Preview: The Gaul

It’s the biggest single trawler tragedy in British history, and the most contentious. A new play follows the lives the Hull Gaul left behind

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The Gaul and its 36-man crew vanished in February 1974 off the Norwegian coast during a storm, with its wreck only uncovered well over two decades later.

Theories about its demise have abounded since – including that the Gaul, based at Hull, was either taken or sunk by the Soviets at the height of Cold War tensions because of its involvement in espionage. No distress signal was raised, the Gaul was a new, modern ship, and the government refused to sanction underwater searches for the wreck after the initial search was fruitless. An expedition funded by television companies finally uncovered it in 1997.

An official 2004 inquiry ruled this theory out and established that it sunk as a result of flooding on the factory deck through open chutes, but with only remains of four crew ever recovered, questions remain for many in Hull and its legacy is felt as powerfully as ever.

The tragedy and the decades-long struggle for answers for the families of the crew is now the basis of a new play, The Gaul, which will run at the Hull Truck Theatre in October. The work of Hull-born writer Janet Plater, it is based on five years of research, including interviews with relatives of those killed and the fishing community. The Hull Bullnose Heritage Group also advised on technicalities of the script. “There’s nobody in Hull who hasn’t heard of the trawler Gaul. It’s a really important story for our city. But equally theatre can be a good place to explore doubt. It can be a good way to explore things for which we don’t really have an answer,” explains Plater.

The play follows the fictionalised journey of the daughter of a man who was lost on the ship at the time and during its controversial aftermath. “We see the family in 1974 when the trawler first went missing. We then see the family in 1997 when the wreck is found, and then we see them today. One thing I have discovered very vividly is that it’s something that has affected families forever. Nobody has put it aside. It absolutely has rippled through their lives,” says Plater.

Ray Coles from Hull Bullnose Heritage Group, who himself worked on fishing trawlers, said he believes the official conclusion that the Gaul sunk as a result of heavy flooding but the scale of the tragedy and controversial aftermath mean people in Hull all have different views on it. “It was the biggest single trawler tragedy of its kind in our country, to lose 36 men in one stroke. The whole city was stunned, just couldn’t believe it. When it finally sunk in that this ship had actually succumbed to the weather this is when the theories started to abound. To this day I think there are some people that think their relatives are somewhere in Russia.”

The Gaul is the second of the Hull Trilogy, a trio of plays examining how the city’s past has shaped its identity and capacity for survival and renewal leading up to Hull being the 2017 UK City of Culture. Plater says the Gaul is central to that. “We always have to reflect on our past and where we came from… I’ve had families talk to me and it’s really important for them for their children to understand where they came from, what their fathers and grandfathers did. This industry made Hull at that time. It’s an industry that’s all but gone but it’s absolutely rooted in where we came from and how the city was built.”

The Gaul runs at Hull Truck Theatre, 6-29 October

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