Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living

  • by Louise Birch and Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

Today is Workers Memorial Day, marking the sacrifice of those who have died as a result of their job, and reminding all employers and employees of the importance of looking after their colleagues. In front of Leeds Central Library, a new plaque was unveiled bearing the inscription: Dedicated to workers throughout the world who have suffered illness, injury or death as a consequence of their work. Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living.

Workers Memorial, 2017

Inside the library, a new display tells the stories of some of the tragedies that have taken lives at workplaces around Leeds, from incidents in local mills in the less safety-conscious 19th century, to more recent accidents like the Lofthouse Colliery disaster of 1973. One such tragedy, the effects of which have continued to be felt throughout the city for many decades, is the many lives lost as a result of asbestos contamination in Armley during the first half of the last century. The story is told below and, if you follow the links to the Leodis photographic website in the picture captions, you’ll be able to read comments from those whose lives have been affected first-hand by the events described.

25th October 1943. Asbestos factory of J. W. Roberts on Canal Road, Armley. Visit Leodis to find out more.

Founded in Armley in 1874, J. W. Roberts Limited was a textile producer based at the Midland Works on Canal Road. In 1906, the factory had begun manufacturing asbestos insulation and, in 1920, merged to form Turner & Newall Limited, whose asbestos-based products were exported worldwide, generating large scale profits for the company.

The manufacturing process resulted in the exposure to blue asbestos of all workers based in the factory, while the ventilation system discharged asbestos dust out into the surrounding area. Streets, homes and a local school were described as being coated in a blue-white dust, as though they were covered by a fall of snow.

The factory closed in 1959 and, in 1978, Turner & Newall Limited paid £15,000 to Leeds City Council to assist with the decontamination of the factory site. However, no reference was made to homes in the surrounding area. In the late 1970s, investigations led to the discovery of asbestos in homes adjacent to the factory, while a Yorkshire Evening Post inquiry brought to the attention of the public the dramatically high number of mesothelioma-related deaths suffered by former workers and residents who lived close to the factory. This series of articles related to what became known as the ‘Armley Asbestos Tragedy’.

The case was further championed by local MP John Battle, with a case finally heard in court in 1995, in which Mr Justice Holland found the following: “There was knowledge, sufficient to found reasonable foresight on the part of the Defendants, that children were particularly vulnerable to personal injury arising from the inhalation of asbestos dust… Reasonably practicable steps were not taken to reduce or prevent inhalation of emitted asbestos dust.”

Many of those affected by the asbestos died long before the companies responsible could be compelled to make recompense.

25th October 1943. J. W. Roberts, asbestos factory, on Canal Road. More information can be found on the Leodis website.