As a result of a borehole sunk at the bottom of a shaft for a proposed Channel Tunnel, at the foot of Shakespeare cliff – Dover, coal was found in 1890. This was at a depth of 300 metres and exploration established 14 coal seams stretching across East Kent from Dover almost to Herne Bay. Start on the Shakespeare Colliery was made by Kent Coalfield Syndicate, promoted by Arthur Burr, in 1896 but the Colliery was abandoned in 1915.
At Snowdown, between the villages of Woolage and Nonington, the first sod was cut for a new pit on 28 February 1907. The first commercial bucketful of East Kent Coal was raised on 19 November 1912 and was proved that Kent coalfield had a future. However, there was a need for professional miners and this became acute following World War I.
At the time the number of pit houses consisted of 47 cottages at Stonehall, 14 at Woolage and 12 at Snowdown all built by the Concession Company for colliery owner, Pearsons. Those at Snowdown were cottages were situated close to Snowdown Halt, leasehold for 99 years from 25th January 1915 with the total annual ground rent of £69.6s 0d. They were in an area of 17 acres and ten blocks of 2, 4 and 6 forming a square on one side of the main road.
Each of these cottages had three bedrooms, bathroom with hot & cold water supply, sitting room, living room and scullery fitted with sink again with hot and cold water. The outside toilets, with flush cistern, drained to cesspools, coal cellar and a small walled garden front and rear. The water was supplied from Margate Waterworks Company. Pearsons’ paid for repairs, rates and taxes and were considered a financial drain on the company’s resources. According to a report of the time, the cheaper cottages at Woolage, two blocks of four cottages and three pairs were of better value to the company. However, they were not so well build as those at Snowdown, there were traces of damp and the tenants reported that they were cold and draughty.
By the early 1920s, the economy had drifted into depression and the production of coal was under threat from cheaper imports from mainland Europe. On Monday 6th March 1922 despite this, representatives of the different council covering East Kent attended a Conference at the Guildhall in Canterbury for the purpose of organising a joint committee to prepare a skeleton Town Planning Scheme for the coalfield. The remit for it was to, ‘facilitate industrial development to the full, while at the same time safeguarding health and amenities.‘
Called the Joint Town Planning Committee they did not meet again until May 1923 but thereafter fairly frequently. Each time making unrealistic estimates of future industrial growth of the East Kent coal industry and the consequential influx of labour. This varied between 48,000 and 80,000 although the most accepted a figure of around 60,000 mineworkers to staff some twenty-five collieries, with additional workers required for the associated iron, steel and ship building industries.
Local mineworkers’ leader, Jack Elks, was sceptical over the estimated number of miners but recognised that what was being discussed promised better housing for the colliery workers. Member of Parliament, Frank Hodges (1887–1947), former General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation, was far more critical. Albeit, at a public meeting in December 1925 he told his audience that the coalfield had, ‘been the scene of many financial disasters, the happy hunting ground of the pioneer and the speculator.’ Concerning the miners, Hodges’ went on to say that they will, ‘come from the north, south, east and west. They’ll be told fabulous and wonderful stories of unprecedented prosperity. They will intermingle, mix and marry, and then there will be bred a community of Kent miners.’
With all this in mind, the Joint Town Planning Committee commissioned Professor Patrick Abercrombie in August 1925. Abercrombie was born 6th June 1879 in Ashton-upon-Mersey, the seventh of nine children. The family later moved to Cheshire and it was in Chester where the Professor’s career in town planning took off.
Following the 1926 coal strike there were three collieries, Snowdown and Tilmanstone that had been producing coal since 1912 and 1913 respectively and Chislet that had been producing coal from 1919. Betteshanger colliery had been sunk and started producing coal from 1927. The output, at that time, ran counter to the national trend and the colliery owners adverts attracted mineworkers from all over the country (See Waiting Miner). This was already causing pressure on local amenities especially housing.
Abercrombie produced a Preliminary Survey to the Joint Town Planning Committee based on the prediction that there would be eighteen collieries producing a total output of 13,500,000 tons of coal per annum. Each pit, he predicted, would employ 2,500 miners with the associated iron and steel industry employing a further 7,000 workers. Some 17,500 workers would be employed in ‘auxiliary trades’. The Professor stated that the nucleus of a family unit would be 4 persons and from these results he projected what the housing needs would be over the next 30 years. These would be fresh-built in specially created villages.
The Professor submitted his final report in 1928, which envisaged 7 new towns plus new villages all of which would be centred round 18 coalmines. The mines would be worked by electricity from a common generating plant and there would be a giant steel works near Dover and a port at Richborough. Two of the new towns would be the size of Folkestone, three as big as Canterbury and two similar in size to Deal. At the time one of the new towns and two of the new villages had been started. The villages were Elvington that had 640 houses and Chislet 350, while the town of Aylesham already had sufficient houses for a population of up to 2,000. Beginning with foundations for 402 homes 10 houses were completed each week
Dover contractors, Messrs G Lewis & Sons built many of the houses at Aylesham and the ‘new town’ already had a new elementary school, built by R J Barwick of Dover costing £25,000. River and District Co-operative Society were erecting two shops and Abercrombie expected that the requirement would be for 28,000 more houses within the following ten years.
At about the same time the Kent Mine owners advertised for 2,000 more miners, offering above national average wages. Many destitute out of work colliers, some of whom were blacklisted following the strike, walked from the Midland and Northern coalfields, including the author’s Grandfather, to find work.
Aylesham was the key to the whole development and was designed ‘scientifically‘. The site had been chosen due to its proximity of Snowdown pit and a proposed colliery at Adisham. Six hundred acres were secured and Abercrombie was determined from the outset to ensure the proper allocation of land to houses, shops, parks, recreation grounds etc. ‘long before their actual need is felt.’ It was visualised that Aylesham would have a population of 15,000.
The ‘scientific’ plan was a main broad avenue starting from the railway, with a shopping square halfway along, at the point where the roads from the collieries crossed the main axis. Churches and schools were to be focal points and a boulevard, the shape of which would be determined by the beech wood on the north side, would surround the whole. Trees were to be planted as wind protection even though fear had been expressed that such areas would become dumping grounds of household refuse.
There was a considerable amount of local fear expressed over the proposal, but Country Life magazine reassured East Kent residents saying that they, ‘should take courage from experience in a good many mining districts in other parts of the country, where natural beauty and general amenity have hardly suffered from the presence of collieries.’ In addition, there was likely to be an upward revision in the price of land.
Aylesham Central school opened in February 1930 with 350 pupils. Facilities at the new school were hailed as a guide to the future of Secondary education across the County. However, mainly because of the economic slump of the 1930s, Abercrombie’s grand scheme was never fully realised.
Besides town planning, Sir Patrick Abercrombie was closely involved with the founding of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) serving as its Honorary Secretary after its formation in December 1926. Sir Patrick died on 23 March 1957, by which time he had produced yet another East Kent plan – for post war Dover – but that is another story.
- Dover Mercury: 15 September 2005