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Looking back at the history of coal in Kent

Younger generations may never believe, if handed a lump of black coal, that these pieces of glimmering rock were once responsible for heating the country.

And long before heavy duty machinery was invented to extract it from beneath Kent in industrialised quantities, it seems incredulous to believe gangs of blackened men, cramped and sweating, had chipped it away from the earth by hand.

Workers from Betteshanger Colliery © Mike Dugdale/KMHF
Workers from Betteshanger Colliery © Mike Dugdale/KMHF

In the late 1800s, collieries were plentiful in Wales, Scotland and northern counties such as Yorkshire, County Durham and Lancashire. And as gateways to the bowels of the earth, work-hungry men flocked to them to 'go down' for their day's hard labour.

It was on February 15, 1890, that coal in Kent was first discovered as Francis Brady, chief engineer of the South Eastern Railway, was seconded to conduct boring investigations for an early channel tunnel project at Shakespeare, Dover.

At 300m below ground from the site, in West Hougham, coal was struck.

The discovery wasn't a surprise. Some 33 years earlier geologists such as Robert Godwin-Austen had worked out the conditions in east Kent were conducive to the existence of coal.

Between 1896 and 1919 significant investigation took place and 38 bore holes were sunk to locate coal in Kent.

The old Dover, or Shakespeare Colliery, in the area now occupied by part of Samphire Hoe. PictureBob Hollingsbee
The old Dover, or Shakespeare Colliery, in the area now occupied by part of Samphire Hoe. PictureBob Hollingsbee

Fourteen collieries subsequently progressed beyond the planning stage.

Most were located within the triangle of Canterbury, Dover and Deal – which became known as the Kent Coalfield.

Shakespeare, within that triangle, had its first shaft started on August 21, 1891.

A mining accident on March 6, 1897, killed eight men when there was a sudden inrush of water at a depth of 112m (366ft).

Where this engineering problem was remedied - by lining the shaft with cast iron tubes as the shaft was sunk - resultant productivity was not as bosses hoped. By February 1905, just 12 tons of coal had been brought to the surface.

Some of those who worked at the former Shakespeare Colliery in Dover, including (left) father and son John and John Abram.
Picturesubmitted by Bert Abram
Some of those who worked at the former Shakespeare Colliery in Dover, including (left) father and son John and John Abram. Picturesubmitted by Bert Abram

Shakespeare was one of eight failed sinkings around Kent: Adisham, Cobham, Guilford, Hammil (Woodnesborough), Maydensole, Stonehall and Wingham.

Only four of those collieries were to prove viable in the longer term: These were Tilmanstone (begun 1906), Snowdown (1908), Chislet (1914) and Betteshanger (1924).

Work commenced at Tilmanstone in 1911.

An accident in 1913 killed three men and destroyed the pumping system, causing the mine to flood and work was abandoned for nine months.

The site was connected to the East Kent Light Railway in 1915 and coal first brought to the surface in March 1916.

Locomotive St Augustine built in 1923 was based at Chislet Colliery from 1955 to 1960 Pic Dover Museum and Bronze Age Boat Gallery
Locomotive St Augustine built in 1923 was based at Chislet Colliery from 1955 to 1960 Pic Dover Museum and Bronze Age Boat Gallery

An aerial ropeway was built in 1930 to link the pit with Dover Harbour through a tunnel in the cliff. This allowed the delivery of coal to a 5,000-ton bunker at the harbour.

It wasn't used much after 1935 and was dismantled in 1954.

In 1945, the workforce was 914, with 631 being employed sub-surface and 283 above.

Snowdown was the deepest of all the Kent pits at 940m (3,083ft) below ground.

Work commenced in 1908 and coal was first brought to the surface on November 19, 1912. In 1945 the workforce was 1,876, with 1,523 being employed sub-surface and 353 above.

Snowdown Colliery
Snowdown Colliery

Work began at Chislet in 1914 and the colliery produced its first coal in 1918. Owing to the break out of the Great War, a conflict of interest arose over the naming of the German owned colliery and the Anglo-Westphalian Kent Coalfield Ltd was renamed North Kent Coalfield Ltd. It later became Chislet Colliery Ltd.

The colliery was served by the Ashford to Minster railway and a halt was built for the miners.

In 1945, the workforce was 1,350, with 1,023 being employed sub-surface and 327 above.

Houses for the miners were built at Hersden, which still has a social club named the Chislet Colliery Social Club.

The last of the four productive Kent pits to be built was Betteshanger which opened in 1924 and the first coal was raised in 1927.

View of Chislet Colliery from the East in the 1930s Photo credit Dover Museum and Bronze Age Boat Gallery
View of Chislet Colliery from the East in the 1930s Photo credit Dover Museum and Bronze Age Boat Gallery

In 1945, the workforce was 2,033, with 1,594 underground and 439 above. Betteshanger was infamously the only pit to strike during the Second World War.Its miners, known for their militancy, were the last to return to work after the 1984–85 miners' strike.

Film-maker and author Peter Williams, who wrote In Black and White and followed it up with a film about Kent's 100-year mining history, tells how the mining communities were founded and prospered.

He tells how 90 years ago there were plans at the highest level of the UK government to turn east Kent into a new Black Country of coalmines and ironworks.

"Neville Chamberlain, then minister of health but soon to become Prime Minister, came to Canterbury Cathedral on July 24, 1926," he wrote.

"He gave a speech to the county’s political and business leaders, outlining a scheme to create up to 18 coal mines and a number of ironworks between Canterbury and the coast, embracing Dover, Deal and Thanet.

Timanstone Colliery
Timanstone Colliery

"Pessimists forecast 'the end of the Garden of England as we know it'.”

