What images come to mind when you think of Kent? Probably white cliffs, castles surrounded by moats and cathedrals. What else? Beach huts, beautiful gardens and coalfields. Hang on a minute – coalfields? Yes, there were coalfields in Kent for the best part of a century right up to the late 1980s. In today’s blog I wanted to explore the world of coal mining in Kent.
I was a student at Leeds University during the miners strike of 1984-85 and all the attention was on the collieries and pit villages of West Yorkshire, Northumbria and South Wales. But there were four mines in Kent centred around the Deal and Dover area that were also affected.
Over twenty five years after the last colliery at Betteshanger closed, we decided to see what remains of Kent coal. The best resource to find out more about the coalfields of Kent is the exhibition at Dover Museum.
The history of coal mining in Kent started when coal was originally discovered as part of abortive excavations to build a Channel tunnel in the late 19th century. There then followed what must have been a frustrating twenty year period where bore holes were drilled, speculative shafts sunk and a vast amount of money spent – with little reward.
So what was the problem? The coal was located very deep underground and to get at it meant pumping out large deposits of water lying in chalk beds.
The first commercially produced coal was not mined until 1912 at Snowdon colliery. Previously, 22 miners had drowned when early drilling encountered water and the shaft flooded at 260 feet.
Snowdown Colliery was conveniently situated alongside the main Dover to Canterbury railway line, and lies between the villages of Nonninton and Womenswold.
We arrived at Snowdon on a sunny spring morning. There are a considerable number of disused colliery buildings still standing behind forbidding rusting iron fences topped with barbed wire. We walked along the road for a while, taking photos and surveyed the deserted scene of over seventy years of coal production. On the other side of the road, the remains of coal spoil was evident over a wide expanse; uneven patches of grey smudged flecks interspersed with dotted meadow flowers, silver birch trees and hardy shrubs.
New coalfields led to a demand for housing closer to the site of the pits.
Most Snowdown miners lived in Dover until the development of the town of Aylesham started in 1926. Aylesham was an innovative model town of 3,000 houses meant to serve Snowdown and a new pit at Adisham. This pit never materialised and Aylesham was only partly finished, providing 650 houses. Built in the middle of farm lands, Aylesham even now seems quite isolated and so every attempt was made to make it self-sufficient, ensuring it had its own shops, social clubs, schools, churches and sports facilities.
We visited the village – built from the proceeds of coal and noted that the Anglican Church had been constructed in 1927. It looked more like a grand community centre than a place of worship and it may have been both. The Roman Catholic church was very non-traditional in design and had a low lying corrugated roof that looked as it had been built in a hurry. The miners institute is now a centre for small business and it was easy to imagine the crescent of houses providing accommodation for the miners to the nearby colliery.
It was half term and young children were playing with their mothers. Less than thirty years ago, their husbands and fathers would have been toiling away at the nearby colliery. I wondered how many of the miners families remained in the village or whether more recent homeowners had any idea that without the coalfield the village wouldn’t have been built in the first place?
Walking around, we found a statue dedicated to the children of the miners and a display and map detailing the Kent Miners’ Way with directions to other local pits and villages.
As time was pressing, we decided to travel east about ten miles to the village of Northbourne. From there we walked through fields to Betteshanger colliery. Little remains of the colliery and most of the buildings have long been demolished. Shafts have been sealed up and fenced off. The colliery is now a country park and a wildlife centre with reservoirs and reed beds hosting a variety of bird life. Coal spoil was present and grassed over and several hills and mounds were testament to their former use.
Betteshanger miners initially lived in Deal itself but reports are that the genteel folk of the town didn’t take readily to the unwashed miners. And the miners were unwashed since bathing facilities were not originally available on site. ‘No Miners’ signs were placed in boarding house windows in the town.
As a result, in 1929, isolated farmland on the outskirts of Deal, at Mill Hill was acquired to build 950 houses plus social and sport facilities. Nowadays the miners have now gone, but perhaps they had the last laugh after all, since the houses built to keep them out of the Deal have now been incorporated into the town’s boundaries.
By all accounts, Betteshanger was the biggest and most militant of all the Kent coalfields and the last in the country to return to work after the miners strike in the 1980’s. It was also the last to close in 1989.
But what became of the first pit – that of Shakespeare colliery – formed from the Channel tunnel workings at Dover? Opened in1896, it encountered more water than coal and by 1915 mining had been largely abandoned. Five other collieries were started but never came to fruition and their sites and remains can be found on line at the Kent coalfields resource.
Government plans in the 1920’s were based on 18 new pits being developed and the need for upwards of 50,000 new homes to support the mining community. In the events both forecasts proved wildly over- optimistic. The mines were largely unproductive in the long term and conditions at Snowdon, the deepest, were described as being like Dante’s Inferno. Miners used to pass out with heat stroke and reports are that they drink up huge quantities of water to combat the intense heat. This started the slow decline of coal mining in Kent
We reflected on the hardships endured by the miners deep below ground. Just a few miles away there are beautiful rural historic villages dating back to the Norman Conquest. People leading very different lifestyles but with similar wants.
Under white cliffs was black coal. Today what remains of the coal lies undisturbed and unvisited while every year thousands walk on the cliffs as they imperceptibly erode back into the ground.