In 1917 the Mines Department first recorded the presence of blue asbestos in Western Australia’s Hamersley Ranges.
Lang Hancock pegged the leases of blue asbestos around Wittenoom Gorge in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After being appraised of the value of the blue asbestos fibre on the London markets, he entered into arrangements to mine and sell the blue asbestos to British companies.
In 1943, the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company Limited (CSR) acquired asbestos leases (and a primitive mill) held at that time by the Hancock Syndicate (Messrs Lang Hancock, Wright and Warren) and formed Australian Blue Asbestos Limited to develop the deposits. Mr Hancock became Superintendent of the operation from its inception to 1944. The company was incorporated on 17th April 1943. A few years later, Mr Hancock resigned from this position as the Superintendent, however CSR continued to mine blue asbestos until they closed the mine in 1966. Then CSR sold all of the leases including the facilities of Wittenoom township to Mr Hancock and his companies.
One of six recognised types of asbestos, blue asbestos (crocidolite) is the most dangerous. These asbestos fibres were used to reinforce thin rigid cement sheets known as asbestos cement sheet or AC sheet or fibro, short for fibrous (or fibre) cement sheet. Although fibro was used in a number of countries, it was in Australia where its use was most widespread, predominantly manufactured and sold by James Hardie & Co.
Due to its sound absorption qualities, durability, heat and fire resistance and affordability, fibro soon became a very popular building material throughout the country. Although fibro was used in the construction of a wide range of buildings, its ease of construction enabled the middle-class Aussie battler to become both architect and builder of their own dream home. At the peak of the housing boom in the 1950s, one third of new homes were owner-built and most of these were constructed of fibro.
Over time the fibro home has become an icon of the Australian landscape. Simultaneously, this product has become synonymous with the suffering and death of thousands of people, many of whom were involved in the manufacture and installation of the product.
This extensive use of fibro and other products containing asbestos has dramatically affected the course of the Australian building industry, and the lives of the people involved for many years to come.
This is the true story of one ordinary man, an innocent victim of these tragic circumstances.