In 1874, a small district in Leeds saw the opening of its first large three-story factory on Canal Road, Armley. Hopes were high and employment was up. Yet the residents of Armley were none the wiser about the danger that loomed at the top of their roads.
A danger that sprinkled its way onto the streets of Armley, the homes of families and into the lungs of the innocent.
- History of the J. W. Roberts Factory
- The People of Armley
- The Children Who Played with Asbestos
- Mesothelioma Deaths in Leeds
- Hancock & Margereson v J. W. Roberts (Turner & Newell) 1996
- Early Discovery of Asbestos Exposure Effects
- Asbestosis’ First Victim
- The Turner Brothers
- Turner Brothers Asbestos Co, Rochdale Factory
- Spodden Valley
- Turner & Newell Buy Out and Bankruptcy
- Gold Mine Found Among the Mountains
- J. W. Roberts Factory Today
History of the J. W. Roberts Factory
J. W. Roberts operated as an asbestos mattress and boiler lining factory from 1874 to 1958. The mattresses were used for lining the bulkheads of ships as well as steam locomotive boilers.
The production of insulation mattresses was a large culprit in the pollution of asbestos in Armley; they were made using crocidolite.
This is the deadliest form of asbestos and can be identified by its blue colouring and fluffy exterior.
At its most successful period, the factory had employed 250 workers. However, the deadly effects of asbestos exposure began to show between 1931 and 1958. Some 270 workers were too ill to work due to an asbestos related disease and sadly 300 or more have died since.
It was and still is a devastating time for all those living in Armley.
Below: Vintage Posters for J. W. Roberts. Source/Credit: Grace’s Guide
The People of Armley
Home to some 1500 residential houses and the population of 6,734 in the 1870s, Armley’s residents found themselves living next to what would be the biggest killer of Mesothelioma in the UK.
The nearest school located to the factory was the Armley Board School (later to become Armley Council School, and referred to by the locals as “The Clock School”. The school was built in 1878 at a cost of £13,108 and its clock tower became a “local land mark”.
A former student recalls her memories of the asbestos at school:
“I went to Armley Clock School whose back school yard was only about 10 yards from the open door of Roberts. The dust would fly about and blow into the school yard. I remember some of the kids getting hold of big chunks of it and wrapping it around their chins and pretending to be Santa Claus. No one told us how dangerous it was in those days”
The spine-chilling sense of reality wasn’t apparent for the innocent in those days. They played hand-in-hand with some of nature’s cruellest creations, released by the blind greed of man and manufactured by our own fathers. All were unaware of the evil disguised behind its fluffy exterior. A wolf in sheep’s clothing if you must.
The Children Who Played with Asbestos
More danger descended when the doors and windows of the factory swung open in the heat of summer. For many of the Armley’s children it was as if Christmas had come early.
“The street always had a layer of fine dust with footmarks on it from the early morning workers. The dust was always there while I was at school, lying on walls or window ledges if it had been damp. It was like snowfall” – Mrs. Shires, Armley resident, 1988.
Children from the nearby Armley Clock primary school began to play near the factory’s loading bay on Aviary Road. A witness recalls playing in the vicinity of the loading bay in 1940s:
“We frequently drew the hopscotch grid out in the dust…We also roller skated there… sometimes sacks were left out overnight. They were hessian sacks and they were full of a sort of fluffy dust. We could jump on the sacks when they were left out… I remember seeing grey blue coloured dust come out of them. If we jumped hard enough the sacks burst open. After sitting or bouncing on the sacks I remember being covered in dust.”- Witness. 
During the winter times, the factory’s ventilation systems was a hot spot for children looking to warm up after endless real snowball fights. As mentioned earlier, the summer proved lethal for those trying to enjoy the small amount of sun they could get in the UK.
The sun’s rays would build up heat in the factory so windows and doors were opened for ‘fresh air’. Little did the workers know, they were introducing the residents of Armley to its biggest killer of all.
Families enjoyed the sunshine outside with all the windows and doors open. Children playing hopscotch in the street using the dust to mark out the boxes and numbers, mothers hanging up the weekly washing… whilst fathers worked their way through the deathly dust at the factory.
Mesothelioma Deaths in Leeds
A study conducted in 1995 was based on the growing concern that the JW Roberts Factory was responsible for Mesothelioma deaths of both the workers and those who lived or attended the Clock School near the factory. The study looked at all Leeds-related Mesothelioma deaths occurring between 1971 and 1987.
The types of exposure (direct, indirect and environmental) were also used for classification; the reason was to identify clear links between the number of deaths and their form of exposure.
