On a cold Sunday afternoon earlier this month, 800 people gathered at Hull Minster for a memorial service to mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘triple trawler tragedy’. In three weeks in January and February 1968, the trawlers St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland all sank in freezing North Atlantic waters. Fifty-eight men from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community died.
A group of women led by Lillian ‘Big Lil’ Bilocca marched to St Andrews Dock, where the deep-sea trawler fleet was based; a photo shows three police officers trying to restrain Bilocca as she attempts to board the St Keverne to prevent it from leaving the dock.
Bilocca, Yvonne Blenkinsop and Mary Denness delivered a petition signed by 10,000 people, demanding better safety measures on the ships and training for the trawlermen, to 10 Downing Street, along with a list of 88 proposed safety measures devised by the Hessle Road women’s committee. The movement caught the public imagination, but the women also faced anger and condescension. Bilocca received death threats and was effectively blacklisted from working on the docks.
Sweeping reforms introduced in 1969 made the fishing industry safer. But with the Cod Wars of the 1970s, Hull’s trawler fleet entered a terminal decline. The docks closed in the early 1980s. Only more recently have the women of Hessle Road received the credit they deserve. There’s a mural of Bilocca and the names of the lost trawlers on a gable end near the railway station, painted in 2016 by Mike Ervine and Kev Largey. Val Holmes’s play Lil was staged in November, as was Maxine Peake’s The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca.
Hull was the 2017 UK City of Culture. The last of the four 2017 ‘seasons’ was called ‘Tell the World’. It sought, in the organiser’s words, to emphasise ‘how Hull is redefining itself as a key city within the North; a place reborn, with the voice and confidence of a city on the up’.
An evaluation of Hull 2017 was published this month, led by the University of Hull’s Culture, Place and Policy Institute. There were 5.3 million visits to nearly 3000 events. Eight out of ten participants said that being involved in City of Culture projects made them feel happier. The learning programme reached more than 55,000 children and young people, of whom 63 per cent said they felt encouraged to engage in creative activities in the future. The report also sets out an ambitious plan for the next twenty years, which depends on maintaining Hull 2017 as a permanent arts company operating in the city and beyond.
For all the public and corporate investment over the last four years, however, council funding has been decimated by central government cuts: the city has lost more than £106 million from its budget since 2010. The removal of the Revenue Support Grant by 2020 means further pain for one of the most deprived local authorities in the country.
Last December, four installations by the Jason Bruges Studio opened in Hull’s Old Town, including one in the square in front of the minster. In each, groups of robotic arms borrowed from a car factory danced in mesmerising synchrony, the mirrors attached in place of tools reflecting carefully positioned spotlights and sending columns of light into the night sky. The installations raised questions about the role of technology and innovation in the ambitions of a city still coming to terms with the loss of industry. The work’s title was Where Do We Go From Here?