Since January I have been living and working in Hull, an overlooked city in East Yorkshire on the Humber Estuary. I am quite easily pleased when it comes to the places I live–I have yet to live anywhere that I don’t like. That being said, Hull is a vibrant city with friendly and welcoming people, lots to do, and a thriving cultural scene (I have especially become a fan of the Bankside Gallery, where you can see fantastic street art at several locations around the city). Hull gets an average number of protest stickers for a city of its size; I have already written one post about them for the University of Hull’s Department of Geography, Geology and the Environment blog, here. But the stickers keep appearing, and so will the blog posts!
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.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write about Turbulent Londoners, women who participated in some form of protest or dissent in London. However, I have recently moved to Hull in East Yorkshire, so I have decided to celebrate the turbulent history of my new city. I recently reviewed a book about the city’s Headscarf Revolutionaries, but they are not the only women that have caused a stir in Hull. Dr. Mary Murdoch was a prominent suffragist, as well as being the city’s first female doctor.
Most of the names associated with the histories of British towns and cities are men. Look a bit harder, however, and it is almost guaranteed that you will find women who also helped to shape that local history. In Hull, Dr. Mary Murdoch is one such woman. She was the city’s first female doctor, as well as being a suffragist and dedicated social campaigner.
Mary Murdoch was born on the 26th of September 1864 in Elgin, Scotland. She was the youngest of 7 children, and her father was a solicitor. She received a good education at home from governesses, and at schools in Elgin, London, and Switzerland. She returned to Elgin in 1883, and from 1885 looked after her mother until her death in 1887. During this time, Mary discovered her love of medicine, and used the inheritance from her mother to fund her studies at the London School of Medicine for Women.
It was still unusual for women to train as doctors at this time. The London School of Medicine for Women was co-founded in 1874 by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of Britain’s first female doctors and sister of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
Mary finished off her studies in Scotland and qualified as a Doctor in 1892. The following year she moved to Hull and became the house surgeon at the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Park Street. In 1895 she moved back to London to work at the Tottenham Fever Hospital, where she gained experience in the diagnosis of infectious diseases. In 1896, she returned to Hull and worked there as a GP until her death in 1916.
In 1900, Mary employed the recently qualified Louisa Martindale as an assistant. They worked together until 1906. Mary listened to her poorer patients and developed a good understanding of the difficulties they faced, caused by a range of interconnected problems such as poor nutrition, hygiene, and housing, precarious employment, and childcare. She supported social reform and and public education, and helped to improve the services available to women and children in Hull; she founded the first creche in the city, and a school for mothers. Mary encouraged male dock workers to take a more active role in child rearing. She was a vocal critic of poor quality housing in Hull, which got her in trouble with prominent Conservatives in the city for portraying Hull in a bad light.
As well as working to improve the social issues faced in Hull, Mary was also politically active. In 1904, she founded the Hull Women’s Suffrage Society, which was part of the NUWSS. Mary disagreed with their policy of not supporting militancy by any suffrage campaigner however, and eventually joined the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She gave talks at the International Council of Women in Toronto (1909), Stockholm (1911), and Rome (1914). Mary was also a leader in the National Union of Women Workers, founding a local branch in 1905. She was also active in the Association of Registered Medical Women, which represented the interests of medical women and female patients (the organisation is still active as the Medical Women’s Federation).
Dr Mary Murdoch died on the 20th of March 1916; she became ill after going out in bad weather to see an emergency patient. Mary had been the first woman in Hull to own a car, and she earnt herself a reputation for driving around the city at speed. Her funeral procession was led by her car, and thousands of the city’s residents turned out to show their gratitude for everything she had done for Hull.
Dr. Mary Murdoch was a brave and energetic woman who dedicated herself to her adopted city of Hull. She worked hard to improve the lives of the city’s residents, on a social and a political level, and she helped to shape Hull as it is today.
Sources and Further Reading
Carnegie Hull. “Dr. Mary Murdoch.” Hull Firsts Trail. No date, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://www.carnegiehull.co.uk/hull-firsts/dr-mary-murdoch.php
Cockin, Katharine. “Murdoch, Mary Charlotte.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26 January 2005, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69838 [Requires a subscription to access].
Cockin, Katharine. ‘Dr Mary Murdoch (1864-1916) and the ‘Heart of Hull’: Campaigning for women’s suffrage, education and health care’; audio recording of a lecture delivered by Professor Katharine Cockin of the University of Hull to the Hull Amnesty Group on 15th November 2016, 11am-12noon at Hull History Centre. Available at https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:14055
Cockin, Katherine. “Dr. Mary Murdoch.” Remember Me. Last modified 5 April, 2017, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://remembermeproject.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/dr-mary-murdoch-1864-1916-a-woman-doctor-of-hull/
Wikipedia. “Mary Murdoch (Hull).” Last modified 10 December 2018, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Murdoch_(Hull)
Brian W. Lavery. The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster. London: Barbican Press, 2015.
Whenever I move to a new place, I like to find out about its history, particularly its radical history. I recently moved to Hull in east Yorkshire, and one of the most famous episodes of protest in the city’s history took place in 1968. In early 1968, three trawler ships from Hull were lost in the Artic ocean in the space of just a few weeks. All three crews were lost, apart from one sole survivor. For some women in Hull, this was a tragedy that could have been avoided with better equipment and more stringent safety checks on the trawler ships, and better training for inexperienced crew members. The women started a campaign which captured national attention, won concessions from the ship owners, and changed government policy. They were largely pushing against an open door, but they did face hostility and criticism, including from some trawlermen who didn’t like women interfering in their working lives. The women became known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries because of their distinctive headwear. In The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster, Brian W. Lavery tells the story of the campaign, the women involved, and the men who lost their lives on the St. Romanus, the Kingston Peridot, and the Ross Cleveland.
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. Hands that rocked the cradle shook the world and changed it for the better.
Lavery, 2015; p.190
I was not surprised to find out the Brian Lavery has training in both journalism and creative writing. The Headscarf Revolutionaries is incredibly well-researched; it seems like Lavery interviewed almost everyone who is still alive and had any involvement in the campaign. Virginia Bilocca-McKenzie, is the daughter of Lillian Bilocca’s, who kickstarted and was one of the key leaders of the movement. Virginia obviously had significant input into the book; multiple conversations between her and her mother are included. Many sections of the book feel more like fiction than non-fiction; it is much more descriptive that many of the other history books I read. It is an effective approach, particularly the section near the beginning in which some of the men on the crews of the doomed ships say goodbye to their families and head out to sea for what the reader knows is the final time.
There are some elements of Lavery’s writing style that I am not so keen on, however. He has an odd way of using commas that I found irritating. It’s not necessarily wrong, but there are lots of commas in places where I wouldn’t put them, which I found distracting. Also, some details are repeated in a way that felt unnecessary. These are minor issues in what is otherwise an excellent book, and I guess it isn’t Lavery’s fault that I am quite pedantic when it comes to grammar and style; I blame it on all the undergraduate marking I do.
The Headscarf Revolutionaries is about a local tragedy which sparked a campaign which had national implications. It shines a light on both labour and gender relations amongst Britain’s working classes in the mid-twentieth century, and as such has a much broader appeal than those who are just interested in local history.