Life at the coalface


Jean Hollingsworth goes underground to give a potted history of the coal industry in Kent

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Life at the coalface

If you ask anyone who knows Kent to describe the county and its attributes, the chances are that they will tell you about the beautiful countryside, the farms, the historic castles, the pleasant coastal resorts that dot its shore . . . What they will not mention will be the industry that once thrived and grew beneath those fertile fields, creating employment and a way of life to thousands of men and their families. I am referring to the coal mining industry that was once an integral part of the Kentish landscape.

It all began quite quietly, with test borings in various sites across the county, but grew by leaps and bounds when the Kent Coal Syndicate was born under the entrepreneur Arthur Burr in 1896.

The first coal mine to be built was the Shakespeare Colliery, on the beach below the cliff of the same name just to the west of Dover. Never a financial success, the colliery closed in 1921 having produced only 1,000 tons of coal. Today it is the site of Samphire Hoe, a place of wild flowers, quiet walks, birds, butterflies and amazing sea views.

Through the ups and downs of finance and fortune, the coal industry in Kent still continued to grow into the 20th century. There were successes and failures – at least nine prospective collieries never made the transition from exploration to commercial production – but the final outcome was the creation of four productive collieries in the eastern part of Kent.

Tilmanstone, the oldest of these four pits, opened in 1906, followed by Snowdown in 1909, and Chislet, the most northerly in the Kent coalfield, in 1914. The youngest of the four collieries, Betteshanger, started life in 1924.

Tilmanstone, wet and fated

Tilmanstone village is about five miles southwest of Deal and eight miles north of Dover. The colliery was next to the village and opened under the ownership of Arthur Burr and his Foncage Syndicate. However, it was beset by financial problems that prevented the fullest development of the site.

The first fatal disaster occurred in 1909 when a hoppit (hoist bucket) fell down the shaft, killing three men and fracturing the water pipes from the pumps. Water poured into the pit and work was abandoned for nearly a year. Work began again in 1910 but it was always a ‘wet’ pit and the water was a cause of much expense that could be ignored for only so long. Only after the sinking of number three shaft in 1912 were electric pumps installed to deal with the water problem, but the problem never went away.

Despite hitting a rich seam of coal in 1913, the financial situation deteriorated further and at a meeting in 1914, the investors advanced more funds on the undertaking that Burr and his son, Malcolm, resigned and took no further part in the business. The shareholders took over the management of the colliery but it still lost money every year and in March, 1919, the business was put into the hands of the official receiver. Later that year, with numerous legal actions pending against him, Arthur Burr died.

In 1925, with the colliery still struggling to survive, Richard Tilden Smith took over as manager, becoming the owner in 1926. Unlike Burr, Tilden Smith saw Tilmanstone as a long-term investment. He had the money needed to move the pit forward and care for his employees: he provided satisfactory accommodation and looked after their safety and future as coal miners.

However, Tilden Smith died in 1929 before all his plans could be realised.

Tilmanstone survived the Second World War, in spite of bomb damage and a change from private ownership to a nationalised industry. Along with all British pits, it was put under the control of the National Coal Board (NCB) in 1947. Strikes in the 1960s and 1970s brought down the wrath of Conservative governments and in 1981 a programme of pit closures began. Further industrial conflict followed and in 1984 and 1985, more than 95% of Kent’s miners were on strike. But they were fighting a battle they could not win. Tilmanstone reached the end of its life in 1986 and within a decade all trace of it was gone.

Snowdown, flooded and fragile

The first sod was turned at what would become Snowdown Colliery in February 1907, an undertaking managed again by Arthur Burr. And again the shafts drilled here encountered the same problem as at Tilmanstone – too much water. When the first shaft hit water, it flooded and 22 men were drowned.

Snowdown, alongside the main Dover to Canterbury railway line, was the deepest colliery in Kent and in 1913, a seam of coal 5ft 6in thick was found, resulting in a weekly output of 800 tons. Despite this, however, the company went into receivership in 1920, not helped by the miners striking over pay in that year.

