Industrial Development

Industrial Development in the 19th and 20th Centuries

At the beginning of the 19th century Kent was predominantly an agricultural county, with few other industries and those mainly small. The dockyards at Chatham (where the Victory was built) and Sheerness were the largest industrial centres, and even there it was alleged that the number of employees was kept at an unnecessarily high level in order to provide support for Government candidates at elections. Paper-making was carried on in a small way at Maidstone, Crayford, the Crays, Eynsford, Buckland, Crabble and two or three other places. Whitstable had a works, dismal in appearance, for making copperas, a substance used in dyeing and tanning, the raw material of which was a certain kind of pebble found locally and in Sheppey. There were salt-works at Stonar and in the Isle of Grain. From Pitcher’s yards at Northfleet ships of up to 1,000 tons and even beyond were regularly launched. Brewing and brick- and tile-making were carried on in all parts of the county, and quarrying wherever there was chalk or stone. But, apart from the dockyards, all these industries were on a small scale.

In 1834 William Aspdin began at Northfleet to make Portland cement, so called because it was thought to resemble Portland stone. Its manufacture required chalk and clay, and since both of these were found in the neighbour­hood, whilst the river was available to transport the finished product, Thames-side was an obvious area for the development of the industry. It was the cement industry which largely accounted for the rapid growth of Northfleet, Swanscombe and Stone, to which reference was made in the last chapter. Later in the century cement-making spread to the Medway Valley between Upnor and Burbam, leaving as its legacy great scars in the North Downs where chalk has been quarried, and industrial villages such as Eccles and Wouldham. Its effect on the villages of the Medway Valley is shown by the census figures: in the 20 years between 1861 and 1881 the populations of Burnham and Halling almost doubled and of Snodland and Wouldham almost trebled. From agricultural villages they grew, within a generation, into industrial townships. The cement works of the Medway Valley depended mainly on barge-transport and therefore were handicapped in competition with the Thames-side works which were accessible to larger ships. In consequence the cement industry along the Medway came nearly to a standstill in the slump of the early 1920s, but since then the development of road transport has resulted in a revival of cement-making on the west bank of the river; on the east bank the abandoned factories have crumbled into picturesque ruins. Fortunately the large paper-mills of Messrs A. E. Reed and Co. Ltd at New Hythe, which were begun in the early 1920s, expanded rapidly and gave employment to some of the men who were thrown out of work by the contraction of the cement industry in the Medway Valley.

The first expansion of the paper-making industry followed the abolition, in 1861, of the excise duty on paper. The Dartford Paper Mills, on the River Darent, were erected in 1862. At the end of the century the introduction of the halfpenny newspaper and the popular magazine resulted in a further increased demand for paper and again the industry expanded. Apart from the mills at New Hythe the industry has developed on a large scale at Dartford, Northfleet and Sittingbourne. All three places are conveniently situated for the import by water from the Baltic and from Canada of logs and wood-pulp, the most important raw materials, and for despatching the finished product to London, the great paper-consuming centre.

At Dartford engineering has been an industry of growing importance for the last century. Erith owed its rapid expansion to the establishment there in 1889 of the Maxim Nordenfelt Gun and Ammunition Company, a concern which was taken over by Vickers in 1898 and to the development of Frazer and Chalmers’ engineering works. The opening of Vickers’ factory at Crayford during the 1914-18 war resulted in the town doubling its size in the course of a few years. The industrialisation of the Thames-side area has been carried further in the present century by the establishment of cable and electrical equipment works at Erith and Northfleet, of chemical works at Dartford, and of a large electricity generating station at Littlebrook. From Gravesend west­ward the whole of Thames-side has become an industrial area interspersed only by marshes and worked-out chalk pits.

Throughout the 19th century and until recent years Chatham dockyard has constituted the largest industrial centre in the Medway towns, but engineering is also an important local industry, and so was the building of flying boats until Shorts’ works were moved to Belfast in 1946. At Maidstone industrial expan­sion—motor-engineering and the manufacture of foodstuffs—dates only from the 1890s and 1900s, although here as elsewhere in the county (notably at Faversham) the brewing industry has a much longer history. At Sheerness, as at Chatham, the dockyard was the main industry until its closure some years ago, but during the last sixty years or so the glassworks at Queenborough have provided employment for a considerable part of the local population. Sittingbourne owes its industrialisation to the paper-mills, established about 1840 and much enlarged since the 1914-18 war, and to brick-making, an industry which expanded rapidly during the 19th century to meet the growing demand for bricks, especially from London. Bricks are bulky and heavy to move and the availability of water-transport and of brick-earth is sufficient to account for this industry’s flourishing at Sittingbourne.

Lying between the industrialised areas of Thames-side and the Medway towns are the Hundred of Hoo and the Isle of Grain which for long remained wholly agricultural, except for a cement works and an explosives factory at Cliffe. However, in the 1920s an oil storage plant and refinery were established at Grain and since then they have grown into a gigantic installation, again, like many other industries in Kent, making extensive use of water-transport.

The presence of coal in East Kent had been suspected for many years before it was proved in 1891 by borings made from the abandoned workings for the projected Channel tunnel. At Tilmanstone and Snowdown coal began to be mined just before the 1914-18 war, at at Chislet in 1918. Betteshanger pit was some ten years later. For some years inadequate means of transport handicapped the Kent coal industry. The East Kent Light Railway, winding its way from Shepherdswell through Eythorne and Tilmanstone to Eastry, where one line branched westward to Wingham and the other north-eastward to the (1914-18) war-time port of Richborough, was constructed to serve the coal­field, but did not prove very successful. In 1930 an aerial ropeway was built to convey coal from Tilmanstone to Dover Harbour, a distance of six or seven miles but that, too is now disused. For the accommodation of miners and their families who came to Kent from all over the United Kingdom new townships were established at Aylesham, Elvington and Hersden. The new industry has made its mark upon on the landscape and upon social conditions in East Kent, but in neither respect perhaps has its effect been so devastating as was feared (or sometimes hoped) sixty or seventy years ago, and Chislet is now closed. Even more conspicuous than the colliery pit-head gear are the huge electricity generating stations at Richborough and Dungeness, which dwarf everything else in the landscape.

During the last few years new industries have grown up, but, except for a few districts such as Richborough and the Cray Valley around St Paul’s Cray and St Mary Cray, they are generally distributed widely over the county rather than concentrated into new industrial areas. Almost entirely, they are light industries with relatively easy problems of transport. The development of the motor-lorry and the motor-bus in the last sixty or seventy years and more recently the universality of the motor-car have linked together town and coun­try for work, for shopping, for sport and for entertainment. By the 1960s few villages were without a bus service, even those where, seventy years earlier, the carrier’s van, going once or twice a week to the nearest market town, was almost the only link with the outside world. Scarcely noticed, Kent passed through a transport and a social revolution in little more than a generation.

The most remarkable development in this area is, of course, the construction of the Channel Tunnel between Folkestone and Calais. The project took seven years to realise, at a cost of £6 billion plus interest, and was officially opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterand on 6 May 1994. The Eurostar service, based on the French TGV, started on 14 November 1994 and allows the passenger to travel from London to Paris in three hours, while the journey to Brussels takes 15 minutes longer. These times will be reduced with the introduction of a high-speed rail link from London to Folkestone which is planned for early next century.