The industries which fuelled the growth of Kent's main towns


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From toffee to tanning, beer to bricks and trains to tourism, the county's major towns we know today owe much to the industry which fuelled their growth and the wealth which makes them desirable places in which to work and live.

Yet the county's industrial landscape has changed dramatically.

Chatham trams outside the dockyard loaded with workers and Navy personnel
Chatham trams outside the dockyard loaded with workers and Navy personnel

Where once the manufacturing of goods provided the backbone to many local economies, today the shift to the reliance on the service sector - restaurants, retail, leisure, tourism - is clearly demonstrated.

It seems unlikely our towns will ever see their likes again .

We take a look at some of our biggest towns and ask what made them tick; you can decide just how they responded to the loss of such employment hubs.

Ashford

Say what you like about Ashford , it's transport links really set it apart from many other places in the county. With the M20 providing easy access to the ports and the main motorway network, its rail services can even whisk you off to the continent when the high-speed commute to London gets a little too much.

Ashford Railway Works pictured from the air in the 1940s - the traditional economic backbone of the town. Picture: Steve Salter Archive
Ashford Railway Works pictured from the air in the 1940s - the traditional economic backbone of the town. Picture: Steve Salter Archive

So it is perhaps little wonder the town's modern origins owe much to the arrival of the railways in the mid 19th century.

The opening of the railway works in the town in 1847 brought both employment and opportunity - underlined by its population almost tripling over the next 50 years.

The arrival of the high-speed rail line not only saw much of the town transformed as it was built but it lay claim to one of only two international stations in the county.

In a sign of the changing times, there is talk of the old railway works site being transformed to house studios for the likes of Netflix .

Faversham

Workers at Oare Gunpowder Works, circa 1925. Picture: The Faversham Society
Workers at Oare Gunpowder Works, circa 1925. Picture: The Faversham Society

The classic market town, Faversham has its roots in a combination of industries all of which have contributed much to its modern day prosperity; boats, beers and bangs in a nutshell.

And it's all thanks to its waterways.

Originally a thriving port town - it has been a Cinque Port 'limb' of Dover for 800 years - the creek has been known for its boatbuilding prowess for centuries.

And the waters in the town proved fruitful too for the brewing industry which harvested the hops grown in the fields surrounding it and nearby Canterbury. Shepherd Neame was founded in 1698, and a host of other brewers have plied their trade in the town over the centuries (the former Rigden brewery - subsequently owned by both Fremlin and Whitbread - once stood on the site now occupied by Tesco). All brought employment.

But from the 17th to 20th century the town found itself at the centre of the explosives industry .

Gunpowder in Faversham was big business up until the early 20th century
Gunpowder in Faversham was big business up until the early 20th century

A number of factories were established by the government, with supplies easily shipped in by water and equally easily transported out.

But its downfall was signalled when 115 people were killed in a huge explosion at the gunpowder site in Uplees in 1916 as production was ramped up for use during the First World War. By 1934 production was switched from Faversham to Scotland.

Medway

It's easy to forget that Kent has been such a maritime powerhouse in its time. And Medway built its fortunes on a combination of faith and floating vessels.

Given its strategic position, underlined by its castle and cathedral, Rochester has long been a hive of activity, but it was Chatham and Gillingham's boat-making industry which provided its industrial backbone .

Chatham Dockyard workers who had worked on HMCS Okanagan, in 1966. Picture: Chatham Historic Dockyard
Chatham Dockyard workers who had worked on HMCS Okanagan, in 1966. Picture: Chatham Historic Dockyard

Since the 16th century, when the Royal Navy first established what became known as Chatham Dockyard, the area grew up and around the maritime industry with thousands employed, business brisk and the towns reliant on its success.

At its height, more than 10,000 people were employed at the docks - many in highly-skilled engineering roles - and hundreds of others in the supply chain relied upon it.

Its closure in 1984, therefore, was an economic disaster; its re-birth in recent years - putting education and heritage at its heart - to be admired.

Maidstone

While today known as the administrative centre of the county, Maidstone owes its heritage to a mix of industries ; the disappearance of the majority of which underlines the nation's switch from a manufacturing backbone to the services industry which dominates today.

How the River Medway in Maidstone, with the Fremlins Brewery in operation, once looked. Picture: Maidstone Museum
How the River Medway in Maidstone, with the Fremlins Brewery in operation, once looked. Picture: Maidstone Museum

Traditionally a market town which showcased local agriculture, it relied heavily on wool weaving for many years and then thread making during the 18th century.

Courtesy of its waterways, paper mills blossomed as did breweries. But, as with so much industry, they nose-dived during the early 20th century - the Fremlin brewery, once the biggest in Kent, declined after being taken over by Whitbread in 1967 and today the site it once occupied is the Fremlin Walk shopping centre .

And for those with a sweet tooth, it was once home to a firm making custard while the Kreemy Works site was known as the "largest toffee factory in the world" - a site which would be then taken over by sweet giant Trebor before closing in 2000 with the loss of 300 jobs.

Canterbury

As a place of pilgrimage for centuries , the city has long flourished - with its cathedral, as it is today, a pull for visitors from around the UK and the world.

Part of the original tannery buildings in Stour Street, Canterbury
Part of the original tannery buildings in Stour Street, Canterbury

From an industrial point of view, the city once had a booming leather industry as well as paper-making in the 18th century. Certainly the leather and tanning industry lent a certain 'pong' to the city's air and it would continue for more than 200 years - with the tannery finally closing as recently as 2002. The site has since been turned into housing .

