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)

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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.

3 comments:

  1. What a wonderful tribute to a truly phenomenal woman. Thank you.

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  2. Amazing piece for some amazing women. Well written article. I enjoyed it.

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  3. Our beautiful strong loving mother, so very proud of her, she will loved and missed every ❤ xxx

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