Karl Turner – 2021 Speech on National Lost Trawlermen’s Memorial Day

The speech made by Karl Turner, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East, in the House of Commons on 13 December 2021.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for providing me with the opportunity to speak on this subject, which is incredibly close to my heart, and means a great deal to the people of Hull and many others across the country.

For the past 32 years, Hull has come together, with a date now fixed—the last Sunday in January—to remember and commemorate the more than 6,000 trawlermen of our city who lost their lives at sea. Although the covid-19 pandemic may have moved the annual service online last year, I have no doubt that Lost Trawlermen’s Day will, as soon as possible, return to its rightful place in the city and our civic life.

As someone who was born and bred in Hull, it is a source of immense pride, every year, that hundreds of people brave the January wind and cold on the banks of the Humber to attend the service to the lost trawlermen—that is how much it means to the people of our city.

Mrs Sheryll Murray(South East Cornwall) (Con)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising this today. As the widow of a trawlerman, who lost her husband at sea, I genuinely believe that what he is asking for today is something that we should all support. I know that my family would really like to see a day when they can celebrate —my children celebrate their father and I my late husband. There are many fishermen’s wives out there who do not have anything other than a memory because they did not even have their husbands recovered. My friend has raised this but I genuinely believe that it has cross-party support. On these Conservative Benches, we believe as well that we should be doing this.

Karl Turner

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. She and I were elected together in 2010 and I remember that terrible event. She paid tribute to me, but may I pay tribute to her for what she has just said in this important debate?

People come together in the city. They do that because, at one time, Hull was the largest and most successful fishing port in the world and the city’s development was closely tied to the industry. That success came at a terrible human cost. The price of fish at market may have gone up and down but, at least until recent years, it was always high in terms of lives lost at sea. I think I am right in saying that it was Walter Scott who wrote, over two centuries ago:

“It’s not fish you’re buying, it’s men’s lives.”

Sadly, that was very true.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate forward and pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her heartfelt thoughts.

I represent Portavogie, the second largest fishing village in Northern Ireland and I have known in my lifetime many a brave man lost at sea. Indeed, just last week, my office had contact with a widow who lost her husband at sea in 1986—35 years ago—and she still mourns him today. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the widows and the children of these men will be warmed in the knowledge that their loved ones have not been forgotten by us in this House tonight?

Karl Turner

I do agree, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, because I know he is incredibly proud of the industry in his area and campaigns tirelessly for the interests of those who earn their living fishing at sea.

Fishing was and is a hard, tough and unimaginably dangerous job. In the mid-20th century, workers in the fishing industry were four times as likely to be killed as those in the UK’s next most lethal profession, underground coalmining.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because this is a proposition that I am sure will have support in coastal and island communities right around the country. I was brought up on Islay, with a population of 3,500 people, and even of those who were at school with me I can count no fewer than six who have lost their lives in the industry. The real benefit that would come from what he proposes is not just that it would be an act of remembrance but, in its own small way, it would help to improve the culture within the industry so that the many lives that were lost needlessly would not be lost in future generations.

Karl Turner

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; the fact that he speaks as he does adds incredibly strong support to the argument. I think I am right in saying, having spoken briefly with the Minister prior to the debate, that to some extent we are pushing at an open door.

Fishing in Hull and the rest of the UK was not only deadly during peacetime. Trawlermen were on the frontline of both world wars, not only braving enemy action to keep those at home supplied with vital food when rationing tightened belts, but playing an active role in minesweeping, U-boat detection and saving lives at sea. At the height of the first world war, fishing trawlers on active service were lost at the rate of one every other week, with an average of half of all crew lost in every single incident. The contribution of fishing communities to the wider conflict has been woefully under-recognised, in my respectful view, and that must be addressed.

Lia Nici (Great Grimsby) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate forward. As we both know, Grimsby and Hull have had a healthy competition over the years, because Grimsby is well-known as the world’s premier fishing port. On the point about the first and second world wars, however, does he agree that our minesweeping, our anti-submarine work, our convoy work and our armed trawling work has not been very well publicised, and that the 66,000 men around the UK who joined the Royal Naval Patrol Service helped to save the UK and to keep it fed, since fish was the only food that was not rationed at the time?

