Coal – Kent Coal Race,
by Bob Hollingsbee
NEARLY a century ago, when the Kent Coalfield was under development by a number of share-floating companies, all kinds of stories were circulated in the Dover, Deal and Folkestone area to get publicity and persuade speculators to buy shares in the venture.
There was talk of brickfields in East Kent on the scale of those in the Midlands and elsewhere as well as the collieries. People speculated that East Kent could soon blossom – if that is the word — with other labour-intensive industries too, like potteries.
Investors swallowed stories that, following the discovery of iron ore deposits in sinking shafts to reach the rich coal seams, major industries could spring up around Dover, such as steel and cement works.
The prospects all helped sell thousands of pounds worth of shares in companies fighting to be the first to raise saleable coal in economic quantities.
But this took much longer than speculated as the sinkers met all kinds of problems, such as water breaking into shafts, and geological faults which plagued Kent. Half a dozen pit sinkers were drowned as water burst through into the first colliery shafts near Shakespeare Cliff, Dover and engulfed them. Desperate rescue bids followed in a search for survivors.
Now, with less than four years to go I wonder how we in Kent will mark the centenary of the race to be the first Kent colliery to go into production. It was Snowdown miners who pipped Tilmanstone at the post, in November 1912. Tilmanstone toasted success too, four months later. Both collieries were spurred on by one man, Arthur Burr, who headed the Kent Coal Concessions group of companies. Chislet did not begin raising coal until 1918 while Betteshanger – the last pit to close, in 1989 — was about three years behind.
All the other pit enterprises failed altogether, like that at Dover – near Samphire Hoe nature reserve below which Channel Tunnel trains now speed to and from the Continent. Also a disappointment was Guilford, near Whitfield, because of the heavy costs of pumping out water.
Another failure, after considerable investment, was Stonehall Colliery, at Lydden, alongside the main railway line to London, just outside Dover. And it was a similar story at Wingham to which the East Kent Railway line had been built from Shepherdswell, which had a link to the main line to Dover.
Curiously some of the richest seams found, at Oxney, near Deal, which could, perhaps, have been worked by a fifth Kent pit, which was on the drawing board after the Second World War, were never exploited.
That there was coal under the green fields of Kent had been suspected from the day, in 1846, that seams were struck just across the Channel, in the Pas de Calais area of France. But an early attempt in the UK to test the theory of geologists, in 1875 was a failure. It was decided to sink a boring of 2,000 ft deep at Battle, in Sussex, but the drill bit jammed and the attempt was abandoned.
Ultimately it was one of the false starts in building a Channel Tunnel which led to a successful bid to reach the coal seams. The Channel Tunnel Company bored a tunnel over 6,000 feet out to sea, and there were inspection trips for many VIPs. But then the Board of Trade was persuaded to call the whole thing off because of a conceived threat to national security.
At this stage, however, Sir Edward Watkin, chairman of both the Southern Railway and the Channel Tunnel Company stepped in. He asked railway engineer Francis Brady to test the coal theory once and for all. A boring was put down from the platform which had been created west of Shakespeare Cliff when massive Round Down Cliff was blown up in the 1840s to save the cost of boring a tunnel through the cliffs while building the Folkestone to Dover railway line. Brady struck coal at 1,157 feet and, down to 2,274 feet cut through 13 more seams, three of them 30 inches thick. The Tunnel dream had come to nought but the discovery of coal, and with it reportedly rich deposits of ironstone and fire clay, set entrepreneurs dreaming of unprecedented prosperity for East Kent.
The largest cement works in the world, massive gas works and a power station big enough to supply London, together with steelworks and brickworks, all to be fired by Kent coal – that was the “industrial Eden” once planned. The dream of one man it would have created jobs for many thousands of men and women and brought prosperity to the area following the devastating General Strike of 1926 and the depression of the twenties.
Behind the plans was an already successful businessman with world-wide interests, Richard Tilden Smith, who saw the potential for Kent coal and associated iron ore deposits and other raw materials.
Moving into Elvington Court, and taking over Tilmanstone Colliery, he set about putting the ailing pit in order and began the process of buying and leasing property and land to implement his dreams.
He spent half a million pounds acquiring a series of gas companies covering a large part of East Kent and beyond and leased 24 acres of land close to Dover harbour at Langdon Hole for the projected cement works. Tilden Smith realised he needed to create markets for Tilmanstone and other local coal to make the coalfield a success, but he had to overcome crippling freight charges on the London to Dover railway line, so he invested in a seven and half mile aerial ropeway across farmland, from the pit to Dover, costing £120,000. This ultimately forced the railway company to slash its prices.
Sadly Tilden Smith died suddenly, in 1929, shortly before the ropeway was finished and he was unable to realise his dreams.
The story of this remarkable man and his vision was told by a grandson, the late Richard Tilden Sherren, of Kingsdown, in a small book, “The Industrial Eden,” published in 1990.
© Bob Hollingsbee, October 12, 2009.