But where Kent's rich seams of coal and deposits of iron ore were only 60 miles from an expanding and coal-hungry London, expanding mining in Kent was promoted by Chamberlain as an economic imperative for the nation.

The PM convinced those who heard the speech and the impact on Kent was immediate. This was an era of The Depression and job-hungry miners flocked in their tens of thousands to the county, to its newly-developing collieries. They brought their families with them.

At first they were ostracised. Where there were signs outside the plentiful boarding houses in towns such Deal, many would say "Miners need not apply."

It brought the need to provide accommodation for the workers and their families and, according to Mr Williams, Kent was fortunate in that the man charged with creating homes for them was Patrick Abercrombie.

A view of the old pithead baths building at Betteshanger Colliery. Picture Jim Davies
A view of the old pithead baths building at Betteshanger Colliery. Picture Jim Davies

"Abercrombie was a planning pioneer," he wrote. "He built communities. He planned eight new towns in east Kent and the first, Aylesham, was started straight away.

"Towards the end of his life, he rated the insertion of an industrial community into a predominantly agricultural county as perhaps the greatest challenge of his career.

"And, of course, as we now know, the ambitious plan was never completed.

"A Second World War and the diminution in the need for coal as the motive power of the world’s economies saw to that. Coal was no longer King. So seven of the eight new towns planned for Kent were never started and the eighth, Aylesham, was only half-finished.

"But thousands of working men and their families had trekked to Kent and formed a community within a community. It is a unique community in a 100-year story of a unique coalfield.

This picture shows three of the miners leaving the pit. l to r: T A K Shipwright, an ex RAF Officer who was invalided after serving twenty six years and volunteered for the mines last September, George Daughtrey, who started work in the Yorkshire pits at the age of 14, and Jack Adams who came from the Welsh mines to Kent. George Daughtrey will introduce Shipwright. Picture supplied by BBC
This picture shows three of the miners leaving the pit. l to r: T A K Shipwright, an ex RAF Officer who was invalided after serving twenty six years and volunteered for the mines last September, George Daughtrey, who started work in the Yorkshire pits at the age of 14, and Jack Adams who came from the Welsh mines to Kent. George Daughtrey will introduce Shipwright. Picture supplied by BBC

"Nowhere else in the world have so many people travelled and settled in so short a time in what, to all of them, from Scotland, the north east, Wales and the West Country, might as well have been a foreign country."

Mr Williams' book, In Black and White, recounts the history of the communities in the Kent Coalfield. How they were formed, how they coped with the usual pressures of being immigrants and how the heritage and traditions they brought with them still live on.

In time, communities were built at Eythorne/Elvington, Hersden and on farmland in Mill Hill. As well as strong and sturdy homes, the communities had shops, post offices, pubs, churches and their own welfare clubs.

The men, having travelled from all corners of the UK, brought with them their past times and Kent flourished with pursuits such as football, rugby, cricket, bowls, darts and pigeon racing.

Their way of life was celebrated every year with mining galas where families would compete for sun and honour against their neighbours and comrades from other pits.

Deal Welfare Club in the early 1950s, with a crowd of pensioners waiting for the bus to arrive to take them on an outing. Picture Jim Davies
Deal Welfare Club in the early 1950s, with a crowd of pensioners waiting for the bus to arrive to take them on an outing. Picture Jim Davies

Life was not always harmonious and where Kent miners were deemed the most militant of all, they stayed loyal to the cause of improving workers' rights.

Men from Betteshanger Colliery were the last to return to work after the bitter year-long national strike in 1984 to 1985.

Despite severe hardship from action that divided the country, the men were backed by their wives and the strong social welfare scheme they had all paid into through their careers did its best to support the families affected. Meals were cooked in welfare clubs and there were donations of food and money from far and wide.

Inevitably, where the country leaned towards other methods of energy generation, the need for coal petered out.

One by one, Kent's pits closed. Chislet had already closed on July 25, 1969. Snowdown in Aylesham closed in 1987 and the shafts were capped in 1988, Tilmanstone followed in 1988, having produced more than 20 million tons of coal.

John Moyle emerges after a 60hour sit-in at Betteshanger Colliery in June 1984
John Moyle emerges after a 60hour sit-in at Betteshanger Colliery in June 1984

The closure of Betteshanger on August 26, 1989, marked the closure of the coalfield, leading to Kentonline's sister paper The East Kent Mercury front page with the headline: "It's the End."

Expectedly, employment took a battering in east Kent and hundreds of proud miners were forced to join the dole queue if they weren't lucky enough to find work elsewhere or re-train.

For the past 30 years, the once strong communities have dwindled. And as generations pass away, so too do some of the traditions.

In time, and to comply with safety requirements, the pit heads were all filled in. Some collieries still have buildings, either ruinous or still in use.

The most obvious of them all is Almond House at Betteshanger, named after the last man to die in the Kent coalfield, Geoff Almond.

The East Kent Mercury pages that reported the decision to close Betteshanger Colliery and with it, the Kent Coalfield
The East Kent Mercury pages that reported the decision to close Betteshanger Colliery and with it, the Kent Coalfield

It remains there today and site owner, Quinn Estates, plans for it to remain as part of its multi-use housing and business development plans for the wider site.

Meanwhile stalled plans are being reignited for the building of a £9.5million visitor centre and mining museum at Betteshanger Park, the former colliery spoil tip, to share the story of energy creation at the site - now hoped to become a green energy hub.

So, as Britain moves towards becoming carbon neutral, there will always be somewhere to remember Kent's part in providing energy for the country.

And when you hand a child a piece of coal, they might be able to retell the story of coal in Kent better than we can.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent


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