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Halifax Courier calls for investigation of Acre Mill tragedy

Halifax Courier reporter Jon Robinson 31st October 2003

Posted 1st November 2003

Britain's biggest industrial disaster - but nobody bothers to count the dead

A Calderdale factory suffered one of the worst industrial disasters in British history - but nobody has ever bothered to count the deaths.

An Evening Courier probe found that hundreds lost their lives after working at a Calder Valley asbestos factory. Yet the complete toll of tragedy is still unknown. No public inquiry has ever been held. No Government department has taken responsibilty for discovering the extent of the misery.

The only people who know the full cost in lives - the company responsible - refuse to disclose figures.

Now there is the need for an independent investigation to discover the true scale of the disaster and to determine whether the killer could have been contained.

Today the 'Courier' is calling for:

An independent public inquiry
Full co-operation and release of information by Cape Asbestos
A guarantee that everyone affected has been fully compensated

The estimated number of people who have died after working at the former Cape Asbestos plant at Acre Mill, Old Town, Hebden Bridge, now stands at a staggering 750.

Although the factory was torn down in 1971, its legacy lives on as a growing number of ex-employees fall victim to the deadly dust.

Asbestos claims specialist John Pickering, of John Pickering and Partners solicitors, Oldham, said the toll would grow for at least two more decades.

"Acre Mill probably represents the biggest industrial disaster there has ever been in Britain," said Mr Pickering.

He said one of Britain's biggest industrial disasters was in an explosion at Gresford Colliery, North Wales, in 1934, when 266 people died. "No one apart from Cape Asbestos has a record of who has died of asbestos dust exposure at Acre Mill but I believe the number is many hundreds and well above the Gresford Colliery disaster," he said.

"My experience from 1969 onward was that after the first case we got inundated. "One of the reasons I have no records is that I was a partner in another firm of solicitors and we used to get so many cases. I tried to deal with them all myself at first. "But we got so many I had to pass them on to other solicitors in my office. Then we got so many still that we had to ask other firms of solicitors to take some on."

Mr Pickering estimated the number of deaths at between 500 and 750 since Cape Asbestos took over the mill in 1939.

He said the total number of asbestos related-illness cases would be between 1,750 to 2,000.

Mr Pickering said the sheer number was due to appalling safety conditions. "There was no regard to safety measures for employees," he said. "Protective measures were practically unheard of. There was a haze of blue or white asbestos dust in many of the rooms where people worked. "One of the big tragedies is that there was supposed to be a department of state, a Factory Inspectorate, to make sure people worked in safe conditions but they never made the asbestos industry anywhere near safe - and they never made any serious attempt to make it safe."

Mr Pickering said a report published by ombudsman Sir Alan Marre in 1976 criticised the Factory Inspectorate over its handling of conditions at Acre Mill. "He found they had done practically nothing at all."

Mr Pickering said whenever the Factory Inspectorate visited, Acre Mill chiefs told them there were plans in place to improve safety with extractor fans and other devices. But nothing was done and the checks were never made.

"There is no safe amount of dust. Some people have got it from a few days' work with asbestos," said Mr Pickering. "Women have got it from washing their husband's dirty clothing. Children have got it from being in the same house as someone who has worked with asbestos."

A recent inquest at Halifax Town Hall ruled that three former workers were killed by working at Acre Mill. Roland King, 73, of Banks End Road, Upper Edge, Elland, Jozefa Rudman, 77, of Mytholm Court, Hebden Bridge and Lewis Copping, 70, of Shakespeare Avenue, Todmorden, died at Calderdale Royal Hospital earlier this year after being exposed to asbestos dust years ago. Mr Pickering said dozens of Acre Mill workers had died of asbestosis in their 30s and 40s.

But more recently there has been a rise in people dying from mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lungs, usually related to asbestos.

Mesothelioma has an average "lag time" of 30 to 40 years but has been known to take up to 60 years to develop, meaning many older people were now falling victim to the disease. "People working in Acre Mill in the 1960s were the last batch to breathe asbestos and they could get this cancer any time in their lives," said Mr Pickering. "If they were 30 years of age in 1965 they would now be nearly 70. There are likely to be cases from Acre Mill until 2020."

Compensation claims can vary depending on the seriousness of the injury. People who suffer pleural plaques - scars on the lung lining - would only receive a few thousand pounds. A retired person who contracted a fatal asbestos illness could receive up to 100,000. And a younger person on a high salary and good prospects could expect 300,000 or more depending on their income. Mr Pickering said the average pay-out was about 150,000. The law states that court proceedings have to start within three years of the injury being diagnosed.

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive said no records were kept of the origin of asbestos-related illnesses.

There is a national mesothelioma register which charts the number of deaths in each region, but does not include where the illness was contracted or take account of asbestosis deaths. Coroners are not required to pass on information about asbestos- deaths to a central agency.