Pearson & Dorman Long bought the colliery in 1924 and it went through a period of modernisation while the workers were accommodated in the newly constructed village of Aylesham. In 1926, though, the whole country found itself in the stranglehold of the General Strike.

Industrial relations remained fragile over the next few years, with owners attempting to reduce wages in 1928 and causing demonstrations at the pit head. Would-be miners were given a police escort to work. The next year saw the Kent Conciliation Board fail to reach an agreement with the Kent Mine Workers Association (KMWA).

Kentish coal had always been the most difficult to mine and therefore the most expensive, and by the 1960s, plans were soon afoot at the NCB to begin closures. In 1975, Snowdown employed just under 1,000 men. At the start of the 1980s, the NCB and the government considered that the only way that the coal industry could remain viable was to shut what they saw as uneconomic pits. Snowdown was first on the list.

Strikes followed in 1984-85. By then, the pits were run by British Coal, which announced plans for ‘reorganisation’, the result of which saw the final closure of Snowdown in 1987.

Betteshanger and the blacklist

Just north of the Deal to Sandwich road lay the Betteshanger colliery, Kent’s biggest mine. Progress at the site was swift and the first coal was brought to the surface in 1927. The colliery was initially owned by Dorman Long & Co, which later merged with S Pearson & Sons to form Pearson & Dorman Long.

Miners flocked to the site seeking work following the General Strike, during which many men from the traditional mining areas of South Wales and the northern and Scottish pits had been blacklisted in their home towns. The Mill Hill estate, comprising 950 homes and a social club, was constructed to house the influx of men and their families.

As in the other Kent pits, the Sixties and Seventies saw strikes of a growing violence and radicalism. But even with the Labour party gaining power and pouring investment into the Kent coal industry, plans were soon on the table that called for pit closures. The return of the Conservatives to power in 1984 meant that those plans were soon implemented and the most bitter and far-reaching strike was soon under way. It gained support across the social spectrum and from as far away as the eastern countries of the Soviet Bloc.

The strike ended in March, 1985, and Betteshanger was the last pit to return to work, but not for long – the colliery’s final shift came in 1989, the end of an era and a way of life for many.

Chislet and its conscripts

Chislet, the fourth of the Kent Coal Fields collieries, was on the road between Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet, close to the villages of Sarre Westbere, and Chislet. It was initially owned by the Anglo-Westphalian Coal Syndicate Ltd, under the directorship of the German-born Willi Perits. They could not have chosen a worse time to undertake the venture. The year was 1914 and the First World War was just a gunshot away. Perits was interned for the duration and questions were asked in parliament about the company’s German connections and the implications of such a politically sensitive name for the company. Thus the name was changed, becoming known first as North Kent Coalfield Ltd, and later as Chislet Colliery Ltd.

As for the workforce, a large number came from the Welsh valleys and the Chislet Colliery Housing Society was formed with a remit to construct 300 houses for the miners’ families. That estate became known as Hersden.

During the Second World War, Chislet was a training pit for conscripted young men known as Bevin Boys, after Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service. They were picked by ballot to work in Britain’s pits rather than enter one of the armed services. The scheme started in December, 1943, and the first 39 trainees at Chislet were housed in a hostel in the grounds of Wildwood, at Sturry. Unbroken pit ponies arrived two year later, in March, 1945. Stables were built below-ground for them and each pony was given a name. They did not have a hard life because the system used for getting out the coal was so efficient that there was little for the ponies to do. The final one, Alex,  retired in 1952.

Most of the coal mined at Chislet was sold to British Rail but as electric and diesel engines took over from steam, that important customer base was lost. By the mid 1960s the colliery was not thought to be commercially viable and it shut in July 1969.

Right across east Kent a way of life faded into the memories of those who had worked in the pits. Many people nowadays don’t even know that they existed, but if you look at the names of people living in that part of Kent, it is no coincidence that there are still many called Llewellyn, Davies, Rees and Jones living there today.

Those Dirty Miners, A History of the Kent Coalfield, by JP Hollingsworth, is published by Stenlake Publishing, price £16