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Nellie Kershaw - One victim of many

Updated on September 10, 2014

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While Nellie Kershaw was no more than a simple textiles worker, her passing helped to bring an important problem into the spotlight and eventually to rest – the dangers of Asbestos.

Nellie Kershaw
Nellie Kershaw | Source

Nellie Kershaw was not an extraordinary person in life. Nellie was one of hundreds of women who worked for a textiles company, constructing the materials needed for items like clothing and bags. But, Nellie was also part of another, large group – those who had fallen for the dangers of Asbestos.

Nellie was born in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, in 1891, to her parents Elizabeth and Arthur. She went on to attend school, leaving at the age of 12 in 1903, to then go onto work in a cotton mill. At the age of 26, she began employment with Turner Brothers Asbestos. Her job was that of a rover, which involved her spinning asbestos fibres into yarn. Later on, she married Frank Kershaw, whom she had a baby girl with in 1920.

The Turners Brothers Asbestos factory in its prime
The Turners Brothers Asbestos factory in its prime | Source

By the age of 29 however, Nellie began to show signs of illness – the first symptoms of what we now know as asbestosis. She continued working at the mill through to 1922 however – only then was she deemed unfit to work. Local physician Dr Walter Scott Joss diagnosed her with “asbestos poisoning”. As it was a work related illness, she was advised to seek insurance under the Workmen’s Compensation Act… Only to be refused by Turner Brothers, stating "Asbestos is not poisonous and no definition or knowledge of such a disease exists.” She later passed away in 1924, aged only 33, leaving her family and her daughter behind.

Asbestos fibres, as seen through an electron microscope
Asbestos fibres, as seen through an electron microscope | Source

Her death was not in vain, however. A formal inquest was launched shortly after her death, with aim to investigate her death. In autopsy, Dr F.W. Mackichan concluded the cause of death as tuberculosis and heart failure, but adjournment was granted for microscopic examination of her lungs. Doctors found "particles of mineral matter ... of various shapes, but the large majority have sharp angles.” – asbestos. Written in a testimony later on, Dr Walter Scott Joss stated that he had seen many similar cases to Nellie’s beforehand. This led to the condition being named “pulmonary asbestosis”.

The conclusive evidence for asbestosis led the government decision in 1931 for laws to be placed which regulated the asbestos industries stricter in regards to worker’s health – employers had to provide proper ventilation for their workers, for example. However, many still worked under dangerous circumstances, leading to many suing their employers. After many years of struggle, 1985 saw the use of most types of asbestos to be completely banned in Britain, leading on to have white asbestos (the most commonly used derivative) to be finally banned in 1999. Following on in 2006, The Control of Asbestos Regulations law was passed by the HSE to enforce stricter regulation on the handling of asbestos.

A corrugated asbestos roof that has been encapsulated in a rubber coating
A corrugated asbestos roof that has been encapsulated in a rubber coating | Source

Today, people still suffer due to asbestos related illnesses, due to the material still being present in older buildings and structures. While it is only dangerous when damaged or disturbed, the need to remove the risk is highly sought after. Councils and trade firms offer services to remove Asbestos, but sadly even this can be risky if the asbestos is damaged during the process. Other alternative preventive actions can be taken however, such as the encapsulation of asbestos roofs and other surfaces through liquid-applied solutions, which contain the asbestos, therefore not allowing the release of harmful fibres. However, not every asbestos structure has yet been dealt with accordingly, so there is still work to do. But if it were not for Nellie Kershaw, and the many others who have suffered of asbestosis in the past, many would still be suffering today.

About Me

I'm Lewis, an Internet Marketing Executive with LRS Systems. I spend way too much time on the internet as it is, so this job works well for me, as I can be around something I love to use.

In the company I work for, we have lots of customers who wish to encapsulate their Asbestos roofs. Working here has let me learn a lot about the risks attached to the material. I hope the dangers of Asbestos are vanquished soon.


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    • Lewis Hammond profile imageAUTHOR

      Lewis Hammond 

      5 years ago from England

      Thank you for your comments! It is indeed very sad that Nellie suffered so, but I think that if she looked down on the world today, she'd be most pleased that she inspired changes to be made in regards to our views on Asbestos. Inadvertently, she has saved thousands, possibly millions, of people's lives. She is a hero in her own right :)

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 

      5 years ago

      It is so sad that ignorance can cause so much pain and suffering. Glad you shared this story - thank you.

    • LailaK profile image


      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I think it's so sad that she suffered a lot. I can't imagine what it must be like to die from not being able to breathe properly. So sad :(

    • Lewis Hammond profile imageAUTHOR

      Lewis Hammond 

      5 years ago from England

      What do you think about Nellie's story? Discuss!


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