They were the gutsy northern fishwives who took on the might of the British establishment in the wake of the nation’s worst trawler disaster – and fought to improve safety in an industry that was killing their men.
Now the story of Hull’s “headscarf revolutionaries” could become a blockbuster movie – nearly 50 years after the women launched a successful campaign for better working conditions at sea in 1968.
Producers at the award-winning Red Production Company, which is behind dramas including Happy Valley, have bought the rights to a book by Hull-based author Dr Brian W Lavery that tells the remarkable story of the fishwives and their formidable leader, Lillian “Big Lil” Bilocca.
Writer and director Mark Herman, whose work includes Brassed Off, Little Voice and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has also been linked with the project, which is hoped could be the next British box-office smash in the mould of Made in Dagenham and The Full Monty.
“This was a huge story at the time and it took the Vietnam war off the front pages of newspapers around the world,” said Dr Lavery, an author and journalist who started researching the story for a PhD thesis.
“These women were extraordinary people. This was the world’s most dangerous industry. It was giving them a living, but killing their husbands. They were angry and took on the politicians and the industry. They had remarkable courage to do what they did.”
Dr Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, tells the story of the uprising led by Mrs Bilocca following the sinking of three Hull trawlers – the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland – in as many weeks, with the loss of 58 lives in the “dark winter” of January and February 1968.
Harry Eddom, mate of the Ross Cleveland, was the only man to survive. After 12 hours in a life-raft with two dead shipmates in freezing waters off the coast of Iceland, he was washed ashore and spent 36 hours wandering in the Arctic wastes. He was later found by a shepherd boy, exhausted, frostbitten and sheltering behind a farm outhouse. His story made front-page headlines and he became known as “the man who came back from the sea”.
The sinking of the ships was a devastating blow for Hull’s close-knit fishing community. The wives and daughters of local trawlermen launched a petition that attracted 10,000 names in three days. They also picketed the docks to ensure departing ships carried radio operators and then marched on Parliament to meet ministers, who ordered trawler owners to implement new safety arrangements with immediate effect.
Three inquiries were also triggered, which led to a Public Enquiry and major changes in working practices in the fishing industry, including legal standards for radio equipment.
But the changes came at a price for “Big Lil”, who was mocked by sections of the national media and received poison-pen letters and death threats because the new safety rules meant some trawlers could not go out to sea.
Dr Lavery first took an interest in the story of Mrs Bilocca when he was tasked with writing her obituary for The Times as a freelance journalist back in 1988 and says he was determined to return to the story. The book was published last year by Barbican Press.
He said: “I was very aware while writing the book that these were people with families still living in Hull. They were very brave and they ended up embarrassing the politicians and the industry into doing something to help save the lives of men at sea.
“We’re still at the early stages of the process with the production company,” he added. “I’m delighted. I’ve always felt that this was an important story that had to be told.”
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