The company responsible for Acre Mill, Cape Asbestos, were asked for their comment but have so far not responded.

Valley's darkest secret

The name Acre Mill conjures images of fear and tragedy among Calderdale residents...

When Cape Asbestos moved into Acre Mill in 1939 following the outbreak of the second world war, it brought a massive jobs boost.

The London-based firm had been given a Government contract to produce special gas mask filter pads made of blue asbestos at the factory in Old Town, Hebden Bridge.

Acre mill was available, and strategically out of the way from Hitler's bombs. At the peak of production there were 600 conscripted workers who produced 100 million gas filters until 1943, when it was considered the threat of gas warfare was over.

After the war, the asbestos trade was booming and Cape decided to stay in Hebden Bridge and diversify into other asbestos products including rope, pipe lagging and textiles.

People from all over Britain were drawn to work at the Old Town mill with the prospect of above average wages and cheap housing in the Calder Valley.

But according to asbestos claims specialist John Pickering, of John Pickering and Partners solicitors, safety precautions were virtually non-existent and a blue or white haze of asbestos dust filled many of the workrooms.

He said it had been well known in the asbestos industry since about 1928 that the dust was damaging to the lungs and was known to cause asbestosis.

By about 1935 it was realised that there were cases of cancer that seemed to be linked with asbestosis. Then in 1955 it was confirmed by prominent doctor Sir Richard Doll that asbestosis could lead to cancer. About a year later, pathologist Chris Wagner discovered that people living near asbestos mines in South Africa, without even working in the industry, were contracting a form of cancer which was then extremely rare - mesothelioma.

He published the findings of his research in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine in 1961, warning that people who had only had a slight exposure to asbestos were falling victim to this incurable illness.

In 1965 the groundbreaking findings of Muriel Newhouse caused widespread concern when she looked into cases of cancer and mesothelioma in a hospital in London's East End.

Dr Newhouse and her colleague Hilda Thompson's case control study showed that 53 per cent of patients had had exposure to asbestos dust.

She also showed that wives of workers at Cape Asbestos's Barking factory had contracted pleural mesothelioma merely from washing their husbands' overalls.

Mr Pickering said he first became involved in compensation cases against Cape Asbestos in 1969. "After I had investigated a few cases it was clear conditions were appalling and I wrote to the then Hebden Bridge MP Douglas Houghton," he said. "I said that what was going on there was tantamount to manslaughter." Mr Houghton sent on the letter to Acre Mill but company chiefs rubbished the claims. "There were dozens and dozens of cases. So much so that I couldn't handle them all myself and I had to ask other solicitors to take some of them," said Mr Pickering.

The factory was pulled down in 1971.

Concern was also raised after children were seen throwing "asbestos snowballs" at each other in the yard of the firm's premises at Hangingroyd Mill, Hebden Bridge, in 1972.

In 1974, another Hebden Bridge MP, Max Madden, initiated an ombudsman's inquiry on Acre Mill.

The report published by ombudsman Sir Alan Marre in 1976 criticised the Factory Inspectorate over its handling of conditions there.

Mr Madden said the report revealed a distressing catalogue of delay, indecision and reluctance to prosecute by the Factory Inspectorate before Acre Mill closed. Almost 250 of a total of 2,200 employees had developed crippling asbestos diseases by 1979. Asbestosis sufferers and local residents set up the Hebden Bridge Asbestos Action Group to tackle issues surrounding the deadly dust. Chairman Ron Slattery, of Brunswick Street, Hebden Bridge, who suffered from asbestosis, died in December 1992, aged 71.

Employment Secretary Michael Foot also called for an inquiry into the asbestos industry following the high-profile scandal But it never happened and still nobody knows how many lives this tragedy has caused.

Asbestos fact file
* Asbestos is a non-burning mineral which comes in three main forms, blue, brown and white. White is thought to be less dangerous.
* Raw asbestos was mined in Africa, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Canada.
* It is effective as an insulator of heat, electricity and sound.
* Epidemiologists estimate the rate of asbestos-related deaths in Britain will peak by about 2020.
* Experts also predict British mesothelioma deaths are set to rise to 2,700 a year over the next 20 years, before starting to fall.
* Acre Mill was built in 1859 for woollen manufacture but was sold to the Dunlop Rubber Co in 1920, before laying empty and falling into disrepair. Cape Asbestos moved in at the outbreak of the second world war in 1939.
Halifax Courier 31st October 2003

The Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge websites researched the Acre Mill story some time ago. The link to the feature is here Acre Mill feature

John Pickering and Partners - Solicitors, Oldham, Halifax, Liverpool and Manchester

Acre Mill


Photo - Acre Mill

Thanks to Frank Woolrych of the Hebden Bridge Local History Group for making this photo available: it was taken in the seventies by an unknown photographer.

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