Story inspires generations of strong women

Turning the Tide, by Rupert Creed.

Marking International Women’s Day, the University of Hull and the Centre for Contemporary Storytelling reconvened the cast of the production of Turning the Tide. Devised and directed by Rupert Creed it tells the story of the Triple Trawler tragedy and the wive’s campaign for safety, through archive footage, photographs, storytelling, oral testimony and music.

Fiddler’s Green (fishermen’s heaven) played over the speakers as we entered the Middleton Hall, projected on the backdrop is the heroic figure of Lillian Bilocca, keeping watch over a trawler pitching on the waves. Centre stage is a scale model of the Ross Cleveland, the third Hull trawler to be lost during the winter of 1968. 

Storytellers Joan Venus-Evans (a proud Hessle Roader) and Mike Emberton (a deckie learner who worked the North Sea) and Rupert Creed, described the precarious nature of lives tied to the sea. They spoke of ship owners ruling by fear, the cavalier attitude to life and limb, and how companies deliberately pitted crews against each other to increase the levels of risk and reward. 

During the show songs, including the bittersweet ‘Luckiest Sailor’ and old favourite ‘Sweet Minerva’ were sung live by Hissyfit’s Linda Kelly & Hazel Richings. Each song – warmly appreciated by the audience – evoking the sense of isolation; the dangers; the camaraderie of returning home.   

Fuelled by fear and rage at the senseless loss of life, a deputation of four strong Hessle Road women made up of Lillian Bilocca, Yvonne Blenkinsop, Christine Smallbone(Jensen) and Mary Denness, took on the trawler owners and the state, and won. These women, described as interfering fish wives, faced down centuries old maritime traditions and superstition, and won. To do so they had to go against gender norms and cross the demarkation line into a patriarchal world, where they had no place being at all. 

To tie-in with International Women’s Day, a panel of inspirational women was convened featuring, Jean Shakesby, Lorna Denness, Natalie Taylor and Hull West and Hessle MP Emma Hardy.

“In those days you just had to get on with it,” said Jean Shakesby describing how her mum had to bring up seven kids on her own, after her father Stan was lost in ’63, when a shark caught in the nets  dragged him overboard. The tragedy had been recorded as an ‘act of God’ by the company so no compensation was offered. Moved to action by Stan’s loss five years earlier, Jean and her mum joined the campaigners in 1968 and marched saying, “If they can do it, why aren’t we doing it?”   

Lorna Denness, daughter of Mary Denness, talked about the backlash to the women’s campaign, the hate mail, the verbal and physical abuse. She described a sense of duality existing at the time as the public achievements were set against the domestic lives. “The men may outwardly agree with the safety goals, but privately feel emasculated by their wives and face ridicule by other men,” she said.  

There are some who still bear a grudge towards the Headscarf Revolutionaries and would have them blamed for the Cod Wars and made a scapegoat for the entire collapse of the industry. 

Lorna explained how her mum’s participation in the campaign, gave rise to a sense of independence which ultimately led her to leave an abusive relationship. “The legacy of the campaign was women realising you can stand up, and you can make a difference in your life.” said Lorna Denness.   

Emma Hardy MP said, “Hearing their voices is like a reawakening, a reminder that the struggle is still there; they challenged history; challenged public opinion; confronted authority.” 

“The story is now taught in schools, the four women serve as role models for their generation and the next generation of Hessle Road Women,” said Natalie Taylor founder of the group Strong Women of Hessle Road.

“The story needs to keep being told for many reasons. It is a reminder that there is strength in community and that by working together injustice can be redressed and power reclaimed,” said storyteller Joan Venus-Evans. 

The panel discussion concluded with a call for another four to don headscarves just like their predecessors and fight for the regeneration of St. Andrews Dock. Today, in the place where the trawlers left for sea, stands the Lord Line building, divisive and dilapidated casting a long shadow over the memory of the lost.     

Sensing the appetite for action in the room, Rupert invited the audience to repeat the words of Mary Denness.  

“My one regret is that I didn’t start sooner, shout louder and fight longer.”

[Michelle Dee]