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Hull fishermen's safety campaigner Mary Denness dies

Fishermen's safety campaigner Mary Denness has died Credit: ITV News Calendar

Tributes are being paid to one of the women from Hull who led a campaign in the 1960s for better safety rules for fishermen after a series of disasters at sea in which trawlermen lost their lives. Mary Denness, 79, became known as one of the 'headscarf revolutionaries' for the campaign she fought alongside Lillian Bilocca, known as Big Lil, Christine Smallbone and Yvonne Blenkinsop.

Among those paying tribute on Twitter are the area's MPs as well as those who continue to organise memorials for those fishermen who were lost at sea:

Watch James Webster's full report on the tributes to Mary Denness:

The author Brian W Lavery, who wrote the book 'The Headscarf Revolutionaries' which charts the women's campaign for better safety, has written the following obituary to Mary which her family have asked to be shared:

Mary 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. 58 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 Lillian Bilocca, also known as “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 20th 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 formed the Hessle Road Women’s Committee after a mass meeting ended with hundreds of women, led by Lillian 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” 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, Collette Penrose, the daughter of fellow campaign Yvonne Blenkinsop, was among the staff at the care home where Mrs Denness passed away:

"‘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. 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."

– Fellow campaigner Yvonne Blenkinsop

"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."

– Former Deputy Prime Minister and Hull MP Lord John Prescott

"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-based author Brian W. Lavery

"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."

– Hull playwright Rupert Creed who wrote 'Turning the Tide' about the women's campaign

"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."

– Local campaigner Ian Cuthbert, who wants the women honoured with a Pride of Britain award