Lillian Bilocca – The Fearless Fishwife

Lil photo

Women are often at the forefront of demands for workers’ rights. Yet those calling for better protections can find themselves sacked from their jobs and even outcast from their communities. Labour activism can be a very lonely world, and it may take time before the contribution of the activist is recognised and celebrated. While there is still progress to be made in many countries, the fight for better working conditions in the UK has made workplaces safer for everyone.

Lil BiIocca knew a thing or two about fish. Her husband and son were both seafarers, and she worked long shifts up to her elbows in icy water in a fish-processing factory on Hull’s dockside.

Yet deep-sea fishing in 1960s Britain was still a man’s world. Men owned and operated the trawlers, and women were banned from stepping foot on a ship lest they curse it with bad luck. It was a superstitious world, and no surprise since hundreds of men lost their lives each year. At its height, the industry employed some 60,000 people in the English city of Hull alone. Yet that city also lost 6,000 fishermen to the freezing Arctic waters.

In early 1968, Lil and her fellow fishwives were thrown into their deepest period of mourning when three ships from Hull sank in the so-called triple trawler tragedy. Fifty-eight men drowned, with just one survivor, after their vessels sailed north in appalling weather. And while ice and stormy conditions at sea contributed to the loss, other factors could not be ignored. Ships were known to head out without experienced crews, sufficient safety equipment or radio operators. Some of those on board were still in their teens – “deckie learners” – picking up the dangerous art of seafaring on the job. The news of the loss of three ships in as many weeks was a huge shock to those back on land, and while many thousands mourned, a few began to question the methods of the ship owners.

A handful of fishwives – the mothers and spouses of trawlermen – began calling for better conditions to protect their men. The campaign was led by Lil, after she rallied other wives in a campaign that would see them present their Fishermen’s Charter to the Prime Minister. Their demands were clear: radio operators for all ships, trained deckhands, better safety equipment, improved weather forecasting, and a “mother ship” with medical support.

As well as taking her demands to parliamentarians, 17-stone Lil also became a formidable sight on the docks, earning her the nickname “Big Lil” in the media. Breaking the no-women rule, she boarded ships with her checklist of safety features before they set sail. Her outspoken nature won her little support, even among those she was fighting to help, who saw her as interfering in men’s affairs. Lil lost her job and was blacklisted in the industry; she never worked in it again until her death at the age of 59. Throughout her campaign, poison-pen letters and harassment did nothing to lessen her appetite for justice and better working conditions, even when the abuse came from within her own community. She kept the threatening letters in a shoebox, hidden from her family: out of sight, out of mind.

Within a month of starting her campaign,  however, her perseverance had paid off. Speaking at the launch of the medical support ship, just one of many improvements for which she successfully campaigned, she told the press: “Never mind them calling us silly women. This is what we have fought for.” Her death in 1988 could have seen her wiped from the pages of history, had her courageous fight not left an indelible mark in the local community. Today she is remembered in her native city with a huge mural which honours both her struggle, and the men she fought to save.

You can read a full account of the events of 1968 in “The Headscarf Revolutionaries”, a book by Dr Brian W Lavery.
Main photo: Lillian Bilocca on the dockside in 1968. © Hull Daily Mail Publications. 

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Saalumarada Thimmakka – India’s tree lady

Environmental activism usually stems from people trying to protect and improve their immediate surroundings and ways of life. Yet, the pressure to grab land for commercial development means that the work of environmentalists is often seen as political and, in many parts of the world, they are at risk of abuse or even death. Where people are honoured and recognised for their work to improve the local ecosystem, their efforts can have a lasting positive impact for the environment, the community, and for future generations.

Saalumarada_Thimmakka

Her honorary name – Saalumarada – means “a row of trees” in her native Kannarda language. It was bestowed on Thimmakka by her fellow villagers in Hulikal, near Bangalore in southwestern India, after she planted and tended a woodland of hundreds of banyan trees. A type of fig, banyans are the national tree of India, but for Thimmakka and her husband, they had a more personal significance.

After 25 years of marriage without being able to conceive a child, Thimmakka began planting trees and nurturing them as if they were her own children. With her husband, a cattle herder, she walked four kilometres of dusty road each day to carry water to the saplings. As the trees grew, the stigma of being a rural childless woman gradually reduced, and her neighbours began to admire her determination.

At over 100 years old, she has lived to see the saplings grow into a mature woodland. Bats and birds feast on the fruit, and travellers on the long road to Bangalore enjoy the deep shade of the dense canopy. Her age has not slowed her determination to improve the local community; she has been involved in efforts to construct a water storage tank, and hopes that international attention will bring in the funds to build a local hospital. Despite numerous awards for her environmental work, Thimmakka still lives in poverty. Yet, alongside her 300 or more banyan “offspring”, she now has an adopted son to carry on her legacy and ensure the woodland is protected for years to come.