Remembering Nellie Kershaw 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Throughout history, the commercial exploitation of asbestos has been accompanied by the commercial exploitation of the people who mined, transported, processed and used it. Asbestos stakeholders – whether private companies or government-run enterprises – consistently prioritized profits over health; as a result, countless workers, their relatives, and members of the public contracted asbestos-related diseases, many of which were fatal.

March 24, 2024 will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Nellie Kershaw, the first named victim of asbestos-related disease.1 Her tragic story is paradigmatic of the experience of so many unnamed and unrecognized victims, abandoned to their fate once occupationally-contracted diseases made them unfit for work.

Nellie Kershaw was a factory worker in asbestos textile mills in Rochdale, an industrial town near Manchester, from 1903, when she left school aged 12, until 1922 when she became too sick to work.2 On July 22, 1922 Nellie was issued a National Health Insurance certificate of ill health which identified her condition as “asbestos poisoning.” As this was an occupationally-related illness, she was unable to qualify for sickness benefit from the Newbold Approved Society, a society to which she had contributed.


Despite increasingly plaintive requests from her and her husband, her employer – Turner Brothers Asbestos Company (TBA) – repeatedly refused to assist the couple and she died in poverty on March 24, 1924 leaving behind a grieving widower and young son. TBA's determination to disavow liability for Nellie's asbestos-related disease, its repudiation of her diagnosis and its use of legal and medical experts to challenge evidence were tactics that would be relied upon by asbestos defendants not only in the UK but around the world for decades to come.

This case was a rarity in that the patient had been medically diagnosed during life to be suffering from an asbestos-related disease, a fact confirmed by a post-mortem examination conducted at the coroner's request. The findings from a subsequent microscopic examination of the lungs, also ordered by the coroner, were presented at the 1924 coroner's inquest which issued a certificate stating the cause of death was “fibrosis of the lungs due to the inhalation of mineral particles.” Nellie's death was the first to be officially recognized as being due to “pulmonary asbestosis,”3 indeed the nomenclature “asbestosis” was used by Dr. W. E. Cooke in his 1924 report of her case to the British Medical Journal.4

Has much changed since Nellie Kershaw’s death 100 years ago? According to official statistics, hundreds of people continue to die from asbestosis, the disease which killed Mrs. Kershaw, every year.5 As well as the 537 deaths due to asbestosis in 2021, there were 2,268 from mesothelioma – the signature cancer associated with exposure to asbestos – and, an estimated, 2,200 from asbestos-related lung cancer.

There can be no doubt medical care has improved over the intervening decades as has the efficacy of treatments with a significant breakthrough announced only last month (February 2024) regarding a new protocol which, when “used alongside chemotherapy in trials quadrupled three-year survival rates for mesothelioma.”6 The existence of medical centers of excellence as well as specialist nurses, under the supervision of Mesothelioma UK,7 has upgraded the availability of vital information as well as access to increasing numbers of treatment options; for patients in areas of neglect, travel grants from Mesothelioma UK have proved life-saving.8

In 2024, compensation for asbestos-related diseases can be obtained from a diversity of sources by: initiating personal injury lawsuits and making claims under: corporate schemes and trusts, government schemes including those operating under the Workers Compensation Act 1979, the War Pension Scheme, the War Widow(ers)’s Pension Scheme, the 2008 Diffuse Mesothelioma Scheme, the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme 2014, etc. Assistance in navigating the complex route to compensation is provided for free by members of the Asbestos Victims Support Group Forum UK,9 as well as by cancer charities and professional advisors at specialist law firms.

Despite the improvements represented by the developments cited above, recent feedback from groups working on the frontline pinpointed several areas of concern such as: falling standards in staff administering government benefits including decreasing levels of training, poorer decision-making and longer response times; few victims with asbestos-related lung cancer bringing claims via the courts or under government schemes; and victimization by defendants and insurers of claimants represented by inexperienced solicitors.

Since Lynne Squibb’s father, railway carriage worker Dave Salisbury, died from asbestos cancer, she has been campaigning for the rights of asbestos victims. In 2006, she co-founded the Help Advice Support Action Guidance group (HASAG) with her sister Dianne Salisbury in Portsmouth to offer free practical assistance and moral support for asbestos victims and their families throughout the South of England, South East, London and Home Counties. Expressing the rising level of frustration experienced by those working with the injured, Lynne said:

“HASAG are now spending hours every day chasing/waiting/arguing with the DWP [Department of Work & Pensions] over most claims. It is relentless and exhausting. If documents are not missing, there is a delay due to HMRC records or a wrong decision which requires our intervention. I have never experienced such turmoil in 18 years of providing this service.”10

Notwithstanding some improvements, bureaucratic obstacles still exist as delineated by John Flanagan, from the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support group (MAVS):

“The introduction in 2002 of the fast-tracking of mesothelioma cases via the specialist asbestos list at the Royal Courts of Justice in London has expedited the judicial process for many very ill people. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the closure of Phoenix House, Barrow – a DWP specialist benefits office dealing with Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) claims for people with mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases throughout the country – the submission and processing of claims have become a nightmare with inconsistent results and unpredictable and inexplicable time lags that have unnecessarily increased the pressure and uncertainty experienced by claimants.”11

The government’s policy of kicking the asbestos can down the road by refusing to address the contamination of the UK’s infrastructure will ensure that in decades to come there will be many more people like Nellie Kershaw who will experience ill health and premature death due to toxic exposures.12 After a hundred years, the human face of this national tragedy may have changed but the problem remains the same.

March 8, 2024.


1 HSE. Asbestos-related disease statistics, Great Britain 2023. November 2023.
HSE. Mesothelioma and asbestosis mortality in Great Britain: 1968 to 2020. 2022.

2 Kazan-Allen, L. The Female Face of Britain’s Asbestos Catastrophe. 2013.

3 Selikoff I J, Greenberg M. A Landmark Case in Asbestosis. J.A.M.A. 1991;265:898-901.

4 Cooke WE. Fibrosis of the lungs due to the inhalation of asbestos dust. BMJ. 1924;2:147.

5 HSE. Asbestos-related disease statistics, Great Britain 2023. November 2023.

6 Gregory, A. Drug offers ‘wonderful’ breakthrough in treatment of asbestos-linked cancer. February 15, 2024.

7 “Mesothelioma UK is the national charity for anyone affected by mesothelioma... Established in 2004 as a Macmillan resource centre in Glenfield Hospital Leicester the charity has grown rapidly, becoming an independent Charitable Trust in 2008 and a Charitable Incorporated Organisation in 2018.”

8 In 2019/20, Mesothelioma UK awarded £24,779 in travel grants.

9 Asbestos Victims Support Group Forum UK.

10 Email from Lynne Squibb. February 27, 2024.

11 Email from John Flanagan. February 28, 2024.

12 Mesothelioma UK. Clearing the Air: The costs and benefits of removing asbestos from UK schools and hospitals. 2023.



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