wives and families”. Other ships attempted to assist, but were overwhelmed by the savage storm and more vessels were wrecked in Isafjordur that night, one an Icelandic trawler, with the loss of all hands.

News of  'Ross Cleveland' sinking reached Hull on February 5, six days after that of  Kingston Peridot'. At first it was believed all aboard Ross Cleveland had died, but on February 6 Harry Eddom, the mate, washed ashore in a life raft just about clinging to life. The other two men on the raft had died of exposure.(link)

Yvonne was born in the Spring of 1938 and was the oldest of six children. In 1954 her father died after having had a heart attack whilst at sea on board the fishing trawler 'Loch Melfort'. (link) At the age of 16 and with her mother debilitated by a nervous condition caused by the bombing of Hull in the Second World War, she now became head of the family with responsibility for looking after her younger siblings in their two-up, two-down accommodation in Hessle Road. At the time of the tragedies she was working cabaret singer in the city and was herself, at the age of 30, a mother-of-three when three Hull trawlers sank. Known as the 'Golden Girl with the Golden Voice',  beneath the bouffant blond hair and within the sequined stage dress resided an, as yet, hidden orator and savvy political negotiator, who would now successfully operate in the male dominated worlds of fishing and politics. 

Stirred by the tragedies and the memory of her father's death at sea Yvonne worked at night and in the early hours and wrote down in a notebook the thoughts that had been keeping awake at night, under a series of headings underneath which she listed the names of ship owners, politicians and union men to write to :

She read her Bible and prayed more often and the living room where she worked was dotted with Catholic iconography and the walls with pictures of biblical scenes which gave her comfort. Worried about Yvonne's sleep deprivation her husband John said : "C'mon love. You really want to stop this y'know. You are down here at all hours. You've had no sleep for days". She glanced at her Bible and said : "I feel I am being led. If something is wrong, you have to do something about it. I don't know what. I know I have to do what's right. I am not at work tomorrow. Maybe I can do something then ?"

After the first two trawlers went missing, it was on Hessle Road, where most of Hull's fishing families lived, that groups of women gathered in fear. Yvonne recalled : "We were all standing outside Victoria Hall in huddles, talking in whispers. There were prams and pushchairs everywhere. Someone got the keys for the hall and that was it. Once the doors of Victoria Hall were opened, everything changed".(link)

She knew, that after all the nights of soul searching, this would be her moment. She phoned her husband John from the local call box and said : "Hello love, it's me. Can you bring my PA and my mike and stuff to Victoria Hall right away ?" When he arrived he rigged up the PA system on the stage for Yvonne as he had done hundreds of times for her gigs. She recalled : “You couldn’t move, it was packed with people. There was loads there, and I mean loads. There was women of all ages, from young ones who’s just become wives of young trawlermen, there was older ones, there was people who’d already lost people at sea. There was all sorts of people there”.

At the start of the meeting it was announced that one of the trawler bosses, Mark Hellyer, had let it be known that he would be prepared to meet the wives representatives and in addition four women were needed to represent their campaign in London where in the Palace of Westminster two Government ministers would hear their demands with instructions by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, that they were to help them.

When it came to her turn speak she said : "You all know me. I'm off Hessle Road and I know the anguish these lasses and families that have lost men are going through. My Dad died at sea just four years back. Me Ma was left with six kids. I am the oldest. We all had to pull together. These men are in danger all the time, especially at this time of year. Signal equipment on vessels is inadequate and depends on being connected to a battery or a generator or an engine. There should be rockets and flares set off automatically by detonators and there should be a bleep signal on the bridge for the skipper to set off an emergency, independent of any batteries and the like. The Germans have things like that on their trawlers".

At each point Yvonne made, the crowd cheered. She delivered without notes and from the heart and the crowd knew it. She continued : "And the ships our men are on should be painted with luminous paint to make it easier to see them in the dark Arctic winter seas. Surely scientists can make something that will melt the black ice that builds up on them ships and makes them keel over". She went on : "We all have to fight for our men, even if we have to go and confront the Prime Minister".  With her natural and powerful oratory, Yvonne had earned her place as one of the four women who were to present their case at Westminster.

