Family’s devastation at Devonport Dockyard worker’s asbestos death – aged just 44

By Plymouth Herald

THE family of a tragic Devonport Dockyard worker have spoken of their devastation at losing him to asbestos-related disease.

But at the age of  just 44, he died suddenly in his bed at home, a victim of the asbestos he had been exposed to during his time as a fitter and turner at Devonport Dockyard.

For his wife Valerie and daughter Karen, the emotions are as raw as they were almost 40 years ago.

But they have found solace from the fact, unknown to them until now, that his death inspired the union campaign to stop workers being routinely exposed to the deadly material.

Mr Sparks was born in the village of Millbrook, South East Cornwall, and began an apprenticeship in the dockyard after leaving school.

After two years’ National Service, which he loathed, he went back to work in the dockyard in 1959 – at a time when asbestos was widely used in shipbuilding, mainly as insulation material, but with little or no understanding of the risks it posed.

Valerie, now 75, said her husband was rarely ill and the kind to pass on coughs and colds without suffering himself.

But they were thrown into disarray when the results of an x-ray at the dockyard showed a shadow on his lung and the word asbestosis first entered their vocabulary.

“He went down to a hospital at Tehidy hospital in Cornwall where they did a biopsy,” Karen explained. “Unfortunately that left him paralysed which they thought was something to do with the anaesthetic.

“But it was while he was there that he overheard two doctors talking about a poor man on the ward who was terminally ill and was going to die. He didn’t realise they were actually talking about him.”

As he recovered from the biopsy, Mr Sparks was later transferred to Scott Hospital, then in Beacon Park, Plymouth. He was allowed to go home, but died in his sleep the same night.

“Nobody told us he was seriously ill,” Karen, who was 15 at the time, said.

“We didn’t know what we were dealing with. We had no idea. We didn’t know what asbestos did and had never heard of mesothelioma.”

The family were devastated. A friend with Mr Sparks’s weekly wages, due to be paid on the day of his death, was stopped at the gates of the dockyard.

“It was devastating,” Valerie said. “In those days you lived week to week and we simply didn’t have any money.”

Their short-term financial crisis was eased with £50 delivered by union leader Bill Goffin.

The grief-stricken mother and daughter were then faced with a post mortem, probate, a coroner’s inquest and pursuing compensation from the Ministry of Defence.

“We felt abandoned,” Karen said. “The Ministry of Defence didn’t want to know at all, to them we was just another number. But he was my dad. There was no counselling, nothing. We lost control of our lives.”

The family, with the help of Valerie’s parents, slowly began to rebuild their lives. As Valerie put it: “I had a young daughter to bring up, life goes on and you have to get on with it.”

Compensation from the Ministry of Defence helped although, as Karen said: “It was a pittance compared to the value of someone’s life. I would give everything I own just to have one more word with my dad.”

Karen is now a married mother-of-one. Valerie  remarried only four years ago.

But it was an interview with former senior dockyard AUEW/AEEU convener Bill Goffin, and his successors John Williams and Dick Powell, which delivered news they had never heard.

Mr Goffin said it had been Mr Sparks’s death that had inspired the union’s continuing fight against asbestos in the dockyard. After meeting the young family he had vowed “never again”.

En masse, the union’s men began to refuse to work when asbestos was present, despite threats from management. The collective action would eventually result in a health and safety regime years before any enforced by legislation.

“We never knew,” Karen said. “It feels like he didn’t die in vain. If my dad knew that he had helped others that would be something he would have treasured. To learn that after all this time is a real comfort for us.”
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April 7, 2014Permalink