Today it is difficult to find protest groups run by working class women with northern accents. And if they do exist they are not likely to get much national attention unless they have a celebrity such as Russell Brand or Charlotte Church in tow for the press to take an interest in, with the exception of newspapers such as the Morning Star.
1968 might have seen revolution kicking off everywhere from Derry to Paris and Berlin but in the city of Hull there were just as important things going on and it was a group of working class women who were at the heart of it. In this wonderful new book, Headscarf Revolutionaries, Brian W.Lavery reminds us of a forgotten chapter of our radical history.
In 1968 in the fishing community of Hull in a period of just three weeks, three trawlers were lost and 58 men died. One woman, Lillian Bilocca, who worked in the fish skinning section of the industry, decided to do something about it. She said to her daughter; “Something has to get done. I’m starting a petition to get the gaffers to make them trawlers safer. That could be our Ernie or your Dad out there, God forbid.”
Lily didn’t just get people to sign a petition, she wrote to the papers, organised a meeting for the community and then, backed by a contingent of women and children, she confronted the trawler bosses. This is her story and of the women who fought an intense battle to get a safer working environment for their men.
Reading this book about the conditions in the fishing industry (both in the warehouses and at sea) reminded me of the 19Century: that is how bad things were. Men who worked on the trawlers were zero hour workers, they had to pay for their own protective gear and bedding for their time at sea.
The trawler owners did not care about who worked for them and this was highlighted at Xmas when the usual crewmen, who only had 36 days off per year, refused to work. The fishing carried on with what were called “Christmas cracker crews”. Lavery says “owners turned a blind eye to ships crewed by drunks and incompetents and even by men and boys who had never been to sea.”
Many of the ships were not suitable for the Arctic winters, lacking signalling equipment for emergencies and sailing without wireless operators and with an inexperienced crew.
How do you fight for workers who are so beaten down and desperate for work? Well Lily knew that the only way to stop these badly equipped ships from leaving the port was to take direct action. She said to reporters; “I’ll be on that dock tomorrow, checking them ships are properly crewed and have radio operators on them. I ‘ll jump aboard myself to stop ‘em going out that dock if I have to.”
And that is what she did with her headscarfed sisters. As a ship passed by on the dock she asked the crewmen if they had a radio operator and if they replied no she went into action. “It took six uniformed coppers, one WPC and a plain clothes man to hold Lily back. She threw herself off the quayside and tried to jump aboard.”
The campaign was successful. This was at a time when there was a Labour Government that was prepared to support workers’ rights and trade unions such as TGWU that made sure they kept their word. The women changed the shipping laws.
But, like many campaigners, there was a price to be paid for the level of attention that Lily got as one of the main women involved in the campaign. Not everyone in her community supported her or the campaign and she got a series of death threats, while the national tabloids were unkind about her appearance and her working class persona. Lily lost her job at the fish factory and was blacklisted by the industry.
In 1975 Iceland declared a 200 mile limit and the Cod War started. It signalled the end of the Hull fishing industry.
This is the kind of working class history that we need today; to inspire working class communities across the country and to show that, however bad things may seem, you can do something about it. Brian W. Lavery has written a very readable and accessible book and given us back a real working class heroine.
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