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.