The Campaign to Identify “Spinners Cancer” as an Industrial Disease

Since the onset of the industrial revolution and certainly up to about 1850, cotton mule spinning machines were lubricated by animal and vegetable oil and in the main by Sperm whale oil. The introduction of mineral oils for lubrication in the spinning sheds accelerated after 1850 and was in widespread use by the 1870’s.

The first recorded instance of epithelioma of the scrotum in a cotton mule spinner, or “spinners cancer” as it became known, occurred in 1887 when shale oil was the prevalent lubricant. This type of cancer did not appear to manifest itself among either wool spinners or ring spinners and for some reason was confined to those who worked in the mule spinning rooms including, spinners, creelers, doffers and piecers. Scrotal cancer which was thought to be attributable to working conditions was first observed in 1775 among boys engaged in chimney sweeping. Sir Percival Potts described it as,

It is a disease which always makes its first attack on the inferior part of the scrotum where it produces a superficial, painful ragged ill looking sore with hard rising edges. In no great length of time it pervades the skin, dartos and the membranes of the scrotum and seizes the testicle, which it enlarges, hardens and renders truly and thoroughly distempered. Whence it makes its way up the spermatic process into the abdomen. The carcinogen was thought to be coal tar

.A high incidence of scrotal cancer among Lancashire mule spinners in the early years of the 20th Century was the cause of great concern for operative spinners and their Trade Union the Amalgamated Operative Cotton Spinners Association. Despite being convinced that the cause of epithelioma of the scrotum was work related, all attempts by the Trade Unions to have the condition fully recognised as an industrial disease under the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1906 failed.

The Amalgamated Operative Cotton Spinners Association however, never gave up the struggle for the right to compensation for the families affected by this terrible disease. A significant step forward occurred in January 1924 when a test case was brought before judge H. Barstow QC at Staleybridge County Court under the Wokmen’s Compensation Act of 1906. The application was made on behalf of Mr Harry Whitely, an operative cotton spinner of Dukinfield.

Mr Wingate Saul representing the applicant described how two years previous,

Mr Whitely discovered a small growth on the left side of the scrotum which gradually increased in size. Eventually a medical man was consulted and he underwent an operation that appeared to have been completely successful. A sample of oil collected from the machine the applicant worked on was proved to be mineral oil such as was described in the schedule of the Workmen’sCompensation Act.

Mr Wingate Saul then made a startling declaration when he submitted,

That the disease which the applicant had contracted, “epithelioma of the scrotum” had been studied by two eminent men (Drs S.R Wilson and A, H Southam) who had discovered that during the twenty years from 1902 to 1922, 69 or 50% of the 141 patients treated for the disease at Manchester Infirmary were mule spinners and that in nearly every case the spinners were affected by the disease on the LEFT side of the scrotum.

In order to find out why this was so, Mr Saul described how,

The Doctors (Wilson and Southam) visited various cotton mills to observe spinners at work. They discovered that on the mule machines which the men operated, there was a carriage carrying from between 1,000 to 1,500 spindles which moved backwards and forwards about three feet from the ground and which had to be followed by the spinner.

Mr Saul had revealed a vital piece of evidence that would eventually be crucial in combating the scourge of spinner’s cancer, which blighted the lives of so many men and their families. He went further saying,

In front of the spinning mule carriage was a metal bar which the eminent Doctors who observed the spinners at work, noticed was always splashed with the mineral oil used for lubrication. In order to piece up the constantly breaking threads it was necessary for the operators to lean over the machine and as this was done, the left side of the body constantly came into contact with the steel body saturated with oil. Owing to the temperature in which the men worked they wore no clothing beyond a pair of shorts or trousers and a shirt and it was this irritation set up by the mineral oil combined with that caused by the constant friction against the metal bar that caused the problem.

Describing the development of the disease, Mr Saul went on to say,

It usually manifested itself by the presence of a small wart which was generally malignant from the beginning and the only hope of successful cure was an early operation.