Karl Turner

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes the point better than me, I suspect, and very passionately; I spotted the Minister listening intently while she spoke.

While fishermen are among those commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial in London, their relative absence from the wider story of this country’s war effort should be further evidence of the need for a National Lost Trawlermen’s Memorial Day. We mark Lost Trawlermen’s Day in Hull on the last Sunday in January, deliberately and for a significant reason: with high winds and stormy seas, it was always a perilous time for Hull’s fishing fleet, with many losses occurring at that time of year.

However, January 1968 marked one of the darkest periods in our city’s history, the triple trawler tragedy, when the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland all sank within weeks of each other, with the loss of 58 lives. Only one man survived. The devastating blow dealt to Hull’s tight-knit fishing community was a call to arms, and the headscarf revolutionaries, led by Lillian “Big Lil” Bilocca, achieved more for safety at sea in a few days than others had achieved in many decades. Dr Brian Lavery paid tribute to her in his book.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He talks of the triple tragedy, and I am old enough to remember the hush of cold silence over Grimsby when a trawler went missing. I remember regularly going down to Grimsby docks with my father, who worked on the docks all his working life. I went on the trawlers and saw how little protection they offered to the trawlermen, so I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on achieving not only cross-party support but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) said, cross-Humber support, which is not always quite so obvious.

Karl Turner

The hon. Gentleman is of course right that he and I and colleagues from across the Humber do not always agree, but I am grateful that we do on this point.

Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)

It is not just cross-Humber, as there is cross-Tamar support from Devon and Cornwall MPs. In Plymouth we have lost two trawlerman in recent years: one on the Solstice and one on the Laura Jane. In remembering them as individuals and the risks they take in going to sea, may I ask my hon. Friend to use this opportunity to talk about the need to invest in improved safety such as the further roll-out of the Plymouth life jacket scheme? A personal locator beacon is included on the life jackets, which takes the search out of “search and rescue” if a person goes overboard.

Karl Turner

I thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on this issue over the past couple of years as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He is right, of course, and we should extend the scheme further not just to those most at risk but across the industry and to all fishers, because these relatively cost-effective, inexpensive things can save lives.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this Adjournment debate. Further to what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, we can greatly improve the safety of our boats. There will always be risks at sea, but we can minimise those risks by introducing better safety and more up-to-date boats. I would like to see us invest even more in fishing and fishing boats so that we can see our fishermen safer at sea.

Karl Turner

The hon. Gentleman is right that the industry was never safe. Fishermen in Hull and across the country were referred to as “three-day millionaires” because they were paid well, relatively speaking, but when we think about it, they were not paid well enough. The risk of going out to sea on those vessels often meant they did not come home. He makes a good point.

If I may, I am keen to get back to “Big Lil” Bilocca. She is remembered with folk-hero status in Hull, and her legacy is the cornerstone of our respect for this once dominant industry.

The cultural institutions marking the contribution of trawlermen and the wider industry to the city of Hull have gone from strength to strength in recent years. Both the Arctic Corsair and the Spurn lightship have recently undergone dry-dock repairs to preserve them for generations to come, which I am delighted to see. It has chiefly been led by Hull City Council and its leader Daren Hale, and they have ensured that the “Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City” project undertakes the vital work needed to preserve and promote Hull’s 800 years of seafaring history.

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)

I pay tribute to Hull City Council, which is clearly doing a lot of work on its fishing heritage. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Fleetwood Town Council, which since 2017 has taken on responsibility for the two memorials to fishing in Fleetwood? There is one on Dock Street next to Asda and, of course, one on the promenade. As we have two memorials in one fishing town, does that not suggest that a national memorial could solidify how communities across the British Isles have paid the ultimate price to put food on the table?

Karl Turner

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is no secret that she is a powerful voice for the industry in her constituency. Indeed, she has often discussed the issue with me and other colleagues who are keen to ensure that it is raised.

