We left Aylesham last week – a new town and still a small one but with much riding on its success. It represented new planning ideals and ambitions; it heralded – many hoped – a new industrial Britain whose prosperity was reflected in the healthier and happier homes of its working people In practice, none of this would be easy.
There were, initially, high hopes for the East Kent coalfield, near to the prospering markets of south-east England at a time when much of the country was mired in a long-term industrial decline or hit by Great Depression of the early thirties. Kent’s miners increased in number from just over 2000 in 1925 to almost 7500 ten years later as the national mining workforce fell by a third.
That overall decline was complemented by the appalling industrial relations of the privately-owned industry, highlighted by a national mining strike in 1921 and the nine-month stoppage in 1926 which underlay the General Strike. The new collieries of Kent seemed to offer a fresh start.
Many of Aylesham’s early families arrived heavily in debt and their children often suffered ‘various illnesses, including rickets and impetigo, largely attributable to insufficient nourishment resulting from the father’s unemployment before coming to Kent’. They came from depressed mining communities across the country – ‘so widely separated are they that some of the men can scarcely understand the language of others’. (1)
One early settler later recalled these dark days: (2)
They was trampin’ down here from Durham, Scotland – every village you could mention in Britain, I bet they knowed where Snowdown was. There was only Snowdown would sign them on and that wasn’t a pit, it was a pity – it were red ‘ot. Men had been so long unemployed Snowdown was killing them off … Men were breaking down with boils, pimps, carbuncles – the heat. Well, they was working in 98-100 was nothing.
Mr McEwan also pointed to a local difficulty. Snowdown was nicknamed ‘Dante’s Inferno’ by the miners. At 3000 ft, it was one of the deepest pits in the country and one of the hottest with temperatures reaching 38°C (100°F) and 80 per cent humidity.
Although a strong and proud community developed later, these were inauspicious beginnings:
For the first three or four years the Welsh stuck to the Welsh, the Derbyshire stuck to the Derbyshire and the Geordies stuck to the Geordies. If they went into a pub they weren’t friendly – there was more trouble than anything else. Everybody used to fight each other over nothing many a time.
But there was one particular source of contention – the butty system employed in Snowdown by which the company employed a subcontractor (the butty) who was responsible for organising a team of workmen and delivering coal to the surface at so much a ton. Disputes around the butty’s cut and the wages he paid to his team were inevitable and bitter.
With apologies to current residents who know the town very differently, it was seen then as a rough sort of place: ‘If you put a towel on the line or a rug, you got to keep your eye on it for if you come inside it’d gone’; ‘if anybody wanted to light a fire, they just went out and pulled the fences up’, according to later testimony. And a poor place with local shopping costly and irregular transport expensive.
For all that, the men in employment – with work to occupy their time and provide status – had an easier time of it than their wives. Mrs Unwin arrived in Aylesham in 1931 and found it hard to settle:
I didn’t like it, I used to cry, used to cry night after night for a long time, I broke my heart to go back, but what could you do? We was married and we had a baby then. I missed my home life and there was nothing in the village you see, and we couldn’t afford the train fares to go out. Everything seemed to be so quiet here, being used to living in a town and going round the shops even – window shopping see. We just couldn’t do that here – there was no shops, there was only one co-op.
It was reckoned that 300 hundred families left the town in its first two years and those departures continued, frequently in the form of moonlight flits where debts had become unsustainable. (3) Snowdown suffered a particularly high turnover of labour. Often, as Gina Harkell concludes:
the decision of families to return to their previous home was initiated by women. The conditions in the pits were so appalling that many miners needed only a gentle prod from their unhappy and discontented wives to get them on the move back home.
Patrick Abercrombie’s good intentions had, it seems, come to nothing. The larger ambitions for the East Kent coalfield had faltered and the planners’ dreams faded, buffeted by the economic difficulties which ensured only their partial fulfilment and the near impossibility of creating cohesive community in such embattled and fractious circumstances.
By the mid-thirties, only 500 houses had been built on a layout designed for some 2000. The houses themselves were solid and decent: (4)
Every house has three bedrooms of reasonable size and a bathroom, containing a washing basin with hot and cold water. The living room in every case is excellently arranged, having two windows and being fitted with a fine cooking range. There is electric light in every room and the cupboard accommodation is ample.
But even the provision of bathrooms had proven controversial. Some of the women thought that ‘in order to save the defiling of bedrooms with grimy clothes, the baths should have been on the ground floor’ – though the same journalist (accurately or merely conveying a trope of his time?) reported that, where baths had been provided on the ground floor in neighbouring villages, these were often used for storage with the miners preferring to use the scullery basin. Perhaps this difficulty at least was solved by the first provision of pithead baths (by the Miners’ Welfare Committee) in 1935.