Unfortunately for the applicant Mr Whitely and the Amalgamated Operative Cotton Spinners Association who had brought the case on his behalf and who had followed the proceedings with great anticipation, a legal technicality halted the case. (LEP Jan’ 12th 1924)

The case was again resumed In September 1924 at Ashton under Lyne County Court. After hearing the evidence and visiting a local mill to observe how a mule spinner worked, Judge Mossop ruled in favour of Mr Whitely and the Amalgamated Cotton Spinners and claimed he was in no doubt that,

Epithelioma disease arose out of the nature of a cotton spinner’s employment and thus should be covered under the Workmen’s CompensationAct.(LEP Sept’ 2nd 1924)

.The Jubilant Secretary of the Amalgamated Operative Cotton Spinners Association, Henry Boothman announced the decision as a great victory, however Counsel representing the Employers Federation immediately gave notice of appeal with the case set to be heard at a later date in a higher court. However a dramatic announcement from the Master Spinners Federation just four days later revealed the appeal against Judge Mossop’s ruling would no longer go ahead. As a consequence in legal terms, “Epitheliomatous Cancer was a condition arising out of the nature of a spinner’s employment”; meaning sufferers could now seek redress under the terms of the Workmen’s Compensation Act,

Henry Boothman, on behalf of the Amalgamated Spinners Trade Union, who had fought so hard for this result said,

The admission that spinners cancer can be caused by the occupation means a great deal for the future. It is twelve months since I sent out a general notice to our district secretaries to take care that every case amongst our members of epitheliomatous cancer should be carefully noted. We have nearly 100 cases in our insurance section all of which have been held up pending the decision of the test case that has now been settled. The necessary deferred compensation will now be dealt with”.

Acknowledging the assistance and dedication of the medical profession in winning this hugely important legal case, Henry Boothman commented,

It has largely been a medical fight and now that it has been accepted that the disease arises out of the nature of our employment, our members naturally feel deeply grateful to the two doctors (Wilson and Southam) at the Manchester Infirmary who have patiently watched the growth of the disease and traced its cause. We as operative spinners hope it is not too much to expect that serious efforts will be put forward by the employers to make the risk of infection the very smallest possible.

The disease as it affects our members is an extremely painful one and in spite of operations, we have no assurance that it will not recur. Obviously the first duty in the light of the evidence tendered during the recent test case, is to investigate in conjunction with the medical profession the cancer producing properties of mineral oil. I am hopeful that something of this sort will be set afoot.” (LEP Sep’ 9th 1924)

A Home Office enquiry was launched in 1925 and reported in 1926 that mineral oil was identified as the prime cause of epithelioma of the scrotum. A number of recommendations were put forward including,

1-Experimental research to be instituted into oils with a view to finding oils which are innocuous and at the same time suitable as lubricants.

2-Development of a non splash type of spindle bearing, more particularly for new mules

3-Prevention of oil splash from the spindles of existing mules by means of some sort of guard, the type to be decided by a series of tests to be mutually agreed upon and arranged by the Masters Federation and the operative spinners.

4-Periodic medical examination of the workers and,

a)-To be tried at first on a voluntary basis, but if unsuccessful in one year or at any subsequent period, to be made compulsory.

b)-To be performed at the factory.

c)-To take place at least every four months.

d)-To include every worker in the mule spinning room who is 30 years of age or over

e)-To be performed by three or four medical men appointed by the trade, with Home Office approval, for the whole area or failing this by special medical men appointed for suitable areas by the Home Office in conjunction with traderepresentatives, all workers in any given area to be examined by one man.

5-Education by periodic distribution of leaflets in order to direct attention to the importance of cleanliness and to the dangers of delay in securing early treatment.

In 1927, three years after the court case identified mineral oils as the likely cause of “spinner’s cancer”, a cluster of cases in Preston was causing huge concern. It was decided by Robert Handley, the secretary of the Preston Operative Spinners, along with the Association committee, to engage the services of an eminent surgeon named Dr Duncan. All Preston and district operative spinners willing to undergo medical examinations would be seen by Dr Duncan beginning with men aged 35 and over who would attend in batches from each individual mill. Most operative spinners took up the invitation and expressed appreciation to the Preston Spinners Association for the work they had done in connection with this vital health issue. (LCRO-Preston Operative Spinners Minute Book Nov’ 15th 1927)

It is estimated that between 1911 and 1938 over 500 deaths occurred among operative cotton spinners as a result of cancer of the scrotum. Deaths from the same cause prior to 1911 are unknown.

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