They found that children who attended the Clock School were at “increased risk of developing Mesothelioma because of ‘environmental’ exposure from the factory’ .
Of the 1077 children whose records were cross-examined and attended the school during 1927-1947, five had died at the average age of 46 from Mesothelioma during 1971 and 1987. Further investigation into the residential surrounding of the factory found that 125 males and 55 females had passed due to Mesothelioma between 1971 and 1987.
Hancock & Margereson v J. W. Roberts (Turner & Newell) 1996
There are two substantially famous cases involving two victims of the Armley Asbestos Tragedy. June Hancock, born in 1936, was a little girl when she was first exposed to the deadly dust. She had lived only a mere 250 yards away from the J. W. Roberts factory.
Her mother, who too past away from Mesothelioma in 1982, used to run a small corner shop at the bottom of the road. June’s memory of the dust was like any other child in Armley:
“The children would throw asbestos ‘snowballs’ at one another and played hopscotch on pavements covered in the blue asbestos dust”
Unfortunately June’s exposure didn’t end there. Along with her classmates at Armley Park School, lunch times were filled with care-free fun playing with the dust that flew over from the shadowing factory sitting 275 yards away. June was diagnosed as suffering from Mesothelioma in 1994.
After years of battling for justice, June lost her heroic battle to Mesothelioma on July 19th 1997, she was only 58. June touched the lives of so many around her, it was after her passing that the June Hancock Foundation was founded. As the awareness of Mesothelioma grew, so did the need for a cure. Since 1997, all of the June Hancock’s Foundation’s supporters have raised over £1,100,000 for Mesothelioma research. It too funded carers and patients support.
Arthur Margereson, born 1925, was also a victim of J. W. Roberts’ neglect. Like June, Arthur had also lived only 200 yards away from the factory and neither did he work for the factory. He had lived in the same terrace house for over 30 years. Like June, Arthur also played outside the Leeds factory on the sacks full of asbestos left outside over night by J. W. Roberts. In 1990 Arthur was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, one year later, he passed away .
Both June and Arthur lived in small homes, this confinement led them to play outside more like most children in Armley. Equally each of the cases showed that both June and Arthur neither had worked for J. W. Roberts nor did they have a history of working with asbestos in other occupations. It was agreed that they were suffering from Mesothelioma as a result of the factory’s dust polluting the area.
As stated on the June Hancock website:
“Drawn from trial transcripts, interviews and letters, and performed by residents of Armley and West Yorkshire, ‘Dust’ is the story of that trial.
‘Dust’ by Kenneth Yates is being performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 15th – 18th July 2009″
Early Discovery of Asbestos Exposure Effects
The danger of asbestos dust emissions had been known for longer than you’d expect, even by the J. W. Roberts factory owners themselves. Yet this didn’t seem to concern them at all…
Lucy Deane was one of the UK’s first female factory inspectors. Deanne was also one of the first to raise concerns about the health risks arising from exposure to asbestos. Her report in 1898 highlighting health dangers and premature deaths as a result of asbestos exposure caused uproar among asbestos factory owners, particularly the Turner brothers (J. W. Roberts’ future owners).
Her report stated:
“…the evil effects of asbestos dust have also instigated a microscopic examination of the mineral dust by HM Medical Inspector. Clearly revealed was the sharp glass-like jagged nature of the particles, and where they are allowed to rise and to remain suspended in the air of the room in any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious as might have been expected.” 
Deane’s warning, along with the warnings of other women inspectors, was fully ignored yet still published annually in the HM Chief Inspector of Factories.
It wasn’t until 1911 when a pioneering experiment lead by Professor J. M. Beattie of Sheffield University using rats as test subjects, confirmed that asbestos inhalation was the directly linked to the formation of fibrosis. A 1930’s report by Merewether & Price concluded that the experiment’s results were:
“…reasonable grounds for suspicion that the inhalation of much asbestos dust was to some extent harmful” 
This experiment had led to a medical discovery that high levels of asbestos exposure will lead to asbestosis and in most cases, put many at risk of Mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Scientific discovery was made closer to home in Armley. A local doctor, Dr Ian Grieve, conducted a study and report which focused on the health of the employers working within the J. W. Roberts factory.
Daily work such as hand-beating asbestos mattresses for locomotives to help remove lumps was a major contributor to spreading the deathly dust. It was also largely the culprit to workers developing asbestosis within 5 years .
