Nancy Tait: a fighter for justice

Heard an obituary today on BBC Radio 4 for Nancy Tait who died at the age of 89. She was a fierce campaigner to have the victims of asbestosis and other industrial diseases compensated, and the conditions themselves recognised. Her husband had died prematurely of asbestosis, and this sparked an indefatigable campaign which dominated the rest of her life. It was strange to hear a recording of her voice, which I’d not heard for over 20 years.

I worked with Nancy Tait for about four months in the eighties as a researcher for the Society for the prevention of asbestosis and industrial diseases in a tiny cramped office in Cuffley Hertfordshire. In some ways Mrs Tait was a formidable woman, and her expectations for her few underlings were rather Dickensian. I worked for next to nothing, and when I asked, Oliver style,  for a pay rise to bring me up to poverty levels, she replied rather witheringly “I never realised you were ambitious.” In my twenties this seemed to me to be an example of telescopic philanthropy. From Mrs Tait’s perspective the fight was everything.

This aside I had absolute admiration for her achievements. I told her this at the time, and discovered that such flattery, however sincere, made her uncomfortable.

She was already over retirement age when I worked with her, and she was tall and strong with her grey hair tucked back in a businesslike bun. She crackled with tireless energy, taking on major corporations almost single-handedly. She lobbied and cajoled Unions, MPs, Business people, lawyers and many others. She also taught herself the minutae of complex medical conditions such as pneumoconiosis and mesothelioma, and somehow managed to acquire an electron microscope… Among her honours, she was rightly awarded the MBE a few years ago.

A driven fighter for people who were in extremis, Nancy Tait campaigned for justice, and the prevention of future deaths in the face of stiff opposition and even ridicule. Many owe an enormous amount to her without realising it.

She is someone I will never forget. And hearing the news of her death reminds me that it is often the people who spark contrasting emotions in you are those who teach you most about yourself.  Even after all these years I have enormous respect for Nancy Tait and her achievements.