As part of the University of Hull’s series of events to mark International Women’s Day in 2019, there was a special performance of Turning the Tide: The 1968 Trawler Tragedy and the Wives’ Campaign for Safety, a multimedia production about some of Hull’s most inspirational women. Since moving to Hull at the end of 2018 I have seen, heard, and read, quite a lot about the Triple Trawler Tragedy and the women who fought for better safety conditions on the trawlers (frequently known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries). It is a story I will never get tired of hearing, and Turning the Tide was a fantastic way of telling it.
Using a combination of storytelling, recorded interviews, film, images, and folk songs, Turning the Tide paints an evocative picture of the close-knit Hessle Road fishing community in the late 1960s, the dangerous conditions in which the fishermen worked, the restrictive gender roles forced upon women, the loss of the three trawlers, and the women’s campaign to improve safety standards and prevent further tragedy. Turning the Tide, devised and directed by Rupert Creed, is the result of the efforts of several groups, including the Hull Truck Theatre and the Centre for Contemporary Storytelling. The storytellers were Joan Venus-Evans, Mike Emberton and Rupert Creed, with songs performed by Hissyfit (a.k.a. Linda Kelly and Hazel Richings). I think that performances such as this are an excellent way of communicating history, they strike an excellent balance of entertaining and informative (I reviewed a similar performance by folk band the Young’uns recently, which you can see here). The performance was followed by a panel discussion featuring Jean Shakesby (a Hessle Roader who lost her father at sea, and who took part in the safety campaign), Lorna Denness (daughter of campaigner Mary Denness), Natalie Taylor (campaigner and member of the Strong Women of Hessle Road group) and Emma Hardy MP.
The performance and the panel discussion really brought to life several key issues related to International Women’s Day for me. The first is the strikingly sharp gender roles that were an unquestioned feature of the Hessle Road fishing community before 1968. Women were involved in the industry, many of them worked cleaning and processing the fish, and they kept their families going whilst the men were away for three weeks at a time. However, women were completely segregated from the fishing itself, to the extent that it was considered bad luck for a woman to go down to the docks to wave a ship off. Many of the women involved in the safety campaign faced verbal abuse, harassment, death threats, and even physical violence for daring to interfere in the men’s business.
Turning the Tide also highlighted the opportunity that protest campaigns and similar events can be for women to dramatically alter their life path. The women who took part in the safety campaign were not hardened activists, they were housewives and working mothers, many of whom had never spoken in public before. Through the campaign, they developed new skills, and learnt that their lives could be very different. After the campaign, Mary Denness got divorced and became a school nurse, going on to become a matron at Eton College. Christine Jensen [neé Gay and formerly Smallbone] continued to campaign, serving on the committee of the British Fishermen’s Association and founding a fishing heritage organisation called Stand. She was awarded an MBE in 2000. There are multiple examples like this in recent history, where women rejected a situation which they could no longer accept, and gained a new awareness of their potential in the process. Activism can empower women far beyond the initial protest or campaign they took part in.
Moments like International Women’s Day are an opportunity to use to past to reflect on the present. In many ways women’s rights have come a long way since the days of the Headscarf Revolutionaries. For centuries, women have been taking opportunities like the Trawler Safety Campaign to broaden their horizons, develop their skills and demonstrate their abilities. The rigid gender roles of the Hessle Road fishing community in the late 1960s are not nearly as common in the UK as they used to be. But in other ways, there is still a long way to go. Wonderful stories like the the Trawler Safety Campaign have the power to make you feel inspired and confident about the struggles that are still to be won. Events like Turning the Tide celebrate these stories and ensure they don’t get forgotten.