By Liz Findlay
What makes for a great day out in Kent, you may wonder? Discover The Garden of England, visit one of its many castles, walk across the White Cliffs? But you may not know that you can have an equally enjoyable day discovering Kent’s coal and mining history! As part of an introduction to the history of Kent mining, we had a wonderful time learning about about this lesser known aspect of the industrial nature of the county. The title image shows a sculpture entitled “Payday at Snowdown Colliery” which is located in the former mining village of Aylesham.
We began the event with an evening “zoom” session introduction by a representative from the Elvington and Eythorne Heritage Centre, Colin, a descendant of a local mining family himself. He gave a fascinating account of the beginnings of the development of the Kent Coalfield.
Colin introduced us to some of the movers and shakers who developed the industry. People like Arthur Burr, a speculator who virtually single-handedly kept the Kent coalfield going for almost twenty years, despite the constant threat of economic collapse. Then there was Richard Tilden Smith. In 1925, with the colliery struggling to survive, Tilden Smith took over as manager, becoming the owner in 1926. Unlike Burr, Tilden Smith saw the Tilmanstone colliery as a long-term investment. He had the money needed to move the pit forward and care for his employees. He provided good accommodation and looked after their safety and future as coal miners.
Coal was discovered in 1890 during borings for a proposed Channel Tunnel. Development began in 1896 with the sinking of the Shakespeare Colliery and ended with the closure of Betteshanger Colliery in 1989. After the First World War, mining was developed at Tilmanstone, Chislet, Betteshanger and Snowdown, bringing employment to East Kent. New settlements were built to house miners with facilities such as sports grounds and miners’ institutes. The East Kent Light Railway was built to carry coal.
In 1927, 230 houses were built close to Elvington Court. This new miners housing village became known as Elvington, which remains today. There were plans for the electricity supply to the houses to be supplied by the colliery, allowing for house lighting and even street lighting. A school was built to accommodate children from Elvington, Eythorne and the surrounding district. By 1928 work was almost completed on the Elvington mansion barn, which Tilden Smith had allowed to be converted into a gymnasium, concert hall and other activities. A playing field was provided from the Miners Welfare Fund specifically for the men who worked at the colliery and their families, with sports such as bowls, football, cricket and tennis.
Having whetted our appetites for finding out more on the subject, the following day was beautiful, bright and crisp for our visit to the Kent Mining Museum at Betteshanger Country Park. Using many artefacts and state of the art display areas, the story of the discovery of coal in the county in 1890, the journey to establish four successful collieries in East Kent as well as the daily life of the miners, is told. In our introduction to the museum, another aspect of Kent Mining was brought up, the fact that since the demise of the industry younger generations know very little about coal. Indeed, some may never have seen it. So, an important part of the museum is educational, to show examples of coal, the tools miners used, the experience of going up to 3000 feet underground where conditions could be extremely uncomfortable. Excessive heat for example was common.
Following our museum experience we all headed over to the mining village of Elvington for the second part of the day. We were made very welcome at the Elvington and Eythorne Heritage Centre by Steve, one of its members.
This visit was very much about the social history of Kent mining, the family stories, recollections and daily life of generations of miners who had lived in the village; some descendants in fact still live there. Steve and his “tail end Charlie” as he described himself, Dave, then took us out for a guided walk through the village and into the countryside. We followed in the footsteps of those thousands of miners who would have made the daily journey across fields and down to the coal face every day. Very little is left now, save for the distinctive outline of a slag heap or some railway sleepers of the railway line. Instead, it’s a delightful area of Kentish countryside, part of which now forms “The Miners’ Way”. We made our way back to the Centre for a very welcome cup of tea.
In true SEETGA tradition lunch was then taken at an inviting hostelry, this time the “George and Dragon” in mediaeval Sandwich.
Fuelled up and ready to go, the day was rounded off with a delightfully entertaining as well as informative walk around Sandwich led by our Chairman Yvonne Leach. She regaled us with local stories, talked about its royal connections, its membership of the Cinque Ports (don’t say “sank” say “sink” or you’ll be sunk!) and showed us such a wide variety of local architecture at every twist and turn. We even found out why there is a cafe in Sandwich called the “Goats that Dance” – but you’ll have to join a South East Blue Badge Guide walking tour to find that out!
All in all a very interesting and enjoyable time was had. Not least, it was also a great opportunity to meet some of the members of the new SEETGA training course for the South East Blue Badge qualification. Many thanks to Kerstin Muller, for organising this introduction to the history of Kent Coal Mining.
Liz is a SE England and London Blue Badge Guide based in Canterbury