Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
These days the Labour Party has abandoned ordinary working folk. Taken over by left-wing puritans with Oxbridge educations, it doesn’t get its hands dirty. This “right on” metropolitan elite is too busy labelling people as racist, bigots or other “isms” to deal with real issues. Helping ordinary working people is too hard. Especially when Corbyn and his mates spend all their time policing language, in case anyone gets offended.
It’s time for ordinary working people to stand up for themselves. Diana Abbott, Corbyn and the rest are too concerned with dictating how you should think and speak. Compelled language is their forte, not addressing genuine social injustice. For example, you are not entitled to seek the best education at public schools. That’s Labour Party doctrine. Although it's fine and dandy for the kids of Labour leaders to go there. The stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Labour movement.
If folks are looking for an template for action they should look no further than Lillian Bilocca. Although, the movement she led would maybe these days get hijacked by a celebrity or shameless politician seeking publicity. Look at Grenville Tower. We had a steady parade of “look at me I’m angry” types seeking a moment in the media. After polishing their credentials as social justice warriors, they’d hop in their car to disappear.
In 1968, the Hull fishing fleet lost three trawlers in three weeks. 58 men found a watery grave, while 58 families suffered in silence. I remember sitting in a hushed school assemble as the names of the ships were read out. Even at the age of eight, you sensed the grief of the community.
Elsewhere in the world revolution was kicking off with protests and rallies. The streets of Paris were ablaze. The Vietnam War continued to escalate as the American public awoke to that tragedy. US campuses erupted in violence.
Meanwhile, in the city of Hull, another struggle was kicking off. A group of working-class women decided they’d had enough of lax safety on trawlers. Sweeping forward to lead them came the redoubtable Lillian Bilocca. She worked skinning the fish that her husband and son brought back from far icy waters.
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.”
She petitioned, she wrote to the papers, organised meetings and mobilised a grassroots campaign. Then, she confronted the trawler bosses. They weren't ready for what hit them.
With trawlers putting to sea undermanned, without safety equipment or a radio operator, the crews faced terrible risks. Men who worked on the trawlers were zero hour workers, who paid for their protective gear and bedding.
The trawler owners didn’t care. They took the view that risk was part of the business. A position comfortable to hold sitting behind a desk in a warm office. The arctic seas off Iceland proved dangerous for decades, although the owners were willfully blind.
Untrained crews, a lack of signalling equipment for emergencies and unstable ships added to risks. Under these circumstances heavy seas in the winters months proved fatal. Teams needed to continually remove ice to prevent rolling ships turning turtle.
Over the years over 6000 men had perished from the Hull fleet, as it brought in over 25% of Britain’s catch. Saint Andrews Dock was home to 150 deep sea trawlers, the worlds largest fleet. At the time it was the most dangerous civilian profession on Earth.
The owners reacted with disdain to Lily and her friends’s campaign, dismissing the women as hysterical. Their men proved equally critical. In the macho world of the hardy fisherman, having women intervening was a massive loss of face. They didn’t like their women-folk being so assertive.
To gain media attention, Lily pulled a brilliant stunt. 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 she did. As a ship passed through the lock towards the open water, she’d demand to know if they had a radio operator. If they replied no, she sought to board the ship. Police had to restrain her as she threw herself off the dockside. Images of “Big Lily” and her headscarf heroes flashed across the country. She’d scored a significant victory over the owners.
Lily next threatened to picket the Prime Ministers private residence if her demands were ignored. She achieved a meeting with Prime Minister Wilson, who subsequently granted all of their requests. The result was described as one of the biggest and most successful civil actions of the 20th century. Lily and her ladies made the headlines of national newspapers, pushing the Vietnam War off the front page. This was at a time when Labour supported the workers.
But, Lily paid the price. She lost her job, while many in her community turned against her. Her actions had held the fishing fleet in port and men losing pay didn’t take kindly to that. One of her group was assaulted as death threats were made. The police intervened to protect Lily.
In typical fashion, the spineless London-based tabloids then turned on her. Portrayed as uncouth and foul-mouthed, even her dress sense was questioned. It’s suggested that the trawler owners fed the media lies in a concerted effort to ruin Lily. But you can’t take away the fact that the changes she forced saved hundreds of men and boys from a terrible death. Whereas the inertia of the trawler owners will always be their shame.
By 1975 the Hull fishing industry was doomed. Iceland declared a 200-mile limit, cutting off the abundant fishing grounds. From then on the ships and the life that surrounded them disappeared.
I met women like “Big Lily” when I worked the summer months at the Birds Eye factory in Hull. Lumpy Hessle Road lassies with a sharp tongue, a tough demeanour; all wrapped around a heart of gold. These women frightened me. You’d daren’t upset them, otherwise a belt was coming your way. The trawler owners didn’t stand a chance.
Memories of Lily and her group faded until recent times. Historians are now recording her achievements, as plays and books emerge. Hull’s status as a ‘City of Culture’ spurred that process, as people reflected on their real heroes. Lily proved you could make a difference, although the struggle is not without cost. Lily's integrity and sense of purpose shines through in her media interviews. Asked "Are you a modern-day suffragette?" She replied with gusto "Don't be daft, I'm a mother."
She died in 1988. Why the women never received an award remains a disgrace. As was said at the time “They achieved more in days than the unions, politicians and trawler owners had done in decades.”
Nonetheless, “Big Lily” earned her place as a true local hero.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.