For two thousand years, the ‘peaceful undulating country of East Kent’ had pursued ‘an agricultural and seaside existence, perturbed by nothing more agitating than an ephemeral military conquest or so!’ But in 1931, as Patrick Abercrombie noted, a new coalfield seemed destined to change all that: (1)
That deep peace is now permanently invaded; for, however much we may minimise the ugly effects of industrialisation, and however well-planned the new additions may be, so as to conform to the genius of the locality, a change fundamental and complete will have taken place from the peace of the country to the busy hum of men.
That ‘busy hum’ never quite had the impact anticipated by Abercrombie and others in the interwar years but it did, nevertheless, change significantly a bucolic corner of rural England. Though the last mine of the East Kent coalfield closed in 1989, a significant residue remains. This post and the next will focus on Aylesham, planned by Abercrombie, Britain’s foremost contemporary town planner, as a model settlement, and assess how successful these planning visions were.
The existence of coal in the area – a continuation of the seams heavily mined in northern France – had been surmised for some time but was proven in 1882 when trail borings for the first, abortive, Channel Tunnel, were made under the Shakespeare Cliff in Dover. The Shakespeare Colliery, operational from 1896, was never successful – indeed, in a tragic reminder of the human costs of such enterprise, eight men were killed in an explosion in 1897 – and it was closed on the outbreak of the First World War.
Arthur Burr, the most ambitious of local mining entrepreneurs, opened a second pit at Tilmanstone, west of Deal, in 1906, which enjoyed a longer existence. The village of Elvington was developed in the interwar years to house its workforce – 230 three-bed houses, each with a parlour and living room plus scullery and bathroom, built by the Tilmanstone Miners Dwellings Syndicate. (3)
Burr followed this up with a second pit, five miles to the west, at Snowdown in 1907. Twenty-two men were drowned when the first shaft hit water but, by 1912, the colliery had turned its first profit. A small number of miners’ houses were built in nearby villages but the pit closed for two years in the period of industrial slump and troubled industrial relations which followed the First World War. Purchased by Pearson & Dorman Long in 1924, an ambitious modernisation programme ensued, this time complemented by idealistic plans to create homes and community appropriate to the new, large workforce envisaged.
Planning was by now an emergent discipline. It combined in East Kent with the powerful fears and hopes occasioned by both the threat – manufacturing blight and housing squalor – and opportunity – commercial profitability and remunerative employment – seemingly promised by a new coalfield in a country grown old industrially. That this should occur in the relatively undeveloped South-East, in the so-called ‘Garden of England’, added to the sense of urgency and concern widely felt: (4)
It may well be that Coal and Iron in Kent is the biggest industrial happening in England of this quarter-century. Kent is not Durham or Lancashire or Glamorgan – distant spots glamoured in gloom: it is in the eye of the world. Coals in Kent are not coals in Newcastle: they are at London’s door.
The first planning conference for the new coalfield took place in Canterbury in 1922, followed in May 1923 by an East Kent Joint Town Planning Committee meeting attended by representatives of the seventeen local councils directly or indirectly affected. As evidence of the interest of the Great and Good in planning matters affecting their backyard, a meeting, convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, occurred in Lambeth Palace the following month attended, amongst others, by Lord Beauchamp (Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports), Lord Alfred Milner and John Jacob Astor, MP for Dover.
Neville Chamberlain, a scion of the Birmingham manufacturing family, had a less gilded
background and, as both a Birmingham MP and, from 1924 to 1929, Minister of Health and Housing, a more informed and practical interest in planning matters. But his speech in 1926 captures the good intentions and nimbyism which characterised some of this anxiety around the East Kent Coalfield.
The good intentions focused on building better industrial communities than those allowed to develop in the nineteenth century, in Chamberlain’s words, ‘without plan, without thought, without foresight, just as happened to be the whim or the caprice of particular individuals’. And they focused, in particular, on healthier and more balanced mining settlements: (5)
You are getting away, on the one hand, from the straggling kind of development … and, on the other hand, from those pit-head villages which are an unfortunate feature of many of our mining areas. You are proposing a series of towns which are not to be at the pit-heads, but which are, nevertheless, near enough to serve them; and you can give the miners who will occupy these towns a social life of a far fuller, wider and more interesting character than they can ever hope to get in those mining villages in Wales.
The nimbyism, not unreasonably, stressed that ‘the utmost care [be] taken to preserve as much as the rural charm of the hinterland (much used for charabanc excursions)’ – ‘it is easy to imagine how disastrous to them would be the background of a smoke-grimed and dishevelled Black Country’.
Patrick Abercrombie – as a founder and honorary secretary of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and professor of civic design at the University of Liverpool – commissioned by the Joint Town Planning Committee in 1925 to prepare plans for East Kent was exceptionally well placed to address these concerns. His first report, co-written with John Archibald, was issued in 1925.