In the crowd was twenty-nine year old, John Prescott, who, 29 years later would become Deputy Prime Minister in Tony Blair's Labour Government. At this time, however, the twenty-nine year old John, who had been a steward and waiter in the Merchant Navy and was a popular left-wing, National Union of Seamen activist, in his last year studying for a BSc degree in Economics at the University of Hull. He recognised Yvonne from her speech at the Victoria Hall the previous week and approached her and said : "You should join us in the Union, love. We could do with folk like you". To which she replied : "I am very flattered Petal, but I just want to get what we can for our men. I am not interested in unions or politics".

Led by Lil Bilocca whose father, husband and son were all trawlermen, Yvonne joined Mary Denness, the wife of a trawler skipper and Christine Smallbone, the sister of a skipper to form 
'The Hessle Road Women's Committee'. Their first objective was to start a petition to lobby Parliament to bring safety regulations for the fishing industry. 'Big Lil' led a march to the Docks, gathering signatures and battling with the police as they tried to board vessels to inspect for safety and prevent dangerous trawlers leaving port. (link)  

John Prescott helped the women build a giant cardboard cod, which they wheeled around the City, emblazoned in red with the words : 

The women now made the pages of the national press when the Daily Mirror referred to their 'HEADSCARF PROTEST'. This earned them the hostility of the trawler owners, who refused to meet them with Michael Burton, the Chairman of the Hull Fish Vessels Owners' Association saying : "The sooner we get down to the men who matter, rather than the women, the better". (link) They also faced hostility from the trawlermen themselves, as Yvonne said : "They didn't want women messing in their business. They should be at home, looking after the kids, cooking, cleaning".(link)

A few days after the meeting, with a babysitter booked John and Yvonne booked a table for a meal at the Continental Restaurant on the Princes Dock Side in the Old Town area of Hull. Yvonne's topics of conversation were still what they what it had been all week : the trawlers, the fishing bosses, what they should do next and her plans about meeting Hellyer the following week and the trip to London. Unbeknownst to the couple, another restaurant customer had been listening to their conversation and as she left John at the table and went the the Ladies' Powder Room, the man accosted her and said : "Hey! You should keep yer fucking nose out o' men's business". He then assaulted Yvonne when he punched her squarely in the face.(link) She screamed and as she fell, he pushed her against the wall and ran past and made his escape. In the conversation which followed with her husband Yvonne said : "He just came at me John. He hit me full force". John replied with : "Yvonne, love, are you sure you want to go on with this ? I mean, there's more like him out there". To which she replied : "I've got to go on with it John, otherwise buggers like him will win, wont they ? I cant have that can I ?  I got to do this John. You know I do".(link)

In addition to Yvonne suffering an assault, Lil Bilocca was sacked from her job as a fish filleter and had to have police protection after receiving death threats. Yvonne's resolve to fight the campaign to improve safety at sea was strengthened and she said it : "Dominated my days. It became my life and my job. I even forget about my husband and daughter's birthdays, which i would never normally do. I was so engrossed in what I was doing". 

Lil, Mary and Yvonne formed the trio who journeyed to King's Cross Station the following week. Christine stayed in Hull after learning that her brother, the skipper of the Ross Cleaveland had gone down with his ship two days before. Their journey south had been well publicised and 'Evening Standard' billboards read : 'BIG LILL HITS TOWN'. As a consequence the waiting crowd of press and public were kept back behind crown barriers. The women were now joined by Jack Jones (right), a powerful and respected trade union leader, who later that year would be elected as the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. (link)

When the women were now driven to meet the ministerial delegation in the Palace of Westminster they carried with them their 'Fishermen's Charter', which enshrined many of the demands Yvonne had formulated in her notes written late at night on her living room table : For each ship : a full, properly trained crew; a radio operator; twelve hourly contact between the ship at sea and owners on land: improved safety equipment and a safety representative; suspension of fishing in winter on the norther Icelandic coast and the creation of a 'Mother Ship' containing medical facilities for each fleet of ships and lastly : the call for a Royal Commission to be set up to examine these demands.

What the women didn't know was that the delegation they now met had already been fully briefed as to their demands and was led after lunch by Fred Peart (left), the MP for Doncaster and Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and J. P. W. Mallalieu, the MP for Huddersfield and a Minister at the Board of Trade. They themselves were accompanied by Jack Jones.

