Barking asbestos plant's tragic legacy

KNOWN dangers of asbestos, long prized for its fire retardant properties, have left a tragic legacy for hundreds of workers employed at a Barking factory for over half a century, before finally closing in the 1960s. The Cape Asbestos plant in Harts Lane h

KNOWN dangers of asbestos, long prized for its fire retardant properties, have left a tragic legacy for hundreds of workers employed at a Barking factory for over half a century, before finally closing in the 1960s.

The Cape Asbestos plant in Harts Lane has claimed the lives of workers, family members and neighbours exposed to the fatal insulating material shipped from South Africa to Barking, identified as London's biggest asbestos death blackspot.

The seven-acre plant employed thousands of staff between 1913 and its closure in 1968, contaminating unprotected workmen, wives who washed their overalls and children from Northbury School who played with the asbestos "snow" spewed from its giant fans.

Other trades were affected, as an army of workers including carpenters, plumbers, laggers and electricians fitted the fire-resistant mineral to homes and locations like Barking Power Station and the Thistle Hotel in Marble Arch.


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The plant and its parent company, Cape Plc, a global industrial giant with a �600million turnover which has since ditched asbestos, contributed to the UK's biggest industrial scandal claiming 4,000 lives a year - more than road deaths.

The factory, closed down as more cancer cases emerged, unleashing a time bomb in workers' bodies as inhaled asbestos fibres developed into cancer.

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The plant has left a legacy of death and compensation having forced Cape Plc to put aside �40million for ongoing claims equivalent to �70,000 in payoffs each week.

The UK company founded in 1893 by Francis Oats, a mining engineer who found blue asbestos in South Africa's Cape region, officially unveiled its Barking plant on February 5, 1914, at a time of unprecedented demand.

The crude asbestos fibres, taken off ships on the London docks before being conveyed on lighters up the River Roding, was used to make fireproof mattresses and splinter mats protecting warship gun turrets during World War One.

Cape, which failed to make a profit for the best part of the 20th century's opening decade, honoured a "stream of orders" from the British Government and shipbuilders in big contracts.

The company recalled how demand for asbestos during the war was such it was "near chaos" with Oats, who also chaired diamond giant De Beers for the last 10 years of his life.

The two-acre Barking site bought for �1,400, after the company recorded �7,000 profits in 1912, expanded by a further five acres in 1915.

More machinery arrived and night work and bonuses were introduced to boost productivity.

The same year, Cape also landed a major, five-year contract to supply asbestos to go round electrode rods of welding equipment made by the Quasi-Arc Weldtrode Company in New York.

In 1916, the company introduced electric power at Barking and in 1917 expanded to Northbury House, also known as Cape Lodge.

Cape felt the "full force of the worldwide depression" in the Thirties, amid intense competition, a fall in goods production and the value of raw asbestos stocks, according to the 1953 book about the company, the Story of Cape Asbestos.

Mining at Cape's South African subsidiary, Egnep Ltd was curtailed, and the company's profits plummeted dramatically from its then all-time high of �52,210 in 1928, to just �13,141 in 1931.

But Cape began to recover and with increased takings expanded again with a new boiler department opening at Barking in 1935.

New stores and a sports ground were unveiled in 1936 and a 700-seat canteen with a high arched roof was opened by chairman Robert Walker.

Production intensified again in the lead-up to World War Two as Barking made civilian gas masks and military gas filters from 1936.

Profits nearly doubled between 1936 and 1937, from around �35,000 to �60,000 and reached around �150,000 in 1944.

The authors of the Story of Cape Asbestos recalled how there was an "immediate" demand for increased production during the war, with the biggest surge for blue and amosite asbestos taking place in 1942, in particular for the America market.

Cape contributed to the war effort, making fireproof lining for warships, armoured vehicles break linings and airmen's fireproof clothes in 1943 and received an Army Navy Production Award for its cooperation, prompt delivery and excellence in war production.

The company also introduced a Home Guard company to defend the plant, camouflaged itself and started V1 "roof spotting", but was hit by a flying bomb on June 23, 1944, luckily leaving just two or three injured during the 7am night - day shift switchover.

After the War, Cape continued to expand with exports of crude amosite from South Africa to the Union Asbestos and Rubber Company in the US.

Cape Asbestos, described by Barking and Dagenham campaigners as "an industrial killing machine", is working in 28 countries today.

The company shut the Barking factory in 1968 amid a growing outcry about the dangers posed by asbestos and sold its South African mining operation in 1979.

But the legacy remains, Barking and Dagenham being in the top 10 UK asbestos deaths blackspots, with 265 fatalities per 100,000 between 1981-2005 and having the highest rate of women mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer, in the country.

Barking and Dagenham Asbestos Victims Support Group is campaigning for a memorial set to be unveiled at the fountain on Barking Town Square and deaths are expected to rise for the next five years.

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