The report projected large-scale industrial development in East Kent: 18-20 pits and a mining population (including wives and children) of around 180,000. Associated steel works and ancillary trades were anticipated to bring a further 278,000 people to the area. Besides the necessary focus on new infrastructure, Abercrombie wrote at length on residential growth.
He concluded that the ‘general result’ of company-developed schemes ‘would be deplorable’. He looked rather to the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn where Public Utility Societies controlled all aspects of planning and ensured land value gains accrued to the community. They were better, he argued, in providing public utilities and buildings as well as shops and entertainment. Existing pit villages were not romanticised in this analysis. ‘Of equal and, to many minds, superior importance to the economic gain of grouped sites’, he concluded, ‘is the opportunity they give for a fuller social life’.
An estimated 55,600 new homes would be needed, divided (in Abercrombie’s final, 1927, report) among seven new towns and a number of smaller villages. In terms of their overall layout, Abercrombie thought a ‘certain formality of treatment … inevitable in an artificially planned and quickly built community’ though one ‘which is instinctively tempered by the natural features of the site’. (Abercrombie tended, in any case, to favour rather formal Beaux Arts-style schemes as we’ve seen in his post-Second World War plans for Plymouth and Hull.)
In terms of housing design, he suggested there were ‘many local examples for inspiration’ and cautiously advanced:
a simple Georgian, modified into a provincial touch with somewhat high-pitched roofs, and with a further local flavour of the Flemish influence in its brickwork.
Aylesham, a new settlement next to the Snowdown Colliery and close to new mines envisaged (though never opened) in nearby Adisham and Wingham, was to be the canvas for Abercrombie’s grand designs. The Aylesham Tenants Ltd was formed, as a Public Utility Society, by Eastry Rural District Council and Pearson & Dorman Long in July 1926; Kent County Council joined in the following year. With a 600 acre site and £600,000 to spend – drawn in part from an Exchequer subsidy of £90,000, a £350,000 loan from the Public Works Loan Commissioners and £70,000 from a debenture stock issue – the company embarked on the construction of 1200 homes, envisaged as the first phase of a town planned to accommodate some 15,000.
Abercrombie’s layout provided for a grand central tree-lined boulevard with a shopping centre at its centre where roads from the collieries crossed the main axis. Churches, schools and plentiful open space were located at focal points. It was a ‘scientific’ plan, showcasing, according to its authors, the ‘beauty of efficiency and congruity’ and intended (in contrast to much of the local authority building of the time) to provide the essentials of community life ‘long before their actual need is felt’. Abercrombie allowed himself one flight of fancy – the layout of the town emulated the shape of a pithead winding frame. (6)
Housebuilding commenced in September 1926; the first four pioneering families moved in May the following year. The homes themselves did not live up to Abercrombie’s hopes. Of the first phase of 400, half were of traditional plain brick construction, half of steel-frame and poured concrete. The latter were heralded as an innovative means of building quickly and circumventing shortages of building materials and skilled labour. In Aylesham, their use probably reflected more the commercial interests of Pearson & Dorman Long whose Dorman Long Housing Company subsidiary was the chief promoter of such housing.
Other facilities followed in relatively short order. A temporary school and library and Co-op had opened by the end of 1927 (when Aylesham’s population stood at around 1000). The first pub (the Greyhound Hotel) opened in January 1928 and Anglican, then Nonconformist and Roman Catholic churches all within the next year. As a marker of emergent community and workforce, the first parade of the Snowdown Colliery Welfare Band took place in June 1929. The centrepiece new Central School opened the following year.
The town, however, remained embryonic and parts had a desolate air. These were early days but what form of community did emerge and how fully and how successfully were the grandiose plans for Aylesham and the East Kent coalfield fulfilled? Next week’s post takes the story forward.
(1) Patrick Abercrombie, ‘The Kent Coalfields’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, no 409, vol 79, April 17, 1931
(2) Subterranea Britannica, Site Name: Tilmanstone Colliery (January 2011)
(3) JP Hollingsworth, ‘Those Dirty Miners’: a History of the Kent Coalfield (Stenlake Publishing, 2010)
(4) Patrick Abercrombie and John Archibald, East Kent Regional Planning Scheme Survey (University Press of Liverpool and Hodder and Stoughton, 1925). Later quoted detail is from this source.
(5) ‘Town Planning in East Kent. A Speech by the Right Hon Neville Chamberlain MP (Minister of Health) delivered at Canterbury, July 24 1926’ (PD Eastes and Co Ltd, Canterbury, 1926)
(6) MBA Churchard, An Analysis of the Agricultural and Industrial Life of South-East England with Especial Reference to the Effect of the Developing Kent Coalfield Thereon, PhD, University of London, 1933
Kent History and Library Centre have produced an excellent timeline of Aylesham’s history which is worth consulting for further detail and illustration.