Yvonne recalled : “I was dead centre to this one in the middle who turned out to be the head minister, and as I sat down I said : "I hope we’re going to get these things. I aren’t going out of here until I know I’ve got em ". Yvonne told Mallalieu : "I'm not going to stop before I have gone through the whole lot for you, Petal ".(link) Yvonne did exactly that : "I said there should always have a radio operator on board the trawler, always. I said we needed a 'mother ship'. We needed more modern materials to use on our ships. Why can’t we use some of this 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?” Apparently the men laughed when Yvonne told Peart : "Listen 'Petal', we are not going until we have had our satisfaction". When the meeting finished the women shook the men's hands and Mallalieu told them : "You've got it ladies. You have got it all. I promise". 

What the women didn't know, at the time, was that Prime Minister Wilson, who was in the USA for talks with President Johnson, had been fully briefed by Jack Jones before the meeting and had told Peart and Mallalieu to report to him that day and to help the women in any way they could. As the woman headed towards the car which would take them to King's Cross and the journey home Mary Denness told the press : "Three women have achieved more in one day than anything that has been done in the trawler industry in sixty years". When they got to the station Jack Jones told the Press that there would be a meeting the next day with trawler bosses and trade union representatives to discuss the implementation of the points in the Charter. 

On their return to Hull the women reported to the women of Hessle Road and had the satisfaction of seeing one of the key demands, the 'Mother ship', delivered within weeks. Yvonne recalled : “We had it in no time at all. I was flabbergasted we got it so quickly”. (link)  However, Yvonne said success in Hull was tempered by the fact that with the exception of one fishing company, J Marr and Co, the trawler owners were not prepared to invest in safety and new ships. “They just wanted the money coming in. Thank God for Grimsby”

By the early 1970s the future of Hull’s fishing fleet was looking increasingly uncertain. In 1972, the ‘Cod War’ broke out between the United Kingdom and Iceland, 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.(link) Yvonne said she thought it was “disgraceful” there was no longer a fishing industry operating out of Hull and said : “I think the owners pulled up the gangplank when they had to fork out for safety” and poignantly added : “And all those men that died and ships that have gone down”.

After the meeting Yvonne continued to campaign for several years and then returned to the stage as a professional singer until a car crash, in the mid 1970s, ended her career. As the old fishing industry disappeared, so too did the memory of what Lil Bilocca and the other campaigners had achieved and when Lil died in 1988, at the age of 59, there was little fanfare.(link) Then, in the twenty-first century interest in the 'Headscarf Heroes' as they became known, returned and with it, Yvonne was consulted by researchers from tv and radio documentary makers and also from the theatre world. 

With Hull as 'City of Culture' for 2017, the ‘headscarf heroes’ were remembered and honoured on new memorial benches and in street murals. In 2018, BBC 4 televised the documentary, 'Hull’s Headscarf Heroes'(link)Steve Humphries, the Director said : "For me, interviewing and filming these men and women was one of the biggest challenges I have ever experienced as a producer and director. Fifty years on, the emotions of those involved remain as raw as they were at the time"

In the same year the actor, Maxine Peake, was so inspired by their lifesaving campaign she wrote a play, 'The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca' (link), which opened at Hull's Guildhall as part of the City of Culture celebration. However, she said, while doing research for it in Hull she asked people what they thought of Lil, she was amazed by some of the responses : “I was taken aback by how much hate and anger there was about what happened. Some disliked being told what to do by women. Others claimed the cost of safety measures was prohibitive and the women were scapegoats for an industry already in decline. Undeterred she said : “I want to tell the story of ordinary women who have lived extraordinary lives. Those roles of strong opinionated women have largely been airbrushed from theatre and film”.

In 2018 Yvonne insisted, despite her health problems, on appearing in person to receive the 'Freedom of the City of Hull. She became only the third woman in 130 years to be awarded the Freedom and her co-campaigners were posthumously recognised with their families given civic scrolls. She said: "I didn't expect anything at all like this, it's lovely, and my family keep saying 'I'm so proud of you mum' and I'm so proud of them. I'm not shy normally but I put my head down a few times because I didn't know what to do. But I'm very grateful, after 50 years one doesn't expect to get this sort of thing. I feel very honoured that I've got something wonderful to pass on to my children." 