The shocking reality of these activities was that the factory would be covered in blue asbestos. When the J. W. Roberts factory was bought by The Turner Brothers, Grieve’s study was completely ignored. However his thesis was dug-up in 1990’s based on the fact that it had major relevance in litigation 
The Government finally passed the regulation for no dust in the workplace in 1932. This meant asbestos factories had to install ventilation systems and “provide protective clothing and breathing apparatus.”
Despite Government intervention, they didn’t take into account those living around asbestos factories, including those in occupations which are exposed to asbestos daily (electricians, shipyard workers).
This meant that those living near to or around the J. W. Roberts factory would become ill but The Turner Brothers would not be responsible.
Asbestosis’ First Victim
Asbestosis claimed its very first victim in 1922. A young 13 year old Nellie Kershaw worked at the Turner Brothers Asbestos Company, Rochdale factory as a rover, spinning the asbestos fibre into yarn.
By 1922, Nellie fell extremely ill and she was no longer able to work. Her doctor had diagnosed her with the occupational disease, Asbestosis . Despite Nellie suffering from the painful affects of Asbestosis, she was ineligible for any compensation based on the fact that it was simply an occupational disease. Both Nellie and her husband contributed frequently to a local scheme for sickness benefits yet were denied to any help. Even her pleas for help to her employees went unheard.
At only 33 years old, Nellie sadly passed away on 24th March 1924, leaving her two children and husband to survive in poverty. Nellie now lies in an unmarked ‘paupers’ grave in a Rochdale cemetery.  The Turner brothers saw Nellie’s death as a threat to the Rochdale factory and demanded Nellie’s doctor to remove the mentioning of ‘asbestos poisoning’ from her medical records.
However, despite the Turner family’s efforts to cover the real reason of Nellie’s death, the coroner who examined Nellie’s lungs discovered that her death was caused by:
“…fibrosis of the lungs due to inhalation of mineral particles.”
The term ‘asbestosis’ was used for the very first time in Nellie’s death report which was published in the British Medical Journal that same year.
The Turner Brothers
In 1871, three brothers called John, Robert and Samuel Turner formed The Turner Brothers. Their factory was the world’s first and largest asbestos factory based in Spotland, Rochdale. By 1879, they had become the UK’s first factory to weave asbestos into cloth. This ultimately led to the company’s change in name to Turner Brothers Asbestos Company.
In 1920, the Turner Brothers merged with 4 asbestos manufacturers; J. W. Roberts Ltd, Turner Brothers Asbestos Company Ltd, Newalls Insulation Company Ltd and Washington Chemical Company Ltd. The merge formed Turner & Newell and by 1925 they became a public company.
The following year T&N began showing an interest in the asbestos mine at Havelock in Bulembu based in the Kingdom of Swaziland, South Africa. This mining sight was finally acquired and operated from in 1939 up until 2001 when it fell into liquidation.
Unfortunately many workers in the mine had begun to experience painful sickness in their lungs. Further investigation showed that workers weren’t given full protection whilst working in the mines.
In 1931, J. W. Roberts began to develop T&N’s largest and most successful export; “Sprayed Limpet Asbestos”. This was made by mixing crocidolite with a binding agent and then pressure sprayed onto various surfaces to improve sound insulation qualities.
Many buildings such as schools, churches and even the London Underground were showered with sprayed limpet asbestos. The building used for testing the limpet spray still stands today, derelict, behind the J. W. Roberts factory.
Their luck came when they took over operation of the Bell Mine in Thethford, Quebec, Canada in 1934. Two years following, T&N acquired US Company Keasbey and Mattison, Pennsylvania. They became T&N’s main distributors of Sprayed Limpet Asbestos throughout the US until they fell into liquidation in 1963.
Turner Brothers Asbestos Co, Rochdale Factory
Three years before the formation of the J. W. Roberts asbestos factory came Turner Brothers Asbestos Co in Rochdale. Today, as the world’s first and largest asbestos factory in Rochdale, it stands alone as an empty and derelict shell. A building which once thrived with busy workers and ‘magic dust’ still echoes throughout its walls.
Until this day it is a photographer’s hotspot. Many of which have ventured into the grounds of the factory and laid their camera lenses upon what was once a noisy, hot asbestos covered building.
Some of these photographers were kind enough to give us permission to use their photographs throughout this article.
Not only do the ghosts of the past linger within the factory walls, but its surrounding forest illustrates the devastating result of the factory’s looming presence.
The factory closed for business in 1994. It dominated the work force in and around Rochdale for 115 years with 2,000 factory workers and 2,000 administrators at its peak. Years of asbestos has been churned out of this factory, imagine the number of employees affected during this length of time.
