Asbestos and the Medway Towns

Asbestos and the Medway Towns

The Medway Towns remain in the top four areas nationally for asbestos-related deaths, especially mesothelioma. The main Medway Towns are Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham and Strood, with Sittingbourne and the Isle of Sheppey just to the East, and Higham and the Isle of Grain just to the North. Rochester stands out as the rather “posher” brother of the Medway towns, with its charming historic high street, castle and cathedral and proud connections with Charles Dickens. However, activities throughout the whole of Medway, including Rochester, contributed to the area’s sad asbestos legacy.

 

It is Chatham and Gillingham that made the largest contribution to asbestos exposure and disease in the Medway Towns, as a result of the Chatham Royal Dockyards. This is probably something that can be added to the long list of Henry VIII’s crimes. It was his decision to first moor the English fleet off “Jillingham Water” around 1547. This was the start of what became HM Dockyard, Chatham. It grew to cover an enormous area and most of it was eventually in Gillingham. The Medway Towns’ Historic Dockyard attraction now covers 80 acres of Chatham and Gillingham, but that is only a small part of what was the whole Chatham dockyard site.

 

Samuel Pepys was a frequent visitor to Chatham Dockyards. Sir Francis Drake and Lord Nelson both learned their skills here and in fact Nelson’s own flagship “HMS Victory” was built at Chatham Dockyards. During First World War 12 submarines were built at Chatham dockyards. During the Second World War 16 vessels were launched and 1,360 refitted. In total, 57 submarines were built at Chatham Dockyards. The last of these was HMS Ocelot, launched in 1962. (Visitors to the Chatham Dockyards today can admire it there in its final resting place). Even after 1962 Chatham Dockyards continued to perform many submarine refits, the last of which, HMS Churchill left Chatham docks in 1983. The following year Chatham Royal Dockyards were closed.

 

History of asbestos in Medway Towns / industries exposed to asbestos

 

Between the 1940s and 1980s various trades and industries in the Medway Towns exposed workers to asbestos without protection. In and after the Second World War asbestos was seen as a “wonder product”, particularly because of asbestos’s heat resistant and insulating properties. No doubt with memories still fresh of wartime fire damage many in the Medway Towns viewed asbestos more as a health and safety guardian than a hazard.

 

Chatham Dockyards, Chatham and Gillingham, Medway

 

Foremost among the asbestos offenders in the Medway Towns of course the dockyards in Chatham and Gillingham. Here the more hazardous “brown” (often greyish) or even the deadly “blue” asbestos were used, as well as the more common “white” asbestos. The tradesmen exposed to asbestos at the dockyards included of course the laggers of asbestos insulation around the pipes, cables, boilers and engines, etc. of ships and submarines. But many other trades working inside these vessels at the Chatham Dockyards were also heavily exposed to the asbestos, including engine fitters, ships’ fitters, electricians and many others. Often it was at times when asbestos lagging was being stripped, eg as part of a re-fit, that the asbestos exposure was at its highest.

 

British Uralite factory, Higham, Medway

 

However, exposure to asbestos in the Medway Towns extended well beyond Chatham Dockyards. Indeed on the borders of the Medway Towns in Higham for many years British Urlaite even had an “asbestos-making” factory, making from raw asbestos a number of asbestos-based products, such as chimney pots and pipes.

 

Kingsnorth power station, Hoo, Medway

 

Asbestos insulation was also heavily used at the Medway Towns’ nearest power station at Kingsnorth. This was a dual-fired coal and oil power station on the Hoo Peninsula, Medway. In its earlier days like most other power stations the numerous pipes, cables, turbines and boilers at Kingsnorth were all heavily lagged with asbestos, which was frequently disturbed, so that there was a constant atmosphere of asbestos dust inside it. Again it was not just asbestos laggers who were exposed, but many other trades breathed in the asbestos dust, including boiler crew, mechanical engineers, electricians and maintenance staff.

 

BP oil refinery, Isle of Grain, Medway



There was another major Medway asbestos culprit on the Isle of Grain; BP’s oil refinery, built in the 1950s and closed in 1983. Its large boiler house and extensive network of pipes were all heavily lagged with asbestos, repaired and maintained by their onsite asbestos maintenance contractors, Hallsens. Again however, it was not just the laggers who were exposed but all sorts of other trades were significantly exposed to asbestos, including boiler house operatives, maintenance crew and jetty-workers.

 

Building trades in the Medway Towns

 

Last but not least, in the post war building boom many building tradesmen in the Medway Towns were exposed to asbestos in building and renovating thousands of homes, hospitals and schools in the Medway Towns’ area. Until the 1980s asbestos products were used extensively in Medway and nationally for fire protection and insulation, for example asbestos used around boilers and heating pipes and in many ceilings, windows, walls and external doors. The tradesmen exposed to asbestos in the Medway Towns included, amongst others, heating and plumbing engineers, carpenters, electricians, glazers and surveyors.