Lil Bilocca and the women of Hessle Road are now, belatedly recognised as having driven one of the most successful protest movements of the last 50 years. Together they transformed the attitude to safety at sea and helped save the lives of untold thousands of men. (link)

John Prescott said : "As a young trade unionist and seaman, I was in awe of what Yvonne and her 'Headscarf Revolutionaries' achieved and was proud to campaign alongside them. They took on the might of the trawler industry and secured changes to shipping laws that save countless lives for people who went to sea. She was the very best of Hull, an inspiration to me and we will not see her like again".

Fifty-six years before. Yvonne had told the Victoria Hall meeting : 

"No one would get me to go to sea, not for a million pounds, but our men do it and our men are fools with hearts of gold to do it. They are too busy providing for families to fight for rights. We'll do it for them".

In grateful acknowledgement to the interviews Brian Lavery made with Yvonne recorded in his book : 'The Headscarf Revolutionaries'.(link)

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

My tweet : 

and your replies : 

Stan : 'Fantastically researched and written piece - many thanks and lovely tribute to Hull's 'Headscarf Heroes' - well worth a read.

Andrew : 'Superb John.

Mandy : A wonderful tribute to a remarkable woman.

Doug : Very interesting article, hard to imagine how tough those fishing trips must have been.

Paul : That's really good, John. Lovely piece.

Sian : Really good read, thank you !

Justin : Brilliant, thank you.

Lordess Leftessa : What an excellent piece of writing. My great uncle was a fisherman, and died when he was washed overboard. My family were keen followers of this movement, and in particular Yvonne, who my uncle heard speak in Hull. I was terrible sad to hear of her death, but what a life !

Darren : This is wonderful.

Dr Kevin : Very interesting piece - highly recommended.

John : Lovely blog post and a fine account of an impressive woman - thanks for sharing.

Hull Images : This is well worth a read.

Maureen : I worked on a fish dock at this time your article brought all back with crying for all men lost and what these women did. I have never forgotten those days, all the ladies are special. RIP.

The Cassandra Centre : Thank you, John. She was a remarkable woman. They all were.

Journey to Justice. That's a fantastic piece & we will share it far & wide. Rest in Power Yvonne. Everyone should know the Headscarf Revolutionaries.

Awake Not woke : Hi John, thank you. It's a good read. I was also from Hessle Road. I have read books about the headscarf revolutionaries and I was lucky enough to meet Yvonne a couple of years ago in the Holy Trinity Church in Hull. Yvonne was a lovely lady, may she rest in peace.

Darren : That's fabulous John.

Hugh : Thank you for sharing this excellent article John, so good to get so much background behind the story. And what a story it was.

Tuesday 19 April 2022

Britain is no country for those women who will live shorter lives than their counterparts around the world

It was twelve years ago that Professor Ruth Lister, Head of the Department of Applied Social Studies at the University of Bradford, argued that within poorer households, it was women who did the hard work of managing poverty and debt, which was difficult, time consuming and tiring. Women were more likely to suffer time and income poverty than men and she coined the phrase that they acted as the : “Shock absorbers of poverty”.

Britain is a country with four nations : Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the richest, England and it is here that women in its poorest areas have been shown to be dying earlier than the average female in almost every comparable country in the world. Research by the 'Health Foundation' showed that millions of women living in the most deprived areas of England can expect to live 78.7 years, almost eight years fewer than those living in England’s wealthiest areas. The Foundation did not examine the other three kingdoms, but this kind of difference between women in wealthy and deprived areas could also be replicated there. 

Jo Bibby, the 'Director of Health' at the Health Foundation said : "The Government has committed to addressing stalling life expectancy and this has been described as a core part of the 'Levelling Up' agenda, however, it has so far failed to acknowledge the mountain it needs to climb to bring life chances in the UK in line with other comparable countries”. She said it must focus on providing secure jobs, adequate incomes, decent housing and quality education to improve women’s health in the poorest areas, otherwise 'Levelling Up' : “Will remain little more than a slogan”. She also said : When OECD countries are ranked by life expectancy, the UK comes in 25th – a somewhat disappointing showing for the world’s fifth-largest economy”. 

