It took the disaster
in 1966 to bring home to people, in the most terrible way conceivable, that a publicly-
owned industry could be run with the same indifference to human welfare as the system of capitalist exploitation whose habits and traditions it inherited. And it has taken the loss of the Hull fishing trawlers
early this year to remind us that the conditions and the ideology of 19th century “private enterprise” survive unmodified in another basic industry. As Tony Topham
puts it, “Owners argue that the loss of trawlers is inevitable in winter fishing in northern waters; it is no one’s fault. This is a tragic example of the effects of market laws upon men’s minds; responsibility is dissipated, and acts of commerce become somehow Acts of God. Can we doubt that in a society freed of this fetish it would be regarded as scandalous to operate small ships, under the hurricane conditions off Iceland
in winter, not as an emergency operation to feed starving people, but as a normal commercial activity?”
And just as it transpired, after the Aberfan disaster, that the Coal Board had had plenty of warning, ignored through inertia, indifference and parsimony, of the ever-present danger, so the risks of catastrophe in the trawling industry were as clear to the trawler-owners as they were to every outsider who studied the industry, and above all, to the trawler crews. “The fear of death pervades the occupation of trawling, contributing to it a flavour of gloom and fatalism” wrote Jeremy Tunstall in his book The Fishermen, published in 1962, where he remarked that “the lull during the last few years in the mortality rate may only be a pause before a big tragedy”. This lull followed the loss in January, 1955, off Iceland of the Lorella and the Roderigo, when forty men died as a result of the over-turning of the vessels due to icing-up of the superstructure, which appears to be the reason for the loss of at least one of the three trawlers sunk in January and February, 1968. Tunstall showed statistically that fishing was the occupation with the highest industrial death-rate in Britain.
In 1965 Professor R. S. F. Schilling
of the London School of Hygiene
again analysed industrial death-
rates and concluded that the figure for the fishing industry was twice that for coal-
mining and many times that in manufacturing industry. In the following year, in his
presidential address to the occupational medicine section of the Royal Society of Medicine
, Professor Schilling observed that between 1960 and 1966, 223 fishermen were killed on British fishing vessels—
about one per cent of the work force.
<span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: Rear-Admiral">Rear-Admiral Ievers, of the Trawler Insurance Company, has recently made a number of press and television statements about the inevitability of the deaths of 59 fishermen. He is further reported in the Hull Daily Mail (February 7th) as saying: “We are not surprised when a vessel is lost in a typhoon in the China Seas—but we express surprise when a trawler is lost in the circumstances which existed when the Ross Cleveland sank. I fail to see what more could have been done by the skipper or by anyone else at the time” (my italics).
This attitude ignores the fundamental fact about trawling in winter in the northern seas: that such conditions are not unusual, and that therefore it is wholly irresponsible to defend the continued operation of ships in such conditions, not as some dire emergency need, but as a normal commercial activity.
Of course nothing else could have been done “at the time”. I know of no one who has suggested it. Rear-Admiral Ievers’s comparison with the Cina typhoon is designed to give the impression that the recent conditions off Iceland were extraordinarily rare. But the fact is that all fishermen dread black ice as a normal expected hazard. Later in his statement Rear-Admiral Ievers is reported to have said that the problem of icing-up had been investigated, but that no method had been found “of practical value”, and that the devices which were tried out involved “a prohibitive cost”.
So it comes to this: trawlers have been lost in the past, and men killed, by black ice; black ice forms regularly in the northern waters in winter, not just in the very severe weather of this year. The owners made some attempt to discover a solution, but failed, or were deterred by the cost. They have continued nevertheless, to accept fishing in those waters. Yet when at least one of the three recent tragedies was probably caused by icing up, we are told (a) not to be surprised; and (b) that nothing could have been done: that no human responsibility is involved. It is incredible.
Perhaps the only form of education which would cut through the fetish of inevitability would be for the next trawler to sail from Hull to be skippered by the Rear-Admiral, and crewed entirely by trawler owners.
On March 6th, 1883, occurred one of the worst disasters ever to happen to the fishing community of Hull. Twenty-three fishing smacks and about 150 men were lost in a storm on this day. The disaster shocked the town and when the fishermen paraded with banners against “winter fleeting” on October 1st, public opinion this time was on their side. The strike began formally about a week later.
The strike was weakening in the early days of November, with the owners able to get away with an increasing number of smacks, and on November 10th the Trades Council, acting for the Fishermen’s Society, accepted terms. The two main points were: that winter fleeting was not to be carried on beyond 55N; and that each fleet was to be limited to 50 vessels. Other points were that there should be no victimisation, and the men should have a say in the appointment of the “admirals” of the fishing fleets.
<span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: john saville
: “Early History of Hull’s Waterfront Workers”