Forty years ago this weekend, my uncle, Sidney ('Sid') Broom, and 35 shipmates aboard Hull based trawler Gaul were lost to the Barents Sea under mysterious circumstances. Two official inquiries failed to categorically prove the reason for the vessel's loss, with conspiracy theories, brazen civil service disdain, government apathy, and unconfirmed sightings of the crew helping to keep embers of curiosity burning over four decades through which relatives have battled and waited for answers.
Basking in spring sunlight at the beautiful inlet of Stone Creek on the north bank of the River Humber, I feel the sinister, icy waters from where Gaul last reported beyond the North Cape could be in another galaxy. But as I think of my uncle, a married father of three, aged only 26 at the time of his death, taking his last glimpses towards home, the state of the art vessel leaving Hull in her wake, I cannot help but draw parallels between Gaul, the stories and milestones of Hull's fishing past, and this majestic and brutal waterway. The Humber throbs with natural drama. It teems with heart swelling contrasts and stunning vistas. Like Gaul, the Humber is reluctant to give up secrets, and represents a constant cycle of struggle between poverty, industry and survival.
Regular readers know that I am no fan of casual labour. It erodes basic securities needed for working people to live life with dignity, and contribute to a balanced economy. The fishing industry was the beating heart of Hull's economic existence, but it relied almost exclusively on unregulated casual labour. Like most trawlermen, my uncle received no sick pay, no holiday pay, and was not considered a permanent employee. They showed bravery, grit, and skill on a daily basis, but were expendable commodities to be tossed aside at the whim of fishing companies. These men sailed to their doom with no employment rights, pension, holiday or sick pay, and no status in the eyes of company directors making eye-watering profits off the back of sickeningly dangerous work practices and scant regard for the lives of those men generating their vastly inflated income.
This disdain for workplace safety and employee rights is now being repeated around the developing world. The lessons learned from the mistakes and greed of fishing line captains and industrial leaders of yesteryear are being forgotten in the name of cheap textiles and discount microwaves, and if this isn't a warning to today's workers in terms of fighting for recognition, improved working conditions, and wages that are fair and dignified, as well as providing a stark illustration of what happens when profiteering companies operate unrestrained by government regulators, equitable laws, or the collective strength of trade unions, I frankly do not know what is!
Hull is no stranger to the dangers of commercial fishing. The industry is now no more than memories that evade the grasp of Hull's younger generation, though the loss of our trawlermen is still felt acutely. We are proud of the work that they did, of their bravery, their skill, and their sacrifice. That pride is passed from parent to child, as is the anger and injustice felt by many Gaul families at not knowing why our relatives were lost, and where they lay for far too long, despite the answers being at the fingertips of the government for decades. I believe in preparing my children for the future by making them aware of the lessons of the past. Hull's Lost Trawlermen's Day, organised by Hull Trawlermen's charity STAND, is as much of a mainstay in their calendar as Remembrance Day.
People ask me why Gaul is so special compared to the other equally tragic losses suffered by the people of Hull. The answer is simple. Gaul is every bit as special as Kingston Peridot, Ross Cleveland, St. Romanus, and very other vessel that succumbed to the depths of seas and oceans. They all leave indelible marks on the city they left behind, on the families who mourn their passing.
The loss of my uncle, and the unanswered questions about Gaul left to burn by successive disinterested governments tore a massive hole in my family. Grief ate at my grandparents like cancer. They spent the rest of their lives bereft, clinging to forlorn hopes they would live long enough for certainty to replace the feelings of rudderless injustice and agony that consumed them. My mum lost her brother and best friend, my cousins and aunt lost their lynchpin.
Despite being too young to have met my uncle, I feel his loss keenly. I fought passionately alongside my mum Lynne Flay, Beryl Betts, Andy Atkinson, Ken Collier and others to lobby the government to reopen the grossly flawed inquiry into Gaul's loss. I drew a lot of inspiration from the tenacity of my mother, Beryl, and the other families of our lost 36. It gave me a connection to a relative I never met, and I am privileged to have shared those times with my mother, and the good people who shared the fight.
As families, retired seamen, and others gather at Hull's St Andrew's Quay this coming Sunday, we will mourn our brave trawlermen in stoic solidarity typical of the residents of this great city. It is important to note that 6 members of Gaul's crew were from South Shields and Scotland. The fishing community, and bereaved relatives of Hull extend our solidarity to those families, and we will hold them in our hearts as we remember those who navigated this dynamic, deadly, and intoxicating river on their way to the open seas, and never came home.