Hannah Davies, the 'Health Inequalities' lead at the 'Northern Health Science Alliance' was not involved with the research, but described the findings as “Shocking” and : “Inequalities between the richest and poorest in England are morally and economically unacceptable and the devastating impact they’re having on the poorest women is shown here clearly. If the Government is to achieve its healthy life expectancy goals, it cannot ignore deprivation in the UK and must invest in helping those worst affected by the cost of living crisis through significant, funded support”.

Clare Bambra, a Professor of Public Health at Newcastle University, also not involved in the analysis, said it highlighted the “vast scale” of health inequalities in England, which were “likely to worsen through the very real health threats posed by the rising cost of living”.

The statistics are stark : Women living in the 10% most deprived parts of England have a lower life expectancy at 78.7 years, than the average woman in countries such as :

* Colombia at 79.8 years

* Latvia at 79.7 years

* Hungary at 79.6 years 

only : 

Mexico, at 77.9 years has a lower overall life expectancy than women in the poorest parts of England.

Within Britain itself some of the most deprived areas in England include the local authority areas of Blackpool, Knowsley, Liverpool and Middlesbrough and the least deprived areas include Chiltern, Hampshire, Hart and Rutland. The gap in life expectancy between women in the richest and poorest areas is 7.7 years. Those women in the 10% least deprived areas in England live on average 86.4 years which is higher than the overall life expectancy for women in any OECD country, except Japan, which has the highest level for all OECD countries at 87.3 years.

Incredibly, Jo Bibby would have been able to say of women in Britain, had she lived in 1922 and can still say in Britain in 2022 : 

"The stark reality is that the poorest can expect to live shorter and less healthy lives than their richer counterparts”. 

Thursday 14 April 2022

Britain says "Good Bye" to one 'honorable' old Etonian called Mick May, who left City banking to rehabilitate ex-cons with work and then faced an early death with nobility

Mick, who was born in Aldershot, Hampshire in the Autumn of 1958 and has died at the age of sixty-three, was the son of Liz and Peter, a career soldier and brigadier who had served as an officer in the Durham Light Infantry during the Second World War and won a Military Cross in 1941 for leading his men on a heroic charge to capture a fort at Capuzzo on the Libyan-Egyptian border. After his father retired from the Army, the family of three children grew up in “genteel poverty” in a large house in Northumberland. 

When he was fourteen in 1972, Mick was packed off to the public school for boys, Eton College in Berkshire, where he was both educated and lived in as a boarderIt didn't take him long to have the distinction of being the worst-behaved and most caned boy at the school. Steeped in military discipline his father would punish reports of his misbehavior on the long drives home to the northeast at the start of the holidays, by dropping him off at a reservoir three miles from the family home and ordering him to walk the rest of the way. This seems somewhat ironic, given the fact that his father was nick named "Crackers" in the Army for his daring streak.

It was probably at this point that he came into contact with the police and recalled later : "I was quite a wild youngster. I was arrested twice in my youth, but never charged for what was called : "An excessive exuberance". Things were so bad at school that he was only allowed to stay on, on condition that he attended Aloisiuskolleg School in Germany for one term in order to quell his exuberance. It was based in Bonn Bad-Godesberg and run by the Jesuits and doubtless, was strong on discipline.

He was retrieved by the academic world by the master, Tim Card, who patiently nurtured his academic potential and in 1976 he gained a place to study medieval history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He probably met Mr Card in his role as a housemaster and his obituary in 'The Independent' in 2001 said : 'Understanding boys well, he knew how to give them their head and call them to order if they went too far. His charges responded by working and playing hard; they respected him greatly'.

He stayed on to successfully study for his Masters degree and after graduation he joined Kleinwort Benson in the City of London, working as a 'derivatives broker' with a view that his being able to say he was a 'merchant banker' would hopefully impress girls. At his interview he confessed to being terrible at maths, but still got the job although, despite the fact that he stayed for twenty years, he admitted his heart was never in it. 

It was in the company office at 20 Fenchurch Street in 1984, when he was twenty-six, that internal work was carried out while staff were still working and asbestos was exposed in a stairwell that he regularly used. It was to here that he later traced the origin of the mesothelioma which would lead to his serious illness and ultimately, death, 38 years later. He said had received compensation in an out-of-court settlement, happy to gain “closure” and open up the chance for other affected former employees to do the same.

