‘Headstone’ for fishermen who never left sea

Sculptor Peter Naylor with some of the steel figures which will be a memorial to trawlermen lost at sea. Picture by Simon Hulme
Sculptor Peter Naylor with some of the steel figures which will be a memorial to trawlermen lost at sea. Picture by Simon Hulme
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“When you see the figures stood up, you get the feeling that the spirits of the men are coming home.”

So says former fisherman Dennis Chapman of a new memorial to the 6,000 men from Hull whose only known grave is the sea.

Jill Long throws floral tributes into the Humber

Jill Long throws floral tributes into the Humber

After years of delays and hurdles, the long-awaited memorial is finally taking shape in a factory in Hull. A design that was chosen in a public vote, it appears to have gone down well with most people in the former fishing community.

Vic Wheeldon’s older brother, Jim, set sail on the St Romanus as its relief skipper in January 1968. He was 26 and had two children. At the time, Vic, who was mate on another trawler, was at home, having injured his finger.

Mr Wheeldon, vice chairman of fishing heritage charity Stand, which fundraised for the memorial, said: “When the news started to filter through that nothing had been heard from the ship with regards to radio communications you know it’s not normal, but it’s not unusual for a ship to keep quiet. Because it’s a family member you hope for the best, not the worst, but as times passes you realise the ultimate, that the ship has sunk.”

There was speculation about what had happened. A life-raft was found and a lifebelt washed up in Denmark.

“It devastated my mother. Myself, my younger brother and dad continued to go to sea,” said Mr Wheeldon.

Within weeks two more trawlers, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland, had been lost in what became known as the triple trawler tragedy, which led to the famous campaign by the women of Hessle Road for the improvement of safety at sea.

Mr Wheeldon thinks about his beloved brother most days – they shared a deep bond and the same sense of humour and he is very close to his brother’s two children. The memorial, he says, is absolutely perfect.

“The figures are generic and not specific and everyone will look at them and believe they know someone,” he said.

Mr Chapman, who started out as a 15-year-old deckie learner and spent the next 15 years at sea fishing off Norway, Greenland and Iceland, was at the factory in Hull, W Campbell & Son, on Harpings Road, where the figures have been cut from weathered steel.

It is hard, he says, for anyone who has not experienced the sea to imagine it, adding: “You can never describe it in words. When you watch it on TV you always have the option of turning it off. You can’t turn it off out there.”

Created by Peter Naylor, who is behind the popular tribute to the men of the 158 Squadron Bomber Command at Lissett in Holderness, the sculpture is made up of 14 figures – the 13 ill-fated crew and a young boy. Dressed in suits, most are carrying kitbags full of clothes to last them on the three-week trip.

The youngster down at the dock, seeing his father or uncle off, is part of a scene instantly recognisable to the people who formed that community. The boys would offer to carry a bag for any loose change the men might have on them. Some people considered it unlucky to take money to sea.

Mr Naylor said he wanted people who had lost relatives to “feel this is almost a headstone. You want them to feel you have bought their loved ones home”.

He added: “Its other role is almost educational. Generations move on faster than you think. Some of the young ones don’t even know Hull was a fishing port. You want to make them aware of the incredible hardships these men went through. This is a memorial to the working man, it’s not to a rock star, or a celebrity. These are the people who made the city.”

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