By John Baron
“Those of the calibre of June Hancock are heroes,” playwright – and Armley lad – Alan Bennett once said of the driving force behind Armley’s asbestos campaign in the 1990s.
It was a tragedy which affected hundreds of homes in the Aviaries area off Canal Road in Armley.
JW Roberts was based in Armley. Its factory manufactured asbestos, which leaked out of the factory into the surrounding neighbourhood. Children would play in and around the factory and in the loading bay where they would play amongst bags of blue asbestos and would make asbestos snowballs and think nothing of it.
Campaigner June Hancock was one of those children.
June’s mother had been diagnosed with mesothelioma and died in 1982 from the terrible disease. It was only when June herself was diagnosed in 1994 that she decided to take action against Turner & Newall, the parent company of JW Roberts, and seek justice for her mother and many others affected through the negligence of the company.
June decided to fight for justice and so instructed a legal team to take the company responsible for her illness to court. This was the first landmark case brought by a mesothelioma sufferer who had not worked with asbestos.
In legal hearings, residents testified how: “It used to be blue-white. We used to sweep this blue dust up. It was blue fluffy stuff … I used to get up in the morning and the other side of the street always had a layer of fine dust with footmarks on it from the early morning workers.”
Of the conditions in the nearby school, one said: “The dust was always there while I was at school, lying on walls or window ledges if it had been damp. It was like snow fall.”
June – backed by former Leeds West MP John Battle following an investigation by the Yorkshire Evening Post, secured a landmark victory in 1995. This single case had immense power, and changed the field of asbestos-related disease litigation forever and paved the way for others to seek justice.
June’s victory came despite suffering from such a painful and debilitating disease.
Despite her enormous strength and determination, June sadly died on July 19, 1997, aged just 61.
But this was not the end of the story. June’s resolve to see justice prevail helped to raise public awareness of the asbestos contamination in the UK. She touched the hearts of everyone who came to know her during her illness, and this led to the setting up of the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund (JHMRF).
The fund is marking its 25th anniversary with a special event at Elland Road on Friday evening.
JHMRF’s main objective is to sponsor and promote vital research into the causes and treatment of mesothelioma. They also campaign to raise awareness of the disease and the dangers of asbestos and support activities for people with mesothelioma and their carers.
It has raised more than £1.5 million, the majority of which being spent on quality research into the diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma and the care of people with the disease.
Most recently, the fund has committed £523,000 to research projects on gene therapy at King’s College, London, immunological-based therapies and a chemical compound which targets mesothelioma cells at Greenwich University.
The JHMRF Research Awards will be presented on Friday and there will be the opportunity to hear about the research that JHMRF funding supports.
The event gives attendees a chance to meet the successful applicants and hear more about the exciting work they are planning to carry out over the next two to three years.
Members of the patient and public involvement group Me-So-Involved will also be present to talk about the patients’ perspective and priorities, and how to get the patient’s voice heard.
Tea and coffee will be available on arrival and a buffet lunch will be served. There will be a raffle in the afternoon and birthday cake “to go”.
The event will take place on Friday, 18 November 2022 from 11am to 4pm at the Gary Speed Suite at Leeds United Football Ground, Elland Road, Leeds.
A quarter of a century after her passing, the fight for justice in June’s name is being continued by volunteers at the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund. Her legacy continues to shine throughout Armley and across the country.