Nellie Kershaw: An Inspiration to Stand Up Against Asbestos Exposure

Nellie Kershaw the woman who inspired decades of asbestos litigation

“I have not received a penny…I should have had nine weeks wages now through no fault of my own,” said Nellie Kershaw — a young, hard-working British woman who died in poverty from asbestosis in 1924.

Nellie was a wife and mother who unknowingly went to a job for 14 years that slowly poisoned her. She, and later her husband, begged for rightful compensation as she lay on her deathbed, but ultimately received nothing.

Her death would become the first documented case of occupational asbestos exposure in medical literature — but Nellie never knew that exposure to asbestos could cause life-threatening diseases like asbestosis or mesothelioma.

Nellie’s story had the power to change an entire industry and save thousands of lives — if only her employers had listened and taken action. Instead, they put profits over people and poisoned an entire generation of workers, just like Nellie.

It’s important to share Nellie’s story because it lies at the heart of the asbestos epidemic and the following decades of mesothelioma litigation. Sadly, it’s a story that many men and women diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases still experience today.

Nellie Kershaw’s Story: The Heart of the History of Asbestos

In 1891, Nellie was born in Rochdale, England. She began her career at a cotton mill at the age of 12.

Five months later, Nellie went to work at a local asbestos company where she stayed until she was 26 years old when she transferred to a textile factory called Turner Brothers Asbestos Company.

Around this time, asbestos for commercial use kicked into high gear, protections in the work environment were poor and health complaints from workers were growing more common.

In her early years, her physician, family and friends described her as healthy and strong. However, by the time she turned 29, Nellie’s good health began to decline, and she had trouble breathing.

Despite her symptoms, she continued to work at Turner Brothers — until the week of July 22, 1922. Nellie had become too sick to work any longer.

An Unusual Diagnosis with No Help

Nellie’s doctor diagnosed her with “asbestos poisoning” and submitted a certificate through National Health Insurance to show her sickness made her unfit to work. This certificate should have allowed her to access benefits from the insurer.

However, Nellie’s insurer denied her compensation because her illness was caused at work.

Instead, she was told to seek compensation from her employer under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. This act stated that workers with certain occupational diseases (determined by the government) were entitled to payment from their employers.

Unfortunately, asbestos poisoning was not on the list of diseases that qualified for compensation. Therefore, Turner Brothers was under no obligation to pay Nellie for her lost wages.

It gets worse. The company knew this diagnosis was a big deal and could change everything, including its own profits.

After rejecting Nellie’s application for compensation, Turner Brothers also alerted its insurance company, which stated it would be “exceedingly dangerous [to accept] any liability whatever in such a case.”

There are no records of Nellie Kershaw or her estate receiving any type of compensation. Nellie spent the last 20 months of her life without an income and died at the age of 33. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

Early Asbestos Research Uncovers Widespread Dangers

It is evident that Nellie’s diagnosis of asbestos poisoning and her employer’s choice to ignore it stole her life and prevented her from the rightful compensation she deserved.

After her death, this same diagnosis captured the interest of many medical professionals, including the coroner of Rochdale, who conducted pathologic studies and microscopic examinations of Nellie’s lungs.

Findings revealed that “mineral particles in the lung originated from asbestos and were, beyond a reasonable doubt, the primary cause of fibrosis of the lungs and therefore death.”

Despite these findings, it took 10 years before asbestosis was considered an occupational disease eligible for benefits.

Even after it was added to the list, asbestos companies like Turner Brothers still did not acknowledge the hazard presented by asbestos in the workplace enough to actively initiate protective measures.

An Asbestos Epidemic for Workers

Throughout the years, additional deaths were reported, and asbestosis was found among many more workers.

In fact, the issue was so prevalent that after 20 years, 80% of Turner Brothers workers had evidence of scarring in their lungs, according to a survey conducted by the Factory Department of the Home Office.

In 1955, another study found that long-term Turner Brothers employees were 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer compared to British citizens in general.

A third study found that 50 years after Nellie’s death, “asbestosis was widely prevalent among workers in the [Turner Brothers] factory.”

Had Turner Brothers immediately acknowledged and taken accountability for Nellie’s cause of illness, a chain reaction of awareness and preventive measures would likely have taken place:

  • Protection against exposure may have been enforced.
  • Insurance companies may have insisted on protective measures to decrease liability.
  • Public awareness would have increased.

Instead, Turner Brothers deliberately ignored its role in Nellie’s death, resulting in the impoverished final months of Nellie’s life and countless deaths of many other men and women for decades to come.

Nellie Kershaw’s Lasting Legacy

Turner Brothers is one of many asbestos companies that took the same stance of deliberately ignoring the risks associated with asbestos, allowing workers to get sick, and not providing compensation.

Companies like Turner Brothers knew asbestos was causing fatal illnesses, yet they chose to do nothing and risk the lives of their workers for monetary gain.

Although what happened to her wasn’t fair, Nellie’s death and the events that followed did teach us an invaluable lesson.

Being the first asbestos-related death documented in medical literature meant that further research and studies would be done, which would eventually ignite education and public awareness on asbestos dangers.

Yes, Nellie’s story was a missed opportunity for change, but as we reflect on what we’ve learned nearly 100 years later, we can say we have come a long way.

Get the Mesothelioma Compensation You Deserve

Your story may seem like Nellie’s in that you were wronged, but it doesn’t have to end like Nellie’s. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, our experienced asbestos lawyers may be able to help your family secure compensation.

As a trusted mesothelioma law firm, Simmons Hanly Conroy has secured over $9.6 billion for families affected by mesothelioma in all 50 states.

Let us fight for the justice and compensation you deserve. Fill out our contact form for a free legal consultation.

Simmons Support Team
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The Simmons Hanly Conroy Editorial Team consists of journalists, writers and editors who strive to deliver accurate and useful information to families needing legal help. Our team works alongside the firm's attorneys and partners, as well as with medical professionals and other specialists, to keep all information relevant and helpful.

View Sources
  1. Doll, R. “Mortality from Lung Cancer in Asbestos Workers.” British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Retrieved from: Accessed on April 3, 2024.
  2. ScienceBlogs. “Classic papers in Public Health: Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories for the Year 1947 by E.R.A. Merewether.” Retrieved from: Accessed on April 3, 2024.
  3. Selikoff, I. and Greenberg, M. “A Landmark Case in Asbestosis.” JAMA. Retrieved from: Accessed April 3, 2024.