Yet the workers weren’t the only ones that received the full dosage of asbestos filling their lungs… 72 acres of land in a valley dubbed Spodden Valley lies right on the edge of the Turner Brothers Asbestos site.
This land was sold in 2004 to a property developer called MMC Estates. Their plans were to tear the entire site down only to replace it with 650 new homes, a business park and a children’s day care centre. In the summary of MCC Estate’s planning application they stated the following:
“…of particular note is the absence of any asbestos contamination.”
Uproar came as locals protested. They knew of the ‘snow-like’ substance that sat atop of tree branches and plants within Spodden Valley. They’ve seen the vast amounts of asbestos dumped and filling every inch of the area. At 7am, May 15th, operation tree-felling began.
Residents were more than concerned for their health as disturbing the asbestos would cause a cloud of deadly airborne dust. This would be lethal for everyone in the area.
Save Spodden Valley was formed shortly after as a campaigning group against the development of its new ‘urban village’. Their action resulted in the Rochdale Council to issue emergency preservation of affected trees. In 2005, MMC Estates confirmed that there was indeed a high level of asbestos present in Spodden Valley; however this did not stop them from wanting to go ahead with the developments.
Save Spodden Valley fought on and finally received the outcome they’ve been fighting against for 7 years. Rochdale Council rejected all planning applications from MMC Estates.
People power is what made the residents of Rochdale win their battle. Rochdale Online interviewed Save Spodden Valley co-ordinator, Jason Addy on their victory:
“The SSV campaign has received ongoing local, national and international attention. The past 7 years have seen shocking facts about asbestos and the Spodden Valley emerge. It has drawn the attention of Prime Ministers, been the subject of debates in Parliament, Early Day Motions and interest from experts and communities all over the globe.
It has put Rochdale on the map for very positive reasons – an example of community spirit, “people power”, co-operation and persistence. The sounds of those chainsaws destroying woodland, at dawn on that Saturday in May 2004, woke a whole town up”.
This is no magical place for children to play or for couples to go for romantic strolls with their pets. This was and still is the valley of death.
Spodden Valley, Rochdale’s asbestos scandal video interviews
Turner & Newell Buy Out and Bankruptcy
Turner & Newell began to branch out to the automotive industry by supplying components to manufacturers. During this time, the brothers had acquired two US companies in 1970 and 1977, Ferodo America, a brake lining company and Flexitallic, a gasket company.
1982 saw T&N with losses of £30 million due to compensation payouts to asbestos & Mesothelioma sufferers. Up until 1997 compensation payouts turned from tens of millions of pounds to hundreds, more than T&N could handle. The company was eventually acquired by Federal Mogul, an American global supplier of automotive products, in 1998.
However Mogul didn’t realise the full velocity of the claims. More than 263,000 personal injury claims loomed over the new owner and by 2001 Federal Mogul finally filed for bankruptcy.
Gold Mine Discovery – Case Breaker
A shocking discovery was made just before the trial began. Considering T&N has acquired American companies that all used asbestos to manufacture automotive parts, many of their workers also developed Mesothelioma. The judge in America had demanded that American lawyers were to visit the J. W. Roberts site and collect every document available.
Among the mountains of documents they found a gold mine…documents that proved T&N had more than enough information on the dangers of asbestos exposure, all of which traced back to the 1920s and 1930s. From 1940s T&N were fully aware that those living near to the factory were highly at risk from injuries.
Another shocking discovery found that T&N knew of the cancer asbestos could cause. Other records showed that many of their workers had died from Asbestosis from as far back as the 1920s.
In an entry dating back to 1937, one of their directors, Robert. H. Turner showed he was already aware of the dangers of asbestos but thought it too large of a trade asset to give up:
“All asbestos fibre dust is a danger to the lungs. If we can produce evidence from this country that the industry is not responsible for any asbestosis claims, we may be able to avoid tiresome regulations and the introduction of dangerous occupational talk”.
J. W. Roberts Factory Today
The houses still stand today however decontamination could cost up to £250,000.
The after effects of Armley still haunt many lives until this day. Stories of the disaster still echo throughout the area and many of its Mesothelioma sufferers have either passed away or are living with the constant feeling of agony and pain.
For many of us, our home is our safe place. Home is where many of us have created unspoiled, fond childhood memories playing hopscotch, football and playing in the soft, chilly snow of winter.
Yet for the children of Armley, these memories will always remind them of the deadly clouds of ‘magic dust’ the Turner Brothers brought to their area.