On the outskirts of Rochdale resides Spodden Valley. While picturesque, this place is home to what was one of the world’s largest asbestos factory during its peak.
This now completely abandoned factory was founded in 1871, as Turner Brothers. Like most factories that ended up producing asbestos, the Turner Brothers factory was not created with asbestos in mind, and in fact was created to manufacture cotton cloth packaging. During 1879, they changed their name to Turner Brothers Asbestos Company, and became the first company in the UK to weave asbestos cloth.
During their production prime, the factory employed approximately 2000 workers and 2000 administrators. 1920 lead to a merge with Washington Chemical Company, Newalls Insulation Company, and J.W. Roberts, under the name Turner & Newall.
Four years after the merge, the factory witnessed the first recorded death from asbestos exposure. Nellie Kershaw, who was a local worker, died at the age of 33 from asbestosis. She had been working in a cotton mill since she was 12, but transferred to Turner Brothers in 1917 to spin abestos fibres into yarn; she did this for 5 years before becoming too ill to continue working. She was issued with a National Health Insurance Certificate of Ill Health, which stated that she had “asbestos poisoning”.
Unfortunately for Nellie, asbestos poisoning was not a recognised occupational disease at the time, which meant she did not qualify for any government or employee benefits. This meant that she was left to live her last days in poverty.
Turners paid no compensation to her, or her family, and they refused to accept liability for her illness. They also refused to help with any funeral expenses.
Nellie’s death certificate stated that her cause of death was due to “fibrosis of the lungs due to the inhalation of mineral particles.”
Three years after her death, a thorough report was written up by the British Medical Journal, naming her illness pulmonary asbestosis, which is the name we recognise today.
Nora Dockerty, who also worked at Turner Brothers Asbestos, became the first successful asbestos claimant, in Britain.
Nora was a machine assistant in the carding and spinning department. She started work at a young age and worked in the factory for 13 years before she became too ill to continue employment, in the latter part of 1948.
She passed away two years later, in 1950, at the age of 31. Mr Kelly, who was Nora’s father, pursued compensation from the company, as Nora’s husband had died before her.
The coroner confirmed from that autopsy that Nora’s cause of death was tuberculosis that was accelerated by the presence of asbestosis.
Mr Kelly began a lengthy legal battle with his daughter’s former employer, which lasted 2 years. Turner and Newall paid £375 as compensation with costs (approximately £9127.5 in today’s money).
Unsurprisingly since then, asbestos has been linked to over 2000 deaths a year. These deaths caused from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancers can take decades to manifest themselves, due to how microscopic the fibres are.
In 2004 plans were submitted to build over 600 homes, as well as a nursery for children. However, these plans claimed that there was no asbestos contamination on the site despite the discovery of exposed asbestos near footpaths and bridleways.
In 2010 the plans were abolished, primarily due to the local community’s effort. Three years later, soil and air sampling was conducted which confirmed the presence of asbestos fibres in both soil and air.