The first few weeks of 1968 thrust the City of Hull, and its Hessle Road fishing community into the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. 58 men lost their lives in the freezing, mountainous Arctic waters off Iceland in the most grotesque profit before people tragedy imaginable as three trawlers were claimed by the stormy, icy ocean.
The story of the Triple Trawler Disaster, and the heroic campaign led by local legend Lilian Bilocca is brought to life by the Remould Theatre Company via storytelling, songs and recorded testimony from the protagonists interwoven with Pathe News footage. Despite the grim subject matter the determination and sense of solidarity of the Hessle Road Community is what I took away from this.
But also, it has to be said, there is a palpable sense that until recently this entirely preventable tragedy, and the struggle it represented has been swept under the carpet by the rest of the City. Growing up here in the 1970’s and early 80’s it was not something we were ever told about.
Maybe this was in part due to the 1974 loss of the Gaul (there was strong evidence that this trawler was pulled under by a Soviet sub) but Hessle Road people are a breed apart from the rest of us due to the almost suicidal nature of the work that their menfolk undertook. Such experiences are bound to mould a tight knit sensibility and a distrust of other who could not possibly share their experiences.
The best book I have read from this community which describes life on Hessle Road at the height of the pre Cod War fishing era is by Mally Welburn. “The Boy Who Flew Windows”* is a brutally honest evocation of the time, descriptive but not sentimental or making judgements about people living in ordinary circumstances to them, but far from that for the rest of us. Life at sea was extremely hard, back breaking work and was largely unregulated meaning that the men were in effect casual labour and if you didn’t sail you didn’t earn. As a result workers didn’t speak up about the dangers as they wouldn’t be asked back to work and suffered black listing.
The seafarers were sometimes referred to as , “the three day millionaires” due to the amount of cash spent in the pubs and clubs, but as Welburn and the play make clear these were rare occurrences as the workers were totally dependent on the profit turned in by the owners when the catch was landed. This led to excessive risk taking and cutting corners by the owners on equipment and whether or not they employed a radio operator. Often skippers did not call back to shore anyway in case they alerted others to their positions and possible competition.
On 10th January 1968 the St. Romanus and the Kingston Peridot sailed down the Humber destination the Arctic Sea off Iceland, and on 20th the Ross Cleveland made the same journey. The St. Romanus was never heard from again. The alarm was raised on the 26th and the ship declared lost with all hands on the 30th January. The Kingston Peridot radioed that she was in difficulties due to ice build up on the frame of the ship on the 26th January. Debris evidence confirmed fears of her loss on 30th. Hessle Road was in shock.
The play deals with this in a very honest and straightforward manner but the loss of the Ross Cleveland was devastating in the context of that tragic New Year and must have made the community doubt the very reason for their existence. The death toll stood at 58, but miraculously there was a survivor from the Ross Cleveland. Harry Eddom had somehow been able to get into a lifeboat and was washed ashore. Locals in north east Iceland discovered him close to death and carried him to safety.
The last words in this disaster belong to Ross Cleveland skipper Phil Gay,
“I am going over. We are laying over. Help me. I am going over. Give my love and the crew’s love to the wives and families.”
The play then charts the relentless energy of Lillian Bilocca in her campaign to improve safety. Despite the tragedies the owners initially refused to meet the women but were forced to the table when the Labour Government, lobbied by National Union of Seamen organiser John Prescott agreed to talks, and more importantly legislated to ensure radio operators were aboard each vessel and that there would be a control ship in the Arctic Sea to ensure there would be no excessive risks taken with bad weather. Some of the menfolk were not impressed by Lilian and felt emasculated.
Ultimately it was too little too late as due to the Cod Wars the fishing industry was destroyed and the Hessle Road community changed beyond recognition. But that’s another story….
This is a great piece of work and due to the tales and songs of the sea which intersperse the main story Turning the Tide is an impressive exposition of our relationship with the ocean on lots of different, existential levels.
In a very sad irony the Mail reported this week Mally Welburn’s response to the mindless vandalisation of the iconic Arctic Corsair, moored at the Museum Quarter. http://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/Vandals-target-historic-Arctic-Corsair-trawler/story-28247769-detail/story.html
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