Telling stories of Hull’s unsung freedom fighters

Campaigner Lillian Bilocca
Campaigner Lillian Bilocca
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A new book celebrates some of Hull’s unsung champions of freedom over the years. Phil Booth takes a look at the inspiring men and women from the city’s past.

THEIR backgrounds could not be more diverse. They include a tireless campaigner and her group of fighting fishwives, one of the first women doctors in the country and three generations from a family which ran a leather-finishing business who played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery, both in England and America.

Robb Robinson with his book 'Hull Champions of Freedom'

Robb Robinson with his book 'Hull Champions of Freedom'

Also involved are a prolific author, who fought for world peace, and a woman who as a child would lie down outside her mother’s bedroom to protect her from her drunken father, and who went on to be known as a champion for women’s rights.

What links this varied group is their backgrounds in Hull and East Yorkshire, and now they have been recognised in a new book commissioned by the Hull Amnesty Group to highlight the area’s role in freedom and human rights over the last four centuries.

Hull will always be regarded as the birthplace of William Wilberforce, but the book, Not Just Wilberforce; Champions of Human Rights from Hull and East Yorkshire focuses on figures whose dedication to human dignity and freedom is less well known.

They include Lillian Bilocca, who was born in Hull’s Hessle Road, in the heart of the fishing community, and whose father, husband and son all earned their living from the sea. Times were hard, and danger was ever present for the east coast trawlermen, and after three vessels were lost in 1968, claiming the lives of 53 men, she took on the most powerful men in the fishing industry, demanding greater safety standards.

Known as “Big Lil”, she led a group of other wives who carried out direct action, trying to stop boats leaving St Andrews Dock, as they pressed for safety measures including the legal requirement for vessels to have a full-time radio operator. Her fight took her to Downing Street where she met then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and the safety measures introduced as a result of the campaign turned her into a national figure and local folk hero.

The action of the wives has been said to have saved thousands of lives and a commemorative plaque has been placed behind the Fishermen’s Memorial in Hull, reading: “To Lillian Bilocca and the Women of Hessle Road”.

Their story is recounted by writer and journalist Brian Lavery.

The book, edited by Ekkehard Kopp and Cecile Oxaal, also charts the remarkable story of three generations of the Cookman family, which took the principles of liberty and anti-slavery from Hull to the United States. It begins with George Cookman, born in the parish of Owthorne on the Holderness coast in 1774, who built up a successful leather-finishing business. He was strongly opposed to slavery and wanted to give more people the right to vote. He became a JP and played a major role in local government, being Mayor for two years in the 1830s.

He had a strong association with slavery abolitionists and his views passed on to his eldest son, also called George. When George junior was sent by his father to America on business, he became convinced of a duty to preach the gospel, and having witnessed slavery at first hand he said: “My heart exults to reflect that in a few months I may be permitted to preach Christ crucified to the poor blacks of Maryland”.

He became an influential speaker, and huge crowds would turn out to listen, as he fought against slavery. A former slave who later wrote a book said: “We slaves loved Mr Cookman. We believed him to be a good man. He could not come among us without betraying his sympathy to us, and stupid as we were, we had the sagacity to see it.”

When he moved to Washington, many members of Congress were among his congregation and he became Chaplain to the US Senate, preaching to the politicians.

His life ended tragically. He set sail to visit his father in Hull but after his steamship left America it was never seen again. No one knows for sure what happened, but there was speculation the ship hit an iceberg in the same region where the Titanic would come to grief 71 years later.

His distraught wife decided to stay in America with their children, and eldest son, Alfred, built up a regular correspondence with his grandfather in Hull. Over the next 20 years Alfred became one of the most highly regarded preachers in America, and after visiting his grandfather in Hull, he returned to be in the vanguard of those wanting the abolition of slavery.

After the outbreak of the Civil War he found himself preaching to soldiers, and was a keen supporter of Abraham Lincoln, welcoming the president’s declaration that all slaves should be free. He died aged only 43, but his name would live on. The Cookman Institute in Florida was opened in 1872 and was the first institute of higher education for blacks in Florida.

In 1924 it was merged with the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute, and has since been known as the Bethune-Cookman Institute, providing a distant but enduring connection with the anti slavery movement in Hull.

The book also charts the life of Mary Murdoch, a Scotswoman who was appointed house surgeon at the children’s hospital in Hull. Three years later she set up as the city’s first woman GP, and was instrumental in founding a women’s suffrage society.

Her house in Beverley Road, Hull, was used as a meeting point for suffragists and as the movement grew across the country she was pivotal in showing the rest of the country that Hull was not the isolated city some believed but was heavily involved in the votes for women campaign.

Another woman detailed in the book is Winifred Holtby, born in the East Yorkshire village of Rudston, a journalist and author best known for her work South Riding. What is less well known is her work lecturing all over Europe for the League of Nations Union and her support for world peace and women’s rights. She was also part of a fundraising drive to improve conditions for people in South Africa, which provided funding, grants and sponsorship.

Another subject with East Yorkshire links was Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born in London, but who spent time in Beverley. Her father would beat his wife in drunken rages, and as a teenager, Mary would lie outside her mother’s bedroom to protect her.

She would grow up to become a writer, philosopher and a huge advocate for women’s rights. She was best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she argued that women were not naturally inferior to men, but appeared to be because they lacked education. Today she is regarded as being one of the founding philosophers of feminism, and her work is often cited as an important influence.

Dr Robb Robinson, from the Maritime Historical Studies Centre in Hull, has written two chapters in the book including one on Beverley man Matthew Alured, a parliamentary Colonel who fought in many battles in Yorkshire during the English Civil War and later championed parliament when Oliver Cromwell seized absolute power.

He feels Hull’s connection with freedom fighters and slavery abolitionists might be to do with its geographical location. “I think Hull and the East Riding has to some extent ploughed its own course. It’s miles from anywhere and has developed a love of freedom,” says Dr Robinson.

“Hull and the Holderness coastline are particularly insular places, and yet the sea was the first worldwide web, and this gave people from the area the chance to mix with other people and other cultures, meaning Hull has played a remarkable role.”

• Not Just Wilberforce: Champions of Human Rights in Hull and East Yorkshire, edited by Ekkehard Kopp and Cecile Oxaal, is Amnesty International UK (in association with Hull Amnesty Group), priced £9.99