Triple Trawler Disaster: Hull’s fighting fishwives

21 November 2017

Lillian Bilocca, also known as Big Lil (1929-1988), was born in Wassand Street, Hessle Road, Hull, at the heart of the city’s fishing community. She was the eldest of four daughters born to a seaman. Her father had been a Royal Navy engineer and then later a trawlerman. She left school at aged 14 when she joined a local fish house as a cod skinner. She would go on to marry a seaman, have a daughter and raise a son who would also make a living from the sea.

Like her peers she went from being a seafarer’s daughter to a seafarer’s wife and later a seafarer’s mother. She married a Maltese merchant sailor with the Hull-based Ellerman-Wilson Line. He settled in the city and later became a trawlerman. Her entire world revolved around the Hessle Road community and the trawlermen who lived there, a world that was rocked to its in core in 1968 when three trawlers St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland all sank in quick succession with the loss of fifty-eight lives. As a result of the tragedy Lil found herself at the centre of a battle to improve working and safety conditions for the industry that would earn her national recognition and more.

It wasn’t easy but despite threatening phone calls and losing her own job as a result of her fight, Lil remained resolute in her goal. She met with Prime Minister Harold Wilson at No. 10 Downing Street and together with the women of Hessle Road - or Headscarf Revolutionaries - as they became known, eventually won the battle to make it a legal requirement for all trawlers to carry a full-time radio operator, a decision that has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. A dedicated video at the Maritime Museum tells their story that is also the subject of literature, lectures and stage productions.

Based in Hull, the LIL DRAMA COMPANY was born out of admiration for the spirit and determination of Lillian Bilocca. Its new production is scheduled late 2017 using music, storytelling, movement and performance to celebrate an inspirational period in Hull’s history and a force for change that resonated far beyond the city. It is witness to the Three Day Millionaires’ riotous return home from the wet and wild west, and dance at the ghostly Silver Cod Ball - trawler owners’ annual slap on the back in contrast to the dangerous lives of its trawlermen to unite against the feudal power of the ship owners.

There is a large painted wall mural of a headscarfed Lillian Bilocca and she is remembered with a civic plaque dated 1990 by the Hull City Council ‘In recognition of the contribution to the fishing industry by the women of Hessle Road, led by Lillian Bilocca who successfully campaigned for better safety following the loss of three Hull trawlers in 1968

Time Line of Triple Trawler Tragedy
10 January St Romanus and Kingston Peridot set sail from Hull. 11 January St Romanus vanishes.
20 January Ross Cleveland sets sail. 26 January Kingston Peridot sinks off the coast of Iceland.
04 February Ross Cleveland sinks.
06 February Harry Eddom, the ship’s mate. Becomes only survivor of the Ross Cleveland after being washed ashore.
05 February Lillian Bilocca and the ‘Headscarf Revolutionaries’ take their fight to improve trawler safety to Westminster.
May 1969 Government report into the Triple Trawler Tragedy is published. It led to the introduction of a number of safety regulations that became law to improve conditions of work for the trawler men.

Ita Marguet, November 2017

Note: Acknowledgement to sources used in this text. It follows a visit to UK City of Culture 2017.