He maintained that the best deal he struck in the City in these years was when he married  Jill Langham, another young banker. Set up by a mutual friend in 1987, they went to see a ribald comedy at the theatre where Mick roared with laughter while she hated it. He thought he had blown his chances, but within a year and when he was thirty years old, they were married and in subsequent years raised their family of six children.

With his wife having returned to work in 2001 and Mick feeling not entirely unhappy to have lost his job at Kleinwort Benson, he took a new direction, by becoming the Chief Executive of the community and environmental charity, 'Groundwork'. It was here that he met Steve Finn and after hearing that some two thirds of offenders in Britain end up back in prison and an estimated 45% within a year of their release, he launched his mission to do something about it.

Before they met, after serving four years for armed robbery, Steve was determined to find work and go straight, however, six months on, he found himself fighting the temptation to return to crime. He said : “I was looking for work and couldn’t get it. The door was slamming in my face. You bare your soul and then don’t hear back from anyone. I was almost about to think : ‘Although I have paid my dues, society seems intent on me being a criminal.’” It was when he joined 'Groundwork' the regeneration charity Mick was running in the Thames Valley, that the two men met. Mick recalled : “I pulled Steve Finn’s criminal record and it was a bit like 'War and Peace' and a rattling good read. So I asked Steve to come and have a cup of coffee with me and tell me what it was like to come out of prison”. He had already been struck by the struggles ex-offenders went through to get work and asked Finn to shed some light on the challenge.

When he reflected on his own youth, Mick said : "I thought to myself : 'If I had all the benefits that I had in my life and I managed to get myself into that sort of trouble : People who've never had those kinds of benefits, they're on a hiding to nothing". The result of that meeting was Mick's creation of 'Blue Sky Development & Regeneration', which he launched in 2005 with Steve as its first recruit and within a decade it had employed and supported more than 1,000 ex-offenders which is roughly the population of a large prison and only 15% had re-offended. 

They ran the company from offices at Denham in a Buckinghamshire nature park and it competed with other agencies for contracts from local authorities to pick up litter, cut grass, plant trees and dig graves and private businesses in grounds maintenance, recycling, catering and laundry. Mick was also tireless in presenting counterarguments to sceptical council procurement managers, claiming that it was better to have ex-offenders employed and paying taxes than on the loose in your area breaking into cars and selling drugs to children.

'Blue Sky' took on ex-offenders for full-time, fully paid work for around six months and then helped them move on to other jobs. It also helped with housing problems and with basic training such as forklift and driving licenses. For Steve, who managed the Blue Sky employees, the model worked on the simple principle of keeping ex-offenders busy. He said : “When you have got a job for eight hours, that is eight hours when you are not up to something". He also said it also helped ex-convicts to avoid slipping back into crime through their old contacts and new ones made in prison and : “You are meeting people, workers, not people who will bring you down”. Having said, that he conceded the temptation to re-offend would loom large for most as they faced life after prison but at one point said : “I still struggle with bills and the mortgage but I’d rather do that than wander up and down B‑wing wondering when my next visitor is coming”.

Mick reiterated the importance of work when he said : “A job is not just a pay packet to an ex-offender. I once gave someone a million dollar bonus and he told me to "fuck off" because that was the protocol in the City. I had a guy here with lumbago, who asked to come and see me and had tears in his eyes because he thought I was going to sack him because he had lumbago. That’s what a job means to people”.

In 2013 he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the incurable lung cancer caused by his exposure to asbestos nearly 40 years before. About his diagnosis he said : "One day you're normal and the next day you're not normal. You're a rarity and you're gonna die and I don't really know why that last sentence should be so shattering, because we all know we're gonna die. But you come away with the clear impression that you're gonna die in a relatively small number of months. So it's earth shattering. Completely earth shattering".

There followed a grueling programme of surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and innovative drugs trials with a range of unpleasant side effects. It was now fishing which provided much-needed respite, days by the river transporting him as he said to : “Another world, mentally further from the Cromwell Hospital than I was geographically”. 