As the 20th century developed, its lure to tourists and the emergence of universities would see it become reliant on its incoming visitors and retail offering - a blend which, up until the pandemic at least, was proving a considerable success.

Gravesend

Being sat on the Thames has been the key to Gravesend's success over the years. Long a strategic site for defending London, as far back as the 14th century it was the only destination allowed to ferry passengers to and from the capital by boat, becoming an often safer route while en route to Dover, during the 17th and 18th centuries when highwaymen targeted those in horse-drawn carriages. By the 19th century steamboats were working the route and the town boomed as a resort town - bringing in city folk with bulging purses.

It saw the town grow in wealth and numbers - swollen as Londoners started to move in in the late 19th century courtesy of rail links.

Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Blue Circle's Northfleet cement works in 1978
Margaret Thatcher on a visit to Blue Circle's Northfleet cement works in 1978

With cement also proving big business - by 1900 there were nine cement works between Swanscombe and Gravesend - its wares were shipped around the world. A large factory continues to this day in neighbouring Northfleet.

And, as with other Kent towns, paper mills - courtesy of a boom in newsprint during the 20th century - also provided employment and prosperity up until the decline in demand at the latter part of the century.

Margate

From its origins as a small fishing town, Margate's fortunes have ebbed and flowed since the early 19th century on the tide of tourism. When steamboats used to ferry passengers along the coast, the town's famous stretch of sandy beach was a popular destination and it began to become firmly established as a seaside resort town.

By the mid 20th century, its reputation carried nationwide and the town was designed to accommodate the flood of visitors. But, as cheap foreign holidays - with guaranteed sun - burst onto the market in the latter part of the 20th century, Margate felt the impact .

Margate built its fortunes on its popularity as a resort. Picture: Thanet District Council
Margate built its fortunes on its popularity as a resort. Picture: Thanet District Council

It's steady decline has only recently been, partially at least, reversed by some serious investment in the likes of the Turner Contemporary and the return of Dreamland .

Dover

It won't take the brightest of buttons to realise that Dover's position as the closest point to the continent has seen its port facilities its industrial beating heart. And it's had plenty of other supporting industry over the century too - from a major mustard factory, a coffee and spice grinding plant and corn grinding mills. The mills would eventually be changed to extracting oil from seeds and it became the town's biggest non-maritime sector.

The coal industry - which played such a formative part of so much of east Kent was also significant for the town with collieries bringing both jobs and an influx of workers to the area.

But it was the port which has provided the jobs over the years - and despite a decline in passenger numbers since the boom in cheap flights and Channel Tunnel, it remains integral to the town, county and nation's success - today welcoming cruise ships in addition to cross-Channel passengers.

Sittingbourne

Smeed Dean Brick Works in Sittingbourne - once the nation's biggest
Smeed Dean Brick Works in Sittingbourne - once the nation's biggest

Britain may have been built on hard work, but for Sittingbourne it was with the very building blocks of development which employed thousands over the years. Its brickworks helped fuel the growth of Victorian London, with hundreds of millions being made and then shipped by boat to the capital. One of the town's big brickworks, Smeed Dean, churned out a staggering 60m of the things in 1877 alone and was the biggest in the UK.

In fact George Smeed, who founded the company, even built 180 homes for workers in Murston. It was a drop in the ocean however - at its peak it employed more than 2,600 staff.

Paper making was an enormous driver of growth too, and the combination of the once insatiable demand for paper and bricks saw boatyards along Milton Creek boom as they helped transport the goods to London - and the raw supplies needed upon their return.

Folkestone

Much like Margate, Folkestone owes its growth over the last 200 years primarily to tourism - motivated in no small part by its once-thriving cross-Channel port.

Folkestone was once a major ferry port and enjoyed a hugely popular tourism industry. Picture: Alan Taylor
Folkestone was once a major ferry port and enjoyed a hugely popular tourism industry. Picture: Alan Taylor

Traditionally a fishing town, when the railway came to the town in 1843 it opened up new opportunities and when rail services were extended right up to the harbour , it proved hugely popular.

The town became a regular haunt of day-trippers and holiday makers and an industry grew up around it - still seen today by the array of grand hotels which line the Leas.

During the 1970s, its ferry routes to Boulogne, Calais and Ostend were carrying over a million passengers a year before a gradual decline saw all ferry services end by 2001 while cheap foreign holidays saw its popularity wane. It has seen looked to the creative sector to drive its modern growth.

Tunbridge Wells

The Chalybeate Spring on The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells was the town's original massive selling point
The Chalybeate Spring on The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells was the town's original massive selling point

If you think Tunbridge Wells is a bit posh, the truth is its growth over the centuries has been a result of being a fashionable town to which the upper classes flocked.

With royal patronage, the natural iron-rich water through its Chalybeate Spring on The Pantiles was thought to bring with it healing properties and it pulled in huge numbers of visitors from the 17th to 18th centuries.

As more people visited, so its population grew too as Londoners sought its rural attractions - aided greatly by the architecture which continues to prove a major attraction today.

While hotels sprang up to entertain the crowds, there was also a thriving brickmaking works at High Brooms which was a major source of employment from the 19th century - and extending well into the 20th.

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