How much has changed since Nellie Kershaw, the first known asbestos victim?

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The dangerous effects of asbestos exposure, including asbestosis, pleural thickening, lung cancer and mesothelioma, have been known for over a century now. Sadly, the deadly legacy of asbestos continues to cause thousands of deaths every year in Britain alone. However, the name Nellie Kershaw will probably be less familiar to most people.

Nellie Kershaw was a textile worker from Rochdale. She died in 1924 aged just 33, and her tragically early death was the first to be officially connected to asbestos exposure. It also led to the first ever diagnosis of asbestosis, which is a disease caused when asbestos fibres scar and inflame the lungs of people who breathe them in.

Asbestos exposure at work

Nellie worked as a spinner at Turner Brothers Asbestos Company (later Turner & Newall), a factory that produced asbestos cloth. This meant that Nellie handled the raw asbestos to turn it into thread and breathed in a large quantity of loose asbestos dust. The tiny fibres became lodged in her lungs, causing the scarring that would eventually kill her.

She noticed symptoms 4 years before she died, but worked at the factory for another 2 years before becoming too unwell and being told she was unfit for work.

Unable to claim compensation for asbestos disease

Nellie’s doctor stated that the cause of her illness was ‘asbestos poisoning’, and later testified that he had seen dozens of similar cases.

Despite this, asbestos diseases were still not officially recognised, which meant that Nellie was unable to claim sickness benefits. Turner Brothers, Nellie’s employer and the source of her exposure to asbestos, used this to stop its insurance company accepting any liability for her condition and would not offer Nellie or her family any compensation. She died in 1924, 2 years after she first had to leave work, nearly destitute and leaving behind a husband and young daughter, who lived to unveil a memorial to her mother and other asbestos victims in Rochdale 75 years later.

Nellie’s death was recorded in the British Medical Journal, and the Rochdale coroner opened an inquest in which her lungs were closely examined to find huge numbers of asbestos fibres. The case was reported in the British Medical Journal as a case of ‘pulmonary asbestosis’, as it is still known today. A Parliamentary enquiry was launched and presented a report which later became the first Asbestos Industry Regulations in 1932.

A century of asbestos exposure

Novum Law’s Brigit Nolan is a specialist asbestos disease lawyer in our Plymouth team. She says:

“It’s been very nearly a century now since Nellie Kershaw died, but aspects of her tragic case echo to this day.

“It’s of particular note that the first confirmed victim of asbestos disease was a woman. The traditional view of asbestos disease is that it mainly affects men working in industrial jobs like shipping or the railways. However, women and asbestos disease have an equally long history. Over 400 women a year still die of mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer, and we continue to help many women who have been exposed to asbestos, not just in factories as Nellie was, but also in shops, schools and offices.

“In part thanks to Nellie, but also those who campaigned for justice for her and the thousands of other asbestos victims, it’s now far easier to claim compensation if you or a loved one has been exposed to asbestos.

“If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos disease, it’s important to speak to a legal expert as soon as possible. At Novum Law, our specialist team of asbestos disease solicitors have a proven strong track record of achieving compensation even in the most difficult cases that other firms have turned down, and urge anyone affected to get in contact as soon as they can.”

For a free, no obligation chat about how Novum Law may be able to help you claim compensation for asbestos disease on a ‘No Win, No Fee’ basis, call us for free on 0800 884 0777, email us at or complete our online form.

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