D.D. Johnston reviews Brian Lavery’s The Headscarf Revolutionaries, an account of a spontaneous campaign by fishermen’s wives in Hull, which following the 1968 triple-trawler disaster forced major changes to UK shipping laws.
There are times when history seems to erupt in chorus. Sometimes the cause of synchronicity is obvious, as in the World War that preceded uprisings and revolutions from Clydeside to Moscow, or the economic collapse that by 2011 had sparked revolts as diverse as the English riots and the Arab Spring. At other times, the connections are harder to explain: why was 1848 the year that modernity clashed with feudalism across much of Europe and Latin America? Why did 1649 witness the Ormee of Bordeaux and The Diggers’ colonies in England? Sometimes, it seems, there is simply something in the air.
The opening of 1968 was such a time. The Prague Spring coincided with the Civil Rights movement in the US, the anti-Vietnam War riot in Grosvenor Square, the March events in Poland, the occupation at Nanterre, and eventually the May Days in Paris. And to this list we can add the uprising of the Headscarf Revolutionaries, which has now been brilliantly documented in a new book by Brian Lavery.
The Headscarf Revolutionaries were a group of women, mainly fishermen’s wives, who in the space of weeks forced major changes to UK shipping laws. Their rebellion was in response to a triple tragedy that devastated Hull’s fishing community in three weeks at the start of 1968: in separate incidents, three trawlers were lost at sea and 58 fishermen died. Led by the charismatic Lillian Bilocca – known as Big Lil – the women embarked on a campaign of protest and direct action that, as John Prescott acknowledges in the book’s foreword, ‘achieved more in weeks than unions and politicians ever did.’
Indeed, while Prescott, who had some involvement with the campaign as a young trade unionist, may be keen to celebrate what the women achieved, their rebellion had more in common with Danbert from Chumbawamba dowsing Prescott with water at the Brit Awards than it did with facilitating the banking crisis or invading Iraq.
This is one strand of Lavery’s book. He tells with rich detail how the women rose up spontaneously and took on the authorities with imagination and courage – for instance, the PA system for an early meeting was rushed to the scene by a cabaret singer whose trawlerman father had died at sea four years earlier. The women were led by the fiery Big Lil, first to raise a petition, and soon to invade the docks to try to physically prevent unsafe ships from departing for sea. As Lil scuffled with police, three young seamen jumped ship preventing the vessel’s departure and effectively initiating a wildcat strike. Quickly, Big Lil and her comrades were invited to London to present their ‘fishermen’s charter’ to the Fisheries Minister. Such was the strength of public opinion that its recommendations were immediately accepted, and that should have been the end of the matter – if only Big Lil had have promptly returned to her proper place.
In addition to writing an inspiring history of the Headscarf Revolutionaries, Lavery has also written a social history of a world that has largely ceased to exist. With a novelist’s eye for colour and detail, he brings alive the fishing industry of the 1960s. Whether describing how the ventilation cowls on trawlers had to be coated with grease as weather protection, or the exact process of cod skinning, Lavery transports us to an unforgiving world of hard labour and macho conservatism. The scenes at sea are as vivid as anything in Hemingway or Melville, and winter conditions in Icelandic fishing waters make life at Alistair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra seem tame. It’s difficult to imagine the hardships faced by ill-equipped men working 18-hour shifts hacking ice from ropes in force 12 gales on a night so cold it literally prevented speech. As a depiction of human courage and the triumph of willpower, the extraordinary story of the disaster’s one survivor holds its own with Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void or any survival epic.
This is already plenty for any book, but there’s a third strand to Lavery’s story. Lavery – a former newspaper man – pays great attention to the role of the media. These were the early days of late modernity, or postmodernity, or whatever we should call it, and the Headscarf Revolutionaries’ rebellion was played out in the media as much as it was played out on the Hull docks. Lavery describes the media furore as Big Lil and the others were photographed by journalists from around the world. When they visited London, the Evening Standard led with ‘Big Lil hits town.’ Marge Proops ran a feature on ‘The Real Big Lil’ in the Daily Mirror, and even the Daily Mail carried a supportive front page lead. Lil was a guest on ITV’s Eamonn Andrews Chat Show, and, as Lavery puts it, she ‘had the kind of press coverage a pop star would envy.’ Even the phone conversation that reunited Rita Eddom with the one survivor – the husband she’d assumed was dead – was broadcast in full on the evening news.
What enabled this friendly reception was the power of public feeling, but also, perhaps, the stridently apolitical nature of the women’s campaign. Lavery describes a very British rebellion, with that curiously British hostility towards political thinking. As Lil’s comrade Yvonne put it, ‘I just want to get what I can for our men. I am not interested in unions or politics.’ Lavery describes how the British public and media took Lil and the campaign into their hearts, but also how fickle that support was, and how quickly it was removed. At the time, there may not have been a phrase to describe the media’s new power to create instant celebrity, but in the same week that Lil appeared on the Eamonn Andrews Show, Andy Warhol’s first exhibition outside the US opened in Stockholm. In the programme for that exhibition, Warhol coined a phrase: ‘in the future,’ he wrote, ‘everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’
Lil’s 15 minutes were already up, and she paid a heavy price for her reluctance to retreat back to a woman’s proper place. Despite – or because of – two decades of Keynesian economics, Britain in the ‘swinging sixties’ remained deeply conservative; for instance, the Headscarf Revolution coincided with the government-supported ‘I’m backing Britain campaign,’ which called on workers to work an extra half hour every day without pay. Lil never ascribed to any political ideology, but nor was she yet ready to be silent: when she addressed students at Hull University she advocated abolishing the Merchant Shipping Acts that prevented men from striking, and after addressing leftist students in Glasgow, the media misreported her as proposing a sex strike to force fishermen into militant action.
The end of Lil’s story is a sad one. As ships were grounded due to safety laws, workers turned their anger against Lil. A barrage of vicious hate mail, often from those she’d done most to help, was sent to her home and to the press. The content of the hate mail was predictable, filled with class hatred and misogyny: she was fat, common, and – worst of all – a woman. She was sacked from her job as a fish skinner and blacklisted from the industry. When the TGWU formed a ‘wives association’, which had a carefully restricted role, Lil was pointedly excluded. But in any case the industry she’d helped to transform was soon all but gone. By 1975, the industry had become unprofitable as the EEC introduced fishing quotas and cod wars escalated with Iceland. Plus, as Lavery notes, ‘In a cruel irony the expense of all the safety measures the women had won had added to owners’ costs.’ Many of the workers were deemed casual employees, and thus, even after decades of service, were ineligible for redundancy or any financial compensation. It was a blow from which Hull is still recovering.
Analysing the events Lavery describes, one might reach two reasonable but contradictory conclusions. Pessimistically, one might note – as John Prescott accepted once in power – that capitalism can’t be reformed. More optimistically, one might add that direct action gets the goods – in a few weeks a few women won changes that for their sector were at least as significant as the concessions earned a few months later by millions of French workers who rendered the state helpless and momentarily forced the government to abdicate.
Lavery largely resists analysis, describing events with impassioned objectivity. The book is meticulously researched and his admiration for Lil and the campaign is most revealed by his commitment to understanding the community he’s writing about and describing events as fully and accurately as he can. He saves his analysis for the afterword:
Lily’s Headscarf Revolution may have been a naïve one. But it was a powerful action from the heart that caught the imagination of the world and shamed an industry and a government into action.
It’s hard to disagree with that.
The Headscarf Revolutionaries is an enthralling read, a fitting tribute to an extraordinary woman, and an important addition to working class history.