 

The Health and Safety Executive has listed the 10 occupations which pose the highest risk of suffering from an asbestos related disease (in and beyond the Medway Towns) as; Metal Plate Workers, Vehicle Body Workers, Plumbers and Gas Fitters, Carpenters, Electricians, Sheet Metal Workers, Electrical Plant Operators, Production Fitters, Construction Workers and Electrical Engineers. Thousands of such tradesmen exposed to asbestos worked and lived in and around the Medway Towns. Sadly, a number of them have developed or will develop serious and often fatal asbestos diseases, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening.

 

Our work for asbestos victims in and around the Medway Towns

 

We are the nearest asbestos disease specialist solicitors to the Medway Towns, which are just on our doorstep in Maidstone. We are therefore very experienced in serving asbestos disease victims in Chatham, Rochester, Gillingham and the rest of the Medway Towns. A sample of recent asbestos disease clients from the Medway Towns for whom we have acted include the following.

 

Chatham Dockyard, Chatham and Gillingham, Medway

 

A submarine maintenance fitter from Gillingham, Medway, who worked at the Chatham Dockyards in the early 1970s and developed and died from lung cancer in his 60s. This was caused partly by heavy exposure to asbestos lagging during submarine refits, including on HMS Valiant and Warspite, working double a normal working day.

 

An asbestos insulation lagger from Gilllingham, Medway who worked at the Chatham Dockyards for about one year in the late 1960s and in his 70s developed quite disabling diffuse pleural thickening, diagnosed at Medway Hospital.

 

An engineering maintenance fitter from Rainham, Gillingham, Medway, who worked at Chatham dockyards between 1970 and 74. He was significantly exposed to asbestos including in the “Fridge Shop” on HMS Eskimo and Diomede. In his 60s recently diagnosed with mesothelioma at Medway Hospital.

 

A fitter & turner and then foreman from Chatham, Medway who worked on various vessels at Chatham Dockyards from 1940 to the early 70s, intermittently exposed to substantial asbestos. Aged 90, diagnosed with asbestosis at Medway Hospital.

 

Kingsnorth power station, Medway

 

A mechanical engineering fitter heavily exposed to asbestos between 1960 and 74 from numerous locations, but including at Kingsnorth power station, Medway. Diagnosed with asbestosis in his early 70s.

 

An electrician and then electrical engineering draftsman from Rochester, Medway working for SEEBOARD between 1945 and 1986 exposed to asbestos lagging particularly at Kingsnorth and Littlebrook power stations. Diagnosed with mesothelioma at Medway Hospital aged 86.



Isle of Grain BP oil refinery, Medway

 

A boiler-house operator from Hoo/Rochester, Medway worked at Isle of Grain NP oil refinery between approx. 1978 and 1983, where he was exposed to asbestos in the boiler house. In his late 70s and recently diagnosed with mesothelioma at Medway Hospital.

 

Kemsley paper mill, Medway


Boiler house operative from Sittingbourne, near Medway, quite heavily exposed to asbestos inside boiler house for various periods between late 1960s and 1980s. In 60s diagnosed with and died from asbestos-related lung cancer at Medway Hospital.

 

Building trades in the Medway Towns

 

Plumber/heating engineer from Rochester, Medway exposed to asbestos from removing old asbestos lagging and cutting up/fitting new asbestos insulation. In early 60s diagnosed with mesothelioma at Medway Hospital.

 

Carpenter/foreman carpenter exposed to asbestos in early 1960s during boiler refit of old Minster Hospital, Sheppey, near Medway and in late 1970s from asbestos in ceiling paper during a cinema/night club conversion in Sittingbourne, near Medway. Diagnosed and died from mesothelioma in his early 70s. Unusual mesothelioma claim as involved three separate defendants. For more information please see our recent aricle on Asbestos Mesothelioma compensation claims in Kent & Medway.

 

Asbestos disease victims in the Medway towns- How can we help

 

  • We are based in Maidstone and are local to the Medway Towns. We are always happy to do home visits or equally to meet at our offices.
  • We are committed to providing a top class service for our clients, always putting our clients’ needs first and obtaining the best compensation we can.
  • We are always happy to provide a free initial consultation. Sometimes no claim can be made, but we appreciate for peace of mind it is important to get professional advice.
  • We act on a “no win, no fee” and usually pay all disbursements for you as the case goes along.
  • We make no deductions from compensation for mesothelioma claimants and strictly cap charges for all other asbestos victims so that they keep the large majority of their damages.
  • We work closely with the Medway McMillan Lung Cancer nurse.


We are holding our third free Asbestos “Drop In” Clinic at The Royal Engineers Museum, Field Marshals’ Room, Prince Arthur Road, Gillingham. Medway ME4 4UG on 14th July, 10 am-1pm. Asbestos disease victims will have a chance to meet members of our specialist Medway asbestos claims team to see if we can assist them with obtaining compensation. They can pick up information about other support services, such as access to health advice, welfare benefits and support groups in the Medway Towns’ area. They should also have an opportunity to speak to the Medway McMillan Lung Cancer Nurse, Denise Hodges.

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