Mrs Sheryll Murray

I pay tribute to the Looe harbour commissioners, who have a memorial on the harbourside with my late husband’s name on it, among many others. I also pay tribute to Plymouth City Council, which has a memorial on Plymouth Hoe for merchant seamen. Every year, the fishing industry is included in Merchant Navy Day, but we really must look to have a fishermen’s memorial day.

Karl Turner

I am grateful once more to the hon. Lady. She reminds me of how merchant seamen always remark of the bravery of fishermen. I think merchant ships used to be referred to as big boats, and seamen went out on big boats that had some protection, so they were safer, even all those years ago. Fishermen often went out on tiny vessels in perilous conditions, risking their lives on every occasion—no matter the weather—to put food on the table.

It is very much a team effort to mark the contribution of the fishing industry—not just to our city—and to commemorate those who lost their lives, and I am pleased to see that it has cross-party support in the Chamber. I pay tribute in particular to the founders and organisers of Lost Trawlermen’s Day, the St Andrews Dock Heritage Park Action Group—also known as STAND—in Hull, as well as my constituent Ian Bowes and his fellow tour guides on the Arctic Corsair, who are keeping the history alive for younger generations. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who is just as passionate about the subject as I am. She would have been incredibly keen to be involved in the debate, but unfortunately she could not be here. Most of all, credit must go to all the family and loved ones of trawlermen lost at sea, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that they were not forgotten.

Hull’s history as a city built around the fishing industry and off the backs of hard-working fishermen is mirrored in many towns and cities across the country. Fishing is an essential part of our identity as an island nation. For all the difficult arguments around national identity, I think that fish and chips is high on the list of those on all sides of the political divide.

The building of the railways in the mid-19th century at a stroke expanded the potential market for fresh fish, creating a direct route to supply the growing industrial working classes with affordable protein. Somewhere along the way, some bright soul paired the fried white fish with chips. It was a fabulous idea, for which I am sure Members across the House are entirely thankful. I am—although I am not sure that my waistline is very pleased. I am afraid to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is something that I enjoy quite regularly.

Lia Nici

I will spare some of the hon. Member’s blushes—we all like fish and chips a little bit too much. On a serious note, does he agree that we should also remember that, as Lloyd’s Register Foundation estimates, about 24,000 fishermen die around the world each year catching fish for all of us to eat?

Karl Turner

That is an excellent point, and I have to confess that it is a point I had not intended to remark upon in my notes.

I believe the moment is long overdue for formal nationwide recognition of the contribution of trawlermen to our shared national story, and I urge the Government to take Hull’s lead and officially recognise the last Sunday in January, if at all possible, as the UK’s Lost Trawlermen’s Day.

I should make it clear, because I think it is an extremely important point, that the reference to trawlermen in the title of this debate is drawn directly from its use in Hull’s Lost Trawlermen’s Day. It is not in any way intended to exclude those who have lost their lives at sea fishing by means other than trawl—other methods are dominant in many regional industries—or, indeed, to exclude women at sea. I am happy for any national day to have a different title reflecting these very important facts. It is the principle of remembrance for those who risked, and frequently lost, their lives to put the national dish on the table that I am advocating tonight.

Although I am happy to be corrected, my understanding is that, in the absence of a formal mechanism by which the day would be instituted, the Minister could commit the Government today, from the Dispatch Box, to recognising Lost Trawlermen’s Day as a national day of remembrance, and I hope that he will. If the Government truly want to recognise the contribution of fishing communities to our national life, especially the sacrifice of those who never came back, they could perhaps commit some money as well.

We could establish a formal ceremony on the last Sunday in January with the Government’s backing. Exactly what form this should take is not for me or indeed for the Minister to decide, but I would respectfully suggest a public consultation to enable organisations working with current and ex-fishermen and families who have lost loved ones to have their say on this important issue. However, if the Government are willing to put some effort in and give fishing communities the respect they deserve, recognising the historic role they have played, they could do no worse than follow Hull’s lead.