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  • Writer's pictureBrian Lavery

'Headscarf Revolutionary' Mary Denness dies peacefully after long illness, aged 79

Mary, pictured left with the fellow campaigners in 1968 (below), and above with John Prescott at a memorial day for the triple trawler disaster.

NOTE: ANY MEDIA feel free to use this with no fee to author. A donation to the RNLI would be apt and appreciated though. Credit source as Brian W. Lavery

TRAWLER safety campaigner Mary Denness – one of Hull’s four “headscarf revolutionaries” has died aged 79.

Mrs Denness and her three co-campaigners rose to prominence following the Triple Trawler Disaster of 1968 in which three trawlers, from the city’s Hessle Road fishing community, sank in as many weeks in atrocious North Atlantic seas.

The St Romanus sank with all hands, on Jan 11, and then on January 26 the Kingston Peridot suffered the same fate. On February 4, only one man (the mate, Harry Eddom) was to survive the sinking of the Ross Cleveland. Fifty-eight men perished across 26 days.

One of these ships – the St Romanus – did not have a radio operator on board. Amazingly this was not illegal.

The women, led by outspoken fishwife Mrs Lillian Bilocca, a.k.a “Big Lil” took their campaign to Westminster and forced rapid changes to the trawling industry.

Mrs Bilocca led one of the biggest and successful civil action campaigns of the twentieth century. The most dangerous industry on Earth was changed for the better in days.

The world’s eyes were on Hull for a story that took Vietnam off the front pages.

The women, Mrs Bilocca, Mrs Denness, with Mrs Yvonne Blenkinsop and Mrs Christine Smallbone formed the Hessle Road Women’s Committee after a mass meeting ended with hundreds of women, led by Mrs Bilocca, storming the trawler owners’ offices.

Days later, trade unionists and Labour politicians, arranged for the women to meet with ministers.

They took with them 10,000 signatures on a “Fishermen’s Charter” which demanded radio operators for all ships, better weather forecasting, training for young deckhands, more safety equipment and a “mother ship” with hospital facilities to patrol with the fleet. Everything the women asked for was granted by ministers following the meeting. Upon the four women’s return to Hull, Mary Denness was quoted as saying, ‘We have achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years.’

Robina Mary Denness, nee Taylor, was born on Hessle Road in 1937 into a large fishing family. She had an elementary education at Witty Street School but proved to be both determined and ambitious.

Even as a teenager she broke the mould and worked as a steward on the merchant navy’s Wilson Line, a job usually reserved for men.

She married trawler skipper Barry Denness in the 1950s, from whom she later divorced in the 1970s. Then, as a single mother with three children, she in her own words “re-invented myself” and trained as a school nurse.

She worked for some of England’s great schools and ended her career at Eton College as a matron when Princes William and Harry attended. She often joked she went “from Eton Street (off Hessle Road) to Eton College!”

She lived a small village near Goxhill in Lincolnshire, until moving to the care home when she became gravely ill.

She leaves three grown-up children, Barry, 56, Alison, 54 and Lorna, 49. Mary has three grandchildren Emma, 32, Paul, 29 and Alexander, six.

The last surviving “headscarf revolutionary” Mrs Yvonne Blenkinsop, 77, of Hessle, near Hull, said, ‘We got on like a house on fire since first we met and stayed firm friends. She was a lovely lady and a great campaigner.’

With touching coincidence, Yvonne’s daughter, Mrs Collette Penrose was among the staff at the care home where Mrs Denness passed away.

‘My daughter spoke with Mary every day and we were both shocked at how quickly she passed. I thought she’d just keep going. It was touching and apt that my daughter should be with my friend at the end,’ said Mrs Blenkinsop.

Former deputy Prime Minister, east Hull MP and now Labour peer, Lord John Prescott, then a young trade union firebrand with the National Union of Seamen, campaigned alongside the four women in 1968.

He said, ‘They do not build them like Mrs Mary Denness anymore. She was a wonderful woman and along with Mrs Bilocca, Mrs Blenkinsop and Mrs Smallbone she changed the most dangerous of industries.

‘All fishermen, indeed all who go to sea, should be grateful for the massive changes they brought that saved thousands of lives to come.’

Hull-based author, Brian W. Lavery, who wrote the book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, telling the story of the 1968 tragedy and uprising, said, ‘Over the years I often sought advice from Mrs Mary Denness. She was a great campaigner but more than that a great person whose eloquence, elegance, and kindness never failed to impress me. I admired her greatly. Without her and her comrades in 1968 many more would have died at sea. Also without her my work would be diminished. She was a wise counsel indeed. I have lost a great friend and Hull has lost one of its great citizens.’

Hull playwright Rupert Creed, whose play Turning the Tide told the story of the disaster and campaign, said, ‘Mary Denness was a really special woman who was passionate about the cause of improving safety in the fishing industry. She was a resolute campaigner. She was a highly intelligent woman who could see not only the gender issues at play but the industrial ones too. She had a slightly tougher campaign having been a skipper’s wife, but overcame that too.’

Local campaigner Mr Ian Cuthbert, from Cottingham, near Hull whose Headscarf Pride campaign is trying to get a Pride of Britain award for the four women, said, ‘Mary was a big inspiration to me. I feel truly honoured and privileged to have known her and called her my friend. We should all be eternally grateful to her. Hull is proud of her.’

Mrs. Robina Mary Denness, (1937-2017) trawler safety campaigner and activist, b. Hessle Road, Hull, d. St Mary’s Care Centre, Anlaby, East Yorkshire, aged 79.

Brian W. Lavery, Hull, March 4, 2017.

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