In July 2010, the Waiting Miner statue was moved from Granville Gardens to Fowlmead Country Park on what was once was the site of the spoil tip of the former Betteshanger Colliery, near Deal. Although I could accept the arguments given for the move I was, and still am, saddened that in Dover there is nothing to mark the strong link between the town and the Kent coalfield.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, coal had been found across the Channel, near Calais. It seemed reasonable to assume that the seams would also be on this side of the Channel. Boreholes were sunk at the bottom of the abandoned Channel Tunnel shaft near what is now Samphire Hoe and coal was found at a depth of just over 300 metres.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, coal had been found across the Channel, near Calais. It seemed reasonable to assume that the seams would also be on this side of the Channel. Boreholes were sunk at the bottom of the abandoned Channel Tunnel shaft near what is now Samphire Hoe and coal was found at a depth of just over 300 metres. Drilling was started and in 1896, Arthur Burr formed the Kent Coal Field Syndicate and a start was made on Shakespeare Colliery.
Although Dover Corporation fully supported the project, Shakespeare Colliery had serious problems with water seepage that made it unviable, was placed in the hands of the Receiver and was finally abandoned in December 1915. Nonetheless, the continual demand for coal encouraged other borings to be undertaken in and around the Dover area. A total of 14 coal seams, stretching from Dover almost to Herne Bay, were eventually found and the first bucketful of commercial East Kent coal was raised on 19 November 1912 at Snowdown Colliery, north of the town. It had been envisaged to sink 15 mines, but in the event only three more were opened, these were Tilmanstone, (1906) coal produced from 1913; Chislet, (1913) coal produced from 1919; and Betteshanger (1924) coal produced from 1927.
The year before Betteshanger colliery went into production, 1926, saw the General Strike. The events that led up to it are well documented; suffice to say that following World War I (1914-1918) the country had slid into an economic depression. One of the main reasons was that our currency was strong, which made imports cheap and our exports expensive for overseas consumers. In order to encourage people, both at home and overseas, to buy our goods, wages were cut. Further, as our economy relied on coal, due to costs, industrialists preferred the cheaper imported coal.
In the autumn of 1922 Messrs Dorman Long and Co. and Messrs S Pearson and Son – the former major steel makers and the latter construction engineers combined to take over a very large area of mining rights in Kent. They owned Snowdown colliery and started the preliminary work that resulted in Betteshanger colliery. On the subject of exchange rate parity, Sir Arthur Dorman made a powerful and well reported speech in which he asked the government for more equality, (Economist 19.12.1925), but to no avail.
As the pit owners could not compete with imported coal, they cut wages, introduced short-time working and lay-offs. Starvation in mining communities in many parts of the country was rife. Then, in 1926, due to the continued strength of sterling, a Royal Commission recommended a further pay cuts and lay-offs. It was one too many, and on 3 May the miners, supported by other industries, went on the ten day General Strike, following which miners stayed strike and in some areas until November.
When they returned to work, wages had been further cut and for many, there were no jobs or prospect of jobs. However, Pearson, Dorman Long, were advertising for experienced miners to work in the Kent coalfield. All they had to do was find their own way to the town where the mine owners had their offices. Further, at 1 St. James Street, was the office of the Miners Federation (after 1945 National Union of Mineworkers). With no money miners but possibility of prospects, my maternal grandfather, along with miners from South Yorkshire, Durham, Lancashire, Scotland and Wales, walked to Dover.
My grandfather came down the Great North Road to London and then Watling Street (later the A2) to Dover – along with other miners from South Yorkshire. On arrival in the town, they made their way to the seafront. They had been told that someone from the Union would meet them near the Granville Gardens. It was a Sunday when grandfather arrived on Dover’s seafront. In the Gardens, he wrote, a band was playing ‘Poet and Peasant’ his favourite piece of music. This, he saw as good omen.
From there my grandfather was directed to the Union offices in St James Street but the offices were closed. That night, he slept in a doorway near the brewery (Leney’s), and the following morning, with others, was taken to Snowdown colliery. He started work that afternoon. Food and lodgings were provided on ‘tick’ and taken out of his wages.
The lodgings were three bunks packed in a small room. Each bed was shared by three occupants – other miners on different shifts. It was easy to get work at Snowdown, as the turnover of miners was rapid. The colliery was nicknamed the ‘hell hole’ because of the intense heat and wet conditions. My grandfather stayed until the mid-1930s and then returned to Yorkshire.
The mining industry was nationalised on 1 January 1947 and the National Coal Board (NCB) initially opened their South East Division Offices at Richborough. In 1949 the Waterloo Crescent offices became available and they were leased by the NCB and in June 1950 moved in. These officers were next to Granville Gardens and remained the Divisional Offices until the Kent coalfield was closed. The first mine to go was Chislet in 1969, both Tilmanstone and Snowdown closed in 1987 and Betteshanger on 28 August 1989. With the demise of the Kent coalfield, it was felt that a lasting reminder, based in the town of its origin, should be erected.
At the time, the Waiting Miner statue was outside Richborough power station. Made of bronze on a concrete base simulated to look like a slab of coal it was sculptured by H.R.Phillips. It was commissioned by what was the Central Electricity Generating Board (later PowerGen) and was originally going to be sited in Yorkshire. Instead, in 1966, it was placed at the entrance to Richborough power station, between Sandwich and Ramsgate. In September 1997, following the closure of the power station, PowerGen donated the statue to Dover District Council. They placed it in Granville Gardens, to remind people that it was from Dover the Kent coalfield was first explored.
Following the closing of the Kent coalfield, it was decided to create the 365-acre (1,480,000-m2) Fowlmead Country Park as a tribute to the Kent miners. With £18.8m funding from English Partnerships, as part of the National Coalfields Programme, it was opened by Sir David Bellamy in May 2007. It was felt, by those involved, that the Waiting Miner statue should be placed near the entrance and a campaign to this effect, ensued.
They argued that the Statue had been placed in Granville Gardens to be near the NCB offices and that as they closed in 1987, the Statue had been left isolated on the seafront in Dover. In reality, of course, the Statue had been placed there 10 years after the offices had closed and it was in Granville Gardens as a tribute to Dover being the centre of the Kent coalfield from its inception to its demise. The Statue was also seen by many as a tribute to those, like my grandfather, who walked to Dover in the inter-war years and helped to make the Kent coalfields successful, unfortunately this was lost on councillors.
- Dover Mercury: 17 &24 February 2011