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Asbestos and Clydebank

Taken from a report entitled 'Asbestos In Scotland' by Thomas Gorman, Ronnie Johnston Phd, Arthur McIvor Phd and Andrew Watterson Phd.


Scotland has had a long association with the asbestos industry. Scottish entrepreneurs were among the pioneers in developing the manufacture of asbestos products, with the first companies appearing in the 1870s.


One account suggests that it was two Scottish businessmen who first introduced the mineral to the United Kingdom, establishing the Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company in Glasgow to process asbestos, imported initially from Canada in 1871. Thereafter growth was rapid as the potential of the manufactured mineral began to be realised. By 1885 there were at least 19 asbestos manufacturers and distributors in Glasgow and a further handful dotted around Lanarkshire. The number of companies increased, and at the turn of the century 52 were listed as "asbestos manufacturers" in the Glasgow Post Office Directory.


The importance of the industry in Clydeside in this early period is suggested by the fact that of 18 asbestos companies (undoubtedly the largest) listed in a UK Trade Directory in 1884, six were located in Glasgow.


The Scottish Asbestos Company (founded in 1877) was one of the pioneers exploiting the market for engine packing and insulation, producing asbestos blocks, rope, and millboard for these purposes from their Levenshields works in Nitshill, near Glasgow.


By 1914, Scottish trade directories reveal that there were more than 60 asbestos manufacturers throughout the country, including seven in Aberdeen and three in Edinburgh.


However, Glasgow and the West Scotland industrial region remained the center of asbestos production and consumption throughout the twentieth century.


Turner Brothers, the company that came to dominate the UK asbestos industry (as Turner & Newell), began manufacturing asbestos from its plant in Rochdale in the late 1870s. In 1938 Turners set up a factory at Dalmuir to manufacture asbestos-cement products, to be used largely in the construction industry. Turner's Dalmuir asbestos factory expanded to employ at maximum capacity in the 1950s some 320 workers, of whom 45 were women. They continued production until closure in 1970.


Other multinational asbestos companies also expanded into Scotland. Cape Asbestos and Johns Manville, for example, established Marinite Co. Ltd. in Glasgow in 1952 to produce asbestos panelling, which was widely used in the building industry and on ships as an insulator and fire retardant. It was this that was widely used to insulate the Cunarder Queen Elizabeth II, built at John Brown's shipyard, Clydebank, in the 1960s. Marinite directly employed around 250 workers at this time. However, in Scotland it was the building contractors (and Direct Works Departments of the urban corporations), shipyards, and engineering companies that were the major users of the product.


At the end of the nineteenth century, boiler-covering and pipe-covering companies that specialised in thermal insulation emerged. By 1900, there were 26 boiler-covering firms in Glasgow alone.


These companies were relatively small but by the 1920s had combined together in an employers' organisation to represent and protect their collective interests. This organization expanded to absorb other Scottish firms, becoming the Scottish Thermal Insulation Engineers' Association in the 1940s.


One of the largest and most active member companies was Newalls Insulation, a subsidiary of the major UK asbestos producer, Turner & Newall. The biggest shipbuilders, such as John Brown's, had their own asbestos preparation sheds in the yards. A clear indication of the expansion of the asbestos industry can be gathered from the Clydeside statistics of raw asbestos imports, which increased 30-fold between 1920 and 1967.


Among the main exposure points in Scotland were the shipyards; marine engineering; locomotive construction, motor engineering, maintenance, and repair (friction products such as clutch and brake linings); the oil refineries in Grangemouth; heating engineering (including storage heater construction); and electrical engineering. In the shipyards asbestos was used to insulate boilers and pipes and as a fire retardant to comply with increasingly strict fire-prevention regulations.


The extent of the exposure can be gauged from the fact that there were 42 shipbuilding and ship-repairing yards in Scotland in 1960-32 of which were located on Clydeside.


The Queen Elizabeth II built at John Brown's in Clydebank between 1965 and 1967 provides a prime example of the extensive use of asbestos in ship construction at this time, and at peak more than 3,000 workers were employed in the ship's construction. Many of these, across a whole range of trades (including laggers, joiners, plumbers, french polishers, plasterers, and electricians) were exposed to asbestos dust.


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