Back in the 1980s, working for a time in the USA, he had taken up fishing as a pastime which became a passion and took him to such far-flung spots 
as Patagonia and Iceland, as well as closer to home. Fishing, he told the Telegraph in 2020 : “Has one great thing that marks it out from other blood sports. You can triumph over the animal, but you don’t have to kill it. That’s important to me, because the older I get, the more I don’t like killing”. It was that year that he published an acclaimed memoir, 'Cancer and Pisces', (link) which told his story and communicated the joy of his continued existence through the prism of fishing trips around the world. (link)

On the day his cancer was diagnosed he recalled : "As if in a form of recompense, came June 2, a day of almost indescribable peace and beauty on the River Dun, just about where it flows into the larger River Test”. Mick had no “bucket list” except for being with his family and pursuing trout and salmon streams the world over. Each expedition would be mapped out on Excel spreadsheets and he spent happy hours, as he said : “Noodling about with piscatorial data”. He calculated that the number of fish he caught rose by a factor of eight after his diagnosis. One of his riverbank companions was his surgeon Professor Loic Lang-Lazdunski, who became an enthusiast after catching three trout on his first outing with Mick.

He had a successful operation to remove as much of the lining of his lungs as possible in 2013 and called the experience : “My own personal Capuzzo”. Seven years later he said : "One of the silver linings that I think you have had is that having prepared yourself for say, and 18 month life expectancy, if you than get a multiple of that, it's all time that you're not supposed to have had and that's really great. And you've got to get on and enjoy it."

Before he retired from 'Blue Sky' in 2015 he had secured the organisation’s future by brokering a merger with the 'Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust' to form the 'Forward Trust'. RAPt, which had an annual income of £14.3m and employed 338 people assumed company membership and thereby control of 'Blue Sky', which had an income of £1.7m and 17 employees. Mick said that the joining of the two organisations was : "Driven by strategic thinking, not financial need. It will produce a unique offering: no other organisation offers this continuum of support, from in-prison care for addicts to resettlement support through the prison gate and into a proper paid job with a proper company on the outside."

After his retirement, Mick served on the boards of a number of charities, including as Chairman of Governors of the 'Kensington Aldridge Academy', a secondary school which he said was : "A privilege to help, particularly in an area which, surprisingly, where given the school is located, is an area of very great deprivation".

The school was just yards from Grenfell Tower, in which 60 students lived and five current or former pupils died in the terrible fire of 2017. He proved an exceptional Chairman, helping to guide the school and local community in the difficult period following the disaster. When the school was forced to close, Mick oversaw it's temporary move to hastily erected portable buildings at Wormwood Scrubs in time for the new school year. Aldridge was found to be 'outstanding in all areas' in an Ofsted report soon afterwards. The 800 pupils moved back to its original site underneath Grenfell Tower in July 2018.

In 2016 he was appointed OBE for his work with 'Blue Sky'. He said : " 'Other bugger's efforts', as my father used to call it. It usually is because, if you're a realist and not self-obsessed, you know you can only do these things through team work". When he was diagnosed with mesothelioma he was given less than a year to live, but he went on to make medical history by surviving for nearly nine years, during which he never lost his zest for life.

One of Mick's greatest challenges was Leroy Skeete, who had visited him after his release from Belmarsh Prison. In 2009, Leroy was released from prison; he had been inside for 11 years and served a string of shorter sentences before that. He said : "I had no parents who stood by me; I spent most of my early life in care and graduated, if you like, with a crack cocaine habit. I felt quite bitter and twisted about society by then”.

Leroy began looking for work by following up a connection with an old
friend of Mick, ex-cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, who he met by chance in Belmarsh. Aitken recommended him to 'Blue Sky Development and Regeneration'. 
Leroy was impressed by Blue Sky’s commitment to helping him progress and said : “Blue Sky funded my Network Rail qualification and helped put me in touch with Vital. Vital pay well! Normally people like me with no education and a criminal record get palmed off permanently with dead-end minimum wage jobs. Those kinds of jobs are not going to stop people committing crimes”.

Mick said about his time with 'Blue Sky' : 

"It was just a wonderful career and I loved it and it was the best job I ever had. I had so much fun. Ex-offenders are just like everyone else, They're just a bit more chaotic, but a lot of them are very good human beings. But that's what I learned, but it was a great thing to have done and I was very lucky. It certainly put my own misfortune into context, that's for sure".