Guest-blogger Joan Venus-Evans shares a personal account of Hull’s Triple Trawler Tragedy and the ongoing need to memorialise and remember fishermen lost at sea.
I was born in the front bedroom of one of the small two up two down terraced houses that huddled together off Hessle Road. My first memories are of waking up on cold damp mornings to the sound of foghorns or a neighbour’s clogs echoing down the passage on his return from an early morning shift as a bobber unloading fish on the dock.
From the smell that hung so thickly in the air you could almost taste it, to the fish house lasses in their oilskins and white wellies promenading along the Road with a bag of chips in their dinner hour; Hessle Road was all about the fish.
We weren’t a fishing family. I had an uncle on big boats and although my dad always worked near the docks, the nearest he got to bringing home the fish was doing a dodgy deal in a back street pub with a filleter in exchange for the odd pint. Many of my friends and neighbours’ dads did go to sea though and through them I was attuned to the comings and goings of fishermen on the tide and the three week away, three days at home, feast and famine nature of their existence.
My friend Sue lived in the next terrace to us, she was the youngest of four and her dad went to sea. He was the kind who’d sail in on the morning tide, land the fish, collect his settlings (payment on the basis of how much fish had been caught), splash a bit of cash around and go to the pub. The family didn’t see a lot of him when he was home but for those few days Sue was the richest and most popular kid on the street because, as was the way with fishermen and their families, when they had it they spent it…….on everyone and anyone.
Sue’s mum died of cancer when she was 7 years old but her dad carried on going to sea while her brothers worked and she and her sister just about coped with the help of an aunt next door. A few years later Sue’s dad was lost at sea. Sue told me he’d been washed overboard. There was no funeral of course, not like when her mum died, with the respectful gathering in the street to say farewell and the flowers the neighbours would have clubbed together to buy. He was just gone and she would never see him again. He took with him not only the regular income they lived on but the pattern of life they’d had from birth. No more feasting after frugality. It was just survival because fishermen were paid as casual labour so there were no monetary rights to be had. Sue didn’t get to school very often after that and the family muddled through until all of them were at work and then had families of their own.
On 11th January 1968 when I was 13, the St Romanus became the first of three trawlers to be lost with all hands in the fishing grounds off Iceland. The tragedy may have left me relatively unaffected had one of the crew not been a contemporary of ours and a lad my best friend Kim was sweet on at the time. Rob Dockerty was just 16 and full of life and laughter when he left his home in Harrow Street, Hessle Road to join the crew as a Deckie Learner on the Romanus; he stays forever young in all our hearts and I know my friend thinks of him often to this day and always with sadness.
I left Hull at the age of 18, at the time when it was possible to get a free education and returned 8 years later to find the fish docks deserted save for a few rusting trawlers, anchored low and rotting in the water and a community grieving now for the loss of an entire industry and way of life. The sense of hopelessness and lack of purpose was palpable.
Just over 2 years ago I was asked to take part as a narrator in the retelling of the story of the Triple Trawler Tragedy and the Wives Campaign in a production called Turning the Tide, at Hull Truck Theatre. Using archive footage and audio, tales of the sea and music, the production retells the story, and puts it into a context and is followed by the opportunity for the audience to share their stories and memories. We’ve recently completed our fifth run, averaging five performances each time and the people keep coming.
Reliving this period of time as an adult has deepened my understanding, not only of the community I grew up in but of the experience of losing someone to the sea. There is no closure, which is perhaps why there is an almost insatiable appetite for this production and others about the fishing industry and this period in our history. Each audience brings something different, sharing part of themselves in the process, so the story takes on a life of its own. From the families of men lost, to those who should have sailed on one of the ships but for some fateful reason didn’t, to the remaining Headscarf Revolutionaries, they have all added a richness and authenticity to this story.
Above all I’ve come to realise over the last couple of years that the thousands of men who sailed from the Port of Hull never to return, left their families in a limbo from which there was no escape. If they were lucky their loved one’s name was entered in a book of remembrance in the Maritime Museum or History Centre. I recently checked for my friend Sue’s dad Eddie Gordon and couldn’t find him. Not all deaths have been recorded even now.
Almost fifty years on from the winter of the Triple Trawler Tragedy, the stories of Hull’s fishing community are being told more and more; in plays, books and even the local school curriculum. Also this year after many years of fundraising, campaigning and battling with landowners, the relatives of those lost at sea and the people of Hessle Road have been successful in having not one, but two, memorials to Hull’s lost trawlermen unveiled.
It’s virtually impossible to express in words how much the retelling of these stories and those memorials mean, not just to the families but to a forgotten city that needs to lay these men and a once cruel industry to rest before it can let go and move forward confidently into a brave new future.
It was with sadness that I learned a couple of days ago of the death of Mary Denness one of the four women who represented the Women’s Campaign for Safety at Sea in London in 1968. I first met Mary when she came unannounced to one of the first performances of Turning the Tide in 2015. At the end she turned and spoke eloquently to the audience and I had a long conversation with her afterwards during which she told me of her time working at various public schools including Eton, where she worked during the time the Royal princes were there. On that occasion it was clear Mary wasn’t at all well and it transpired she was battling cancer even then.
Last October arrangements had been made for Mary and Yvonne Blenkinsop to come along to one of the evening performances of Turning the Tide but coincidentally both ladies were ill, Mary was actually admitted into hospital that night so we didn’t expect to see either of them for a while. Imagine our surprise then when Yvonne’s daughter brought her along to the Saturday afternoon matinee and then later just after the performance had started a very frail and slightly dishevelled Mary turned up and was shown to a seat. So determined was she to make the performance she’d driven herself over the Humber Bridge from where she lived in Goxhill and when her car broke down on Boothferry High Road she abandoned it after a couple of strangers offered her a lift to the theatre. To the end Mary exhibited that same Hessle Road strength of character and spirit she’d shown throughout her life.
Coincidentally, John Prescott, the MP who as a trade union official in 1968 had helped the women during the campaign, was in the audience and they were all able to be photographed together.
RIP Mary Denness 1937 – March 2017.