The Headscarf Revolutionaries

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In 1968 three trawlers from Hull, the Kingston Peridot, St Romanus and Ross Cleveland, sank within days of each other in storms off Iceland, killing 58 men.

When news of the second sinking reached Hull, Lillian Bilocca, whose husband and son worked on trawlers, began a campaign that became international news and completely overhauled safety standards on British trawlers.

This is a compelling and detailed account by local author and historian Brian Lavery of ordinary women changing history.

Winter trawler fishing was notoriously unsafe — a tonne of ice could form on a deck in minutes in foul weather and less than 20 tonnes could turn over a 657-tonne ship like the Kingston Peridot.

The crew had to chip the ice off by hand without even safety lines to attach themselves to.

They were prepared to do it because the fishing could be enormously profitable so wages were relatively high.

While the owners argued that they took the financial risks, the men had to buy their own bedding and clothing, could be prosecuted for refusing to sail and risked death or serious injury while those same owners economised on safety measures to maximise profit.

Lillian’s campaign began with a petition demanding better equipment and more experienced crews.

It was common that a crew going out over Christmas and New Year could have 16-year-olds, older men with little fishing experience and be without even a radio operator — the owners argued that the captain could operate the radio himself.

How he was supposed to do this in atrocious weather while keeping the ship upright was not their concern.

The women faced vilification and some violence for “interfering” but managed to unite workers whose jobs ashore put them at odds with the trawler men.

Hundreds of people came to the first campaign meeting and it was just a few days later that the third trawler sank while trying to take shelter in the great bay of Ísafjörður, North Iceland.

Another went aground so that the men had to be winched ashore and a smaller Icelandic boat disappeared completely.

At the news, Hull erupted in grief and fury at the conditions the men were expected to bear for the chance to earn a decent living.

Harry Edom, mate on the Ross Cleveland, survived in one of those strange accidents where a person survived cold that quickly killed everyone else, and Lavery describes very well the media frenzy around his rescue.

This is a powerful book that gives full voice to the grief and determination of the women who fought trawler owners and forced them to put men’s lives before profit.