The 1968 Triple Trawler Tragedy And The Wives’ Campaign For Safety
You think you know the story, perhaps you have seen the model boats in the Maritime Museum or visited the Arctic Corsair. Maybe you can recite the names… Romanus, Peridot, Cleveland. You may have read the reports in Flashback or heard tales through song and literature. You will almost undoubtedly know the figures: 6000 trawlermen from Hull lost at sea between the mid – 19th century and the end of the fishing industry.
Someone asked me immediately after the opening night of Turning The Tide whether I had a connection to the story. I answered that I didn’t, not through family at any rate, but have I connected with the story? Yes. After tonight’s retelling I have.
In a packed house -we care deeply about our fishing heritage here in Hull – the story of the 1968 Triple Trawler Tragedy and the wives’ campaign for safety is told. It’s Hull, it’s always about the fishing industry isn’t it?
No, you see tonight it wasn’t about the men, it was about the women; the remarkable women who embarked upon extraordinary action, in face of huge obstacles women who took on, not only maritime tradition and the government, but expectations of gender norms: those women crossed the divide into a patriarchal world, where they had no place being.
The demarkation between the trawlermen and the women on shore was as clearly drawn as ever was but after 1968 it would forever be changed. Superstition ran deep on both sides. Women didn’t wave their menfolk goodbye at the quayside at the start of each fishing trip, it was considered bad luck. So when the news of the trawler St. Romanus being lost at sea, came ashore the women rallied, supported each other like they’d always done in the tight knit community of Hessle Road. I don’t think it was the loss itself – devastating as that was – so much as the attitude and complete lack of humanity shown by the boat owners that prompted the events that would dramatically change the course of history.
Two weeks the womenfolk went, without word from the owners, despite attempts to speak with them. The meeting and subsequent campaign group led by the formidable Lil Bilocca, that quickly gathered support and media attention, was unheard of in the fishing industry. Women just didn’t get involved.
‘Nobody forces them to go to sea,’ the owners would say. But the owners were like a mafia and they ruled through fear. Fear of not working and not being able to feed your family if you stepped out of line. Those that did would be put on ‘walkabout’ not just for one company but all the companies on the dockside. The men didn’t have regular wages, they needed to do their job at whatever cost.
‘Talk of safety – we didn’t have it.’
Turning the Tide devised by Rupert Creed is presented by the Centre for Contemporary Storytelling, Freedom to Tell Tales and Follow the Herring. The story is created and told through narrated memories, archive footage, news broadcasts, interspersed with recordings gathered from the prominent women within the campaign group. Hearing those women speak was incredibly moving, the voices of Lil, Yvonne Blenkinsop, Christine Smallbone and Mary Denness brought the names to life; the accents; the language; the directness: that unmistakable Hessle Road spirit.
There is a particularly heartrending moment told through the recordings that describes events on that February morning. Christine Smallbone arrives early to get her hair done before the momentous meeting with the MPs. She is unaware those first few hours that the fate of the Ross Cleveland, the trawler skippered by Phil Gay, her brother, will become number three. A moment in history described thereafter as the Triple Trawler Tragedy.
It is notable that the media latched on to the Harry Eddom returning hero story, the man who escaped certain death when the Ross Cleveland keeled over. It is a much more media friendly story, a positive story, rather than focusing on the troublemaking wives. That slant on the story is almost unknown: the backlash faced by the wives for interfering, from the company owners, the fish markets, the media, members of their own community and even their own families.
There is wonderful music in Turning The Tide from singing duo Hazel Richings and Linda Kelly, otherwise known as Hissyfit. The shanties all written by Linda, are about the fishing communities of Hull and are awash with local colour. There is Sweet Minerva, that talks of the welcome and home comforts that await the returning sailors. The bitter sweet song Luckiest Sailor is a firm favourite at Shanty events and through Mick McGarry and The Hillbilly Troupe is reaching younger generations.
Hazel Richings of Hissyfit:
“Even though they sound like they were written for Rupert’s show – they were actually inspired between 2000 and 2005 (and Linda has written many more since) The first song she wrote, ‘The Luckiest Sailor’, is about her husband John, who regularly sailed on the Peridot. It’s also the song that got us singing together and was even included in the production Northern Trawl way back – when Kate Bramley directed the play in Hull Truck.”
To add another dimension, universal ideas are introduced, through the utterly compelling storytelling of Shonaleigh. All of her tales tonight have a suitable nautical theme but, they are not set upon the Humber nor any sea of this world. Captivating the audience from the first word, Shonaleigh speaks of seals who shed their skin to dance under the moonlight; where severed fingers and thumbs become the bountiful catch for fishermen; a place where trials are faced and acts of courage and charity are balanced. The stories are skillfully woven like fishing nets, to capture and crystalise the emotions behind the real life events. serving as a way to better understand the path that the wives set upon in 1968. From each salty fable you may draw a line back to better understand a moment unfolding in the tragedy.
There is so much more to this story and with each passing generation we run the risk of losing it. Mary Denness, one of those courageous women who stood dockside trying to stop the trawlers from leaving the port, was in the audience tonight. She received sustained applause at her introduction and she announced that she really couldn’t believe that after forty years she was still telling this story, that the actions of those 500 women would have become part of the fabric of Hull. Her words were met with such a wave of affection, applause and deep respect from the audience and cast.
A feeling of pride accompanies the hastily wiped away tear, shed in remembrance for these women who stood up for the lives of their menfolk. These Hessle Road wives who stood against the power and patriarchy of maritime law, who paid a hefty price- the loss of loved ones – but who won a hard fought victory that undoubtedly saved lives so that future generations might keep their trawlermen.