The last of the “headscarf revolutionaries” is getting Hull Council’s highest honour

Yvonne Blenkinsop - one of the four women who took on the Government and won over safety measures for trawlermen
Yvonne Blenkinsop - one of the four women who took on the Government and won over safety measures for trawlermen
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She was 30 and a mother-of-three when three Hull trawlers sank within weeks of each other in early 1968, with the loss of 58 lives.

Yvonne Blenkinsop already knew all about the hardships and tragedy involved in working at sea. She was only 16 when her father Eddie Horsfield, 48, died four days after suffering a heart attack on board the trawler Loch Melfort.

St Romanus - the first trawler to be lost

St Romanus - the first trawler to be lost

As the oldest of six, she shouldered much of the responsibility in the household – including looking after her mother whose nerves had been shattered by the Second World War.

A stubborn child she had been told early on to stand up to bullies and it was a lesson she never forgot.

By the time the news came that the first trawler, St Romanus, which had sailed from Hull on January 10, had gone down heading towards Norway, “everybody was sick out of their minds,” she recalls.

The Kingston Peridot, which had left on the same tide, communicated with a sister ship on the 26th, then nothing more was heard as she attempted to ride out a storm off the north coast of Iceland, sending more shockwaves through the close-knit community.

Hull in its heyday as a fishing port

Hull in its heyday as a fishing port

Unable to sleep Yvonne stayed up, praying and scribbling down the measures needed that she thought essential to the men’s safety, 27 in all, including radio operator on all vessels and a “mother” ship with medical facilities.

Her moment came when she was invited onto the stage at the now famous evening meeting at Victoria Hall in Hull on February 2, becoming part of the Hessle Road Women’s Committee led by the indomitable fish filleter Lilian Bilocca.

A natural orator – at the time she was a cabaret singer, The Girl with the Golden Voice – the words came tumbling from her mouth – and still do 50 years later.

“The very first thing I said to the ladies was: ‘All of you out there. Many of you know me and you know all my family and I know what it’s like when you have lost a husband, a daddy at sea. My mother had six children to bring up.

Seagulls swarm around Kingston Sapphire H95

Seagulls swarm around Kingston Sapphire H95

“I said about what had happened in the past and what shouldn’t have been happening and ‘let’s get it stopped now’. I got it all said.”

Lil and Yvonne were joined by Mary Denness, the “posh-speaking” skipper’s wife, and Christine Jensen (nee Smallbone) unaware then that the trawler her brother skipper Phil Gay was on, Ross Cleveland, would be lost within hours, as it sought shelter in an Icelandic fjord, the third victim of what became known, infamously, as the Triple Trawler Disaster.

All ran the risk of a back-lash from “interfering in men’s business” and just hours later Yvonne was to experience it personally. She was in a restaurant when a man came up to her and punched her “full force” in the face.

She recalled: “It was quite obvious that I had been at the meeting – we had John Prescott there. They didn’t want women messing in their business – they should be at home, looking after the kids, cooking, cleaning.”

But the women’s persistence paid off, and with massive media coverage and union support, they took their campaign to Westminster, to meet Minister of State at the Board of Trade, JPW Mallalieu.

“I said: ‘We have these safety measures – are we going to get them. I’m not going to leave until I know. I called him petal accidentally.

He just smiled at me. I said: ‘I really need to know’ He said: ‘Yes, my dear, you have got them.”

One of the key demands – the mother ship – was delivered within weeks. “We had it in no time at all – I was flabbergasted we got it so quickly.”

But she says with the exception of one Hull company Marrs, trawler owners were not prepared to invest in safety and new ships. “They just wanted the money coming in,” she said. “Thank God for Grimsby.”

She thinks it “disgraceful” there is no longer a fishing industry operating out of Hull. “I think the owners pulled up the gangplank when they had to fork out for safety”, adding poignantly, “And all those men that died and ships that have gone down.”

In 2015 the story was given to a much wider audience by Brian W Lavery’s The Headscarf Revolutionaries. Plays, poetry, music, radio and TV documentaries followed.

Mr Lavery said the award was also for “the hundreds of women that marched alongside them, many of whom are still with us.”

What they achieved “saved countless thousands of lives” and was effectively “one of the most successful civil disobedience campaigns of the 20th century.”

“It is important this great maritime city and its civic leaders are recognising it,” he said.

Meanwhile a campaign by local man Ian Cuthbert to get Yvonne an MBE has been signed by nearly 7,300 people.

Yvonne wants the city’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren “to know everything about the industry and working and giving their lives to the sea.”

Looking back it was “just something I had to do. Now I am thoroughly glad I did it and if it happened again I would do it.”

Yvonne Blenkinsop will only be the third woman in more than 130 years to be awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City.

She joins legendary fundraiser Jean Bishop and anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman.

It is hoped the award, made on behalf of her and her fellow campaigners, can be made in January.

Council leader Steve Brady – who was 18 and working as a butcher on Hessle Road, remembers vividly the loss of the trawlers: “The shock of that loss of lives galvanised the ladies to make a stand.

"We all know from history that when women get their teeth into something they never let go.”