Armley: Too Close to Home

Adrian Budgen and Vanessa Bridge
Trustees of the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund

Twenty years ago, on 2 April 1996, a landmark judgment in favour of two Leeds residents brought up in the shadow of an asbestos factory was handed down in the Court of Appeal in London. Repercussions of the Court’s decision in the case of Margereson and Hancock v J.W.Roberts Ltd. would echo across the UK and as far afield as South Africa [1], where poor, black communities had suffered a similar fate to working class areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire, their environments poisoned by deadly asbestos fibres released by the asbestos mining or processing operations of companies that denied knowledge of potential consequences. The claimants had fought to prove that the likes of Cape Asbestos and Turner & Newall (the parent company of JW Roberts following a merger in 1920) had failed in their duty of care not just to their workforces, but also to those who lived in the shadow of their industrial sites.

The Leeds claimants June Hancock and Arthur Margereson, born in 1936 and 1925 respectively, lived a few streets apart on an estate surrounding the JW Roberts asbestos factory in Canal Road, Armley, Leeds. As children, they played with asbestos as it was regularly pumped out through the factory’s ventilation system and “swirled like snowflakes” through the streets, drifting in piles on windowsills and other surfaces. Children would gather to roll marbles, spin tops and play hopscotch on the factory’s asbestos loading bay, one of the few flat areas in their hilly neighbourhood, and they jumped on bales of processed asbestos. An aerial photograph of Armley Clock School featured its playground covered by a white carpet of asbestos dust; the children played here and the littler ones would even take afternoon naps on camp beds.

Decades later, many residents paid a terrible price. The estate was found to have the highest UK incidence of mesothelioma [2]; an incurable type of cancer with an incubation period stretching into decades, the only known cause of which was asbestos exposure. June Hancock’s mother Maie Gelder died of it in 1982; when June herself was diagnosed with the same disease twelve years later, she vowed to take on the multinational whose negligence she believed had caused her mother’s premature death, and would likewise rob her of old age and seeing the births of her grand-children.

The Armley factory began producing textiles in 1874; some twenty years later it embraced asbestos technology going on to become one of the UK’s biggest producers of asbestos insulation and asbestos-containing fireproofing products, exporting to some 60 countries worldwide. The company would later claim it could not have known about the effects of asbestos exposure until well beyond the years when June Hancock and Arthur Margereson played in Armley’s streets. Local doctors who recorded the effects of these industrial processes told a different story. The UK’s first named asbestos victim was Nellie Kershaw, who left school at 12 to work briefly in a cotton mill, then in Turner Brothers’ asbestos mill, retiring of ill health in 1922 and dying two years later at the age of 33 of pulmonary asbestosis. As a result of her death and others like it, the UK’s first asbestos regulations were introduced in 1931.

Over subsequent decades, a range of injuries and disease caused by asbestos production were recorded and written up in the medical literature.  It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that mesothelioma was given a name, although its symptoms and the awful trajectory of the disease were well enough known in the communities affected by it.  Two East End doctors, Molly Newhouse and Hilda Thompson, described the incidence of mesothelioma in the community surrounding the Barking factory of Cape Asbestos Co. Ltd., noting that those contracting mesothelioma had been exposed to relatively small amounts of asbestos.

This was what Turner & Newall relied upon, when their lawyers told Leeds Crown Court in 1995 that the company couldn’t possibly have anticipated that a disease not even given a name caused by asbestos exposure would cause injury and claim lives many decades later.  They also argued that their responsibilities extended only to their workforce, conveniently overlooking the fact that in the process of sucking dangerous dust out of the factories in order to comply with industrial regulations and as a consequence pumping asbestos into local neighbourhoods, they had exposed hundreds if not thousands of local residents to the same deadly threat.

In the judgment in favour of June Hancock and Arthur Margereson (represented by his widow Evelyn) handed down on 27 October 1995, Mr Justice Holland saw off the company.  On behalf of June Hancock, Robin Stewart QC provided the judge with all the argument and evidence required to “tear down the factory walls” – and conclude that the company did indeed owe a duty of care to those living in the shadow of their operations.  While sounding the customary warning in “lawyer-speak” – that his judgment was not meant to “open the floodgates” for other potential litigants –  Mr. Justice Holland went to some trouble to categorise Armley claimants into groups, according to their occupation, address, school and relation to those working in the factory, clearing the way for claims in the city and beyond.

It was the UK’s first case where physical injury was found to have been caused by industrial environmental pollution; the company was found culpable for the effects of its deadly processes outside the factory wall.  The implications for the defendants were such that they felt compelled to appeal; the case was fast-tracked (as June Hancock was not well) and within six months, the Court of Appeal bench, chaired by Lord Justice Russell, concurred with Christopher Holland, and refused Turner & Newall leave to appeal to the House of Lords.   Judges in both courts were not unaffected by the conduct of the company throughout both trials “reflecting a wish to contest these claims by any means possible, legitimate or otherwise… simply to obstruct the plaintiff’s road.”  Damages for June Hancock were £65,000 and for Arthur Margereson, £50,000; relatively trifling sums for decades of their lives, but the principle was what mattered.

Thus it was that, to paraphrase June, the Goliath of an British multinational was brought to heel by a personal secretary from Armley; “It proves no matter how small you are you can fight,” said June, “and no matter how big you are, you can lose.”

This article was first published in the British Asbestos Newsletter 100th commemorative edition, July 2016.


[1]  Subsequent to this case others would take advantage of the precedent set, with asbestos victims in South Africa successfully mounting a huge lawsuit against Cape, settled in 2003.

[2] Winnett, Robert (25 June 1995). “Homeowners hit by asbestos clean-up costs”. The Times (London). p. 1.