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Yvonne Blenkinsop — last of the Headscarf Revolutionaries

One of the four working class-women who rapidly forced an entire industy to change has died just weeks short of her 84th birthday — biographer BRIAN W LAVERY recounts her life and achievements

IN what became known as the dark winter of 1968, four working-class women from Hull were cast into the eye of a storm the aftermath of which would save countless lives — but at great personal cost.

They argued trawler bosses were sacrificing workers’ lives by cutting corners and their campaign of women-led activism captured the nation’s attention when it took the women of Hull to the Houses of Parliament.

They were subjected to a sexist backlash, pillory in the press, poison pen letters, threats and one of them, Lillian Bilocca, lost her job.

Some of the men they were trying to save turned on them too.

At the height of the campaign, Blenkinsop was attacked in a restaurant as she and her husband John were celebrating his birthday. That attack only made her resolve stronger.

All four women received threats by post and telegram. Copies of poison pen letters and other threats kept by Blenkinsop in files were lost in the floods of 2004. The others kept some of theirs which were later published.

These four women took on trawler bosses and the establishment and won, making the world’s most dangerous profession — deep sea trawling — safer by far.

Blenkinsop was born into Hull’s Hessle Road fishing community on May 19, 1938. Her fisherman father had died at sea of a heart attack with no possibility of medical aid — something that drove her campaigning in later life.

She combined a career as a singer alongside being a married mother of four. She toured the country as Yvonne — the golden girl with the golden voice.

Blenkinsop and three co-campaigners, led by Bilocca, rose to fame after the Triple Trawler Disaster of 1968 in which three trawlers, from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community, sank in as many weeks in atrocious North Atlantic seas.

Fish filleter Block, housewife Chrissie Smallbone, skipper’s wife Mary Denness and singer Blenkinsop were thrown together when disaster struck at Hull’s Hessle Road fishing community for the fourth time in 13 months.

Another Hull trawler — the St Finbarr — had been lost little more than a year earlier on Christmas 1966 off Newfoundland. Only 13 of her 25 crew survived.

The St Romanus sank with all hands on January 11 1968 and then on January 26 the Kingston Peridot suffered the same fate.

The St Romanus did not have a radio operator on board — amazingly this was not illegal. On February 4, only one man (the mate, Harry Eddom) was to survive the sinking of the Ross Cleveland, off Iceland. Fifty-eight men perished across 26 days.

Eddom’s incredible survival was announced while the women were in London.

In an early interview with me, her fellow campaigner Denness (1937-2017) recalled how, at King’s Cross, platforms were empty and that she, Bilocca and Blenkinsop were the only “real” passengers on the train:

“It was full of journalists, union men, photographers and TV folk. When we got off, the station was empty and the platforms were surrounded by those barriers they use on royal visits.”

But at the exit there were thousands waiting and cheering.

A newspaper billboard read: Big Lil Hits Town.

The women met with the ministers after which they learned that Eddom had been found alive. His survival became worldwide news.

The women had taken their campaign to Westminster and forced rapid changes to the trawling industry after a meeting with Board of Trade minister Joseph Mallalieu and fisheries minister Fred Peart.

“I remember sitting in a semi-circle with the MP JPW Mallalieu of the Board of Trade and he laughed when I called him petal,” Blenkinsop told me during one of our many chats while researching my book, the Headscarf Revolutionaries.

The world’s eyes were then on Hull for a story that took Vietnam off the front pages.

The women had led one of the biggest and most successful civil disobedience campaigns of the 20th century.

Bilocca, Denness, Blenkinsop and Smallbone (later Jensen) formed the Hessle Road Women’s Committee after a mass meeting ended with hundreds of Hull women, led by Bilocca, storming the trawler owners’ offices. It was singer Blenkinsop’s mic and PA system they used at the meeting in the Victoria Hall on Hessle Road.

Days later, trade unionists and Labour politicians arranged for the women to meet with ministers. The then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was in the US but was kept updated with progress of the talks.

The women had taken with them 10,000 signatures on a Fishermen’s Charter which demanded radio operators for all ships, better weather forecasting, training for young deckhands, more safety equipment and a “mother ship” with hospital facilities to patrol with the fleet.

Everything the women asked for was granted by ministers following the Westminster meeting. Eighty-eight new safety measures were introduced with startling rapidity.

Upon the four women’s return to Hull, Denness told the waiting press: “We have achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years.”

In 2018 Blenkinsop was made a Freeman of the City of Kingston upon Hull. Her co-campaigners were also posthumously recognised, with the families given civic scrolls.

Blenkinsop later accompanied Hull’s three Labour MPs to Parliament to mark the 50th anniversary of the campaign. She was met by Jeremy Corbyn — and former Labour deputy prime minister and Hull East MP John Prescott, who had fought alongside her in 1968.

Recently, local heritage campaigner Ian Cuthbert’s Headscarf Pride group had lobbied to get Blenkinsop recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. He is also campaigning for a statue to be built to the women.

In February, after a fall at home, Blenkinsop was taken to hospital having injured her arm, back and leg.

Her son Brian said his mother was moved to the Redstacks Care Home in Hessle, East Yorkshire for respite care.

“She was frail and looked as if she was bound to stay at the home long-term.”

But the family were called to the rest home in the early hours of Sunday, April 24 where Blenkinsop had passed away.

Prescott, a friend of Blenkinsop’s, called me when he heard the news. He said: “I’m so sad to hear of the passing of Yvonne Blenkinsop. She was a remarkable woman who with Lil Bilocca, Chrissie Smallbone and Mary Denness successfully fought to improve safety for seafarers after the Triple Trawler Tragedy.

“As a young trade unionist and seaman I was in awe of what Blenkinsop and her Headscarf Revolutionaries achieved and was proud to campaign alongside them.

“I helped build a giant cardboard cod which they wheeled round the city, smeared in red paint, that said: ‘It’s not the fish you’re buying, it’s men’s lives.’

“They took on the might of the trawler industry and secured changes to the shipping laws that saved countless lives for people who went to sea.

“She was the very best of Hull, an inspiration to me and we will not see her like again.”

For me, it was an honour to know Blenkinsop and to tell her story. She was brave, funny, direct and unfailingly cheerful. She had been ill for a few years but always made supreme efforts when asked to appear in public.

Not only did she play a key role in one of the most successful civil disobedience campaigns of the 20th century but she also spent her life ensuring that the legacy of that campaign would not be forgotten.

Blenkinsop’s private legacy is four children, 10 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. Her beloved husband John predeceased her in 2004.

But her public legacy, shared with her three comrades from 1968, must be the countless people whose lives have been saved across the years by the safety measures that they fought for — and won.

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