In overall terms, however, one contemporary observer concluded in 1933 that ‘the whole village has a depressing air of arrested development’. (5) And although a new estate of 104 homes was developed by the First National Housing Trust in 1935, another stringent local critic found almost one in ten homes unoccupied: ‘Aylesham does not strike one as a happy place. Why?’ Ironically, he blamed the stranglehold on new development wielded by the very public utility society, Aylesham Tenants Ltd., charged with overseeing the town’s growth and prosperity. (6)
Seemingly, little had changed in Aylesham by the end of the Second World War. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Fuel and Power concluded in a precise echo of that earlier assessment that: (7)
the settlement suffers from arrested development, with many of the sites in the centre of the town still rough grassland. There is no public building of any architectural significance, except the central school, while the houses present a marked degree of monotony.
Much else had changed. For one, the mines themselves had come into public ownership in 1946. That was part of a larger shift heralded by Labour’s landslide victory in 1945. Planning ideas and goals, pioneered in East Kent in the 1920s, became mainstream in the wake of the catastrophic regional impact of the Great Depression and were further boosted by the machinery of war. Aylesham hoped to benefit.
The Ministry of Fuel and Power agreed that the town needed to expand – 400 new homes were needed, it estimated, to return to pre-war levels of production and 400 more to achieve maximum output. New housing development was to be left largely to the local authorities and in 1947 Eastry Rural District Council accepted a £14,500 tender from Costains to build 46 of their Airey homes in the town. Some 46,000 of these prefabricated reinforced concrete houses were erected in the early post-war years in the bid to build quickly and overcome shortages of labour and traditional materials.
Further housing was developed to the west of the original town centre in the 1950s and 1960s. This is typical council estate housing of its time – spacious, well-built and well-equipped, and generally attractive. In Aylesham, some of the street names capture a local labour politics and pride.
Another innovation came in 1948 with the opening of the Rego Shirt Factory, initially employing some 160 and the first local industry to provide work for women. There was a consensus view among planners and politicians that Aylesham was an ‘unbalanced community’ and needed light industry not only to attract a wider range of the population but to provide work for miners retiring from pneumoconiosis.
The new road projected in 1950 was to be part of this but there were larger hopes that Aylesham might receive a proportion of the London population which Abercrombie (in a later guise as co-author of the 1943 The County of London Plan) had recommended be dispersed from the overcrowded capital ‘beyond the Metropolitan influence’. In 1950, the County Council tried to get the town added to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning’s list of ‘expanded towns’ – existing towns tasked with receiving an overspill population from the major conurbations. (8)
Those unfulfilled hopes remained into the 1960s. The Kent Development Plan suggested Aylesham should grow to 40,000 within twenty years. This was an ambition embraced by locals; as the chair of the Parish Council stated: (9)
We welcome anybody and everybody. We want light industry and houses, because that is the way to get more shops and services for our people. We want a balanced community. The miners want to meet and talk to people in other jobs and with other interests.
The failure of these plans is simply told: in 1961 the population of Aylesham stood at 4142; in 2011 at 4999.
That’s not quite the end of the story. Further expansion, now in the hands of private developers, is taking place and projected. A new Masterplan was adopted in 2004 and outline planning permission granted for up to 1200 new homes. By 2016, the first 200 homes of a new ‘Aylesham Garden Village’ were constructed; 400 were planned for 2018. Whether Barratt Homes and Persimmon Homes will fulfil the ‘Garden Village’ ethos they claim is a moot point but, ironically, it is just that ‘feel of modern urbanism in the rural idyll’ that Patrick Abercrombie had sought back in the 1920s. (9)
In the meantime, the original raison d’être of the town had been destroyed. At peak, Snowdown employed 3500 men. By 1981, when the National Coal Board announced an annual loss for the pit of £9m, it employed just 960 and it was slated for closure alongside 22 others. A three-day walk-out of miners in Kent, Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire and Durham forced a temporary rethink but the words of the Snowdown National Union of Mineworkers branch chair, Morris Bryan, were prophetic: ‘There are millions of tons of reserves. If this pit is not safe, no pit in the country is’. (10)
As the threat of wholesale pit closures across the country strengthened in the early eighties, a year-long miners’ strike occurred in 1984-85. It ended in heroic failure and the Kent miners – 96 percent struck in November 1984 and 93 percent were out when the action was finally called off – were among its staunchest supporters. Before the war, many miners blacklisted for union activity elsewhere had moved to Kent; that militant heritage remained. Nevertheless, Snowdown was closed in 1987; Betteshanger, the last working Kent pit, followed in 1989.
Though its proud mining heritage and traditions remain, the town had perforce to reinvent itself and in 2014 its unemployment rate stood at 2.8 percent, fractionally under the rate for Britain as a whole, a little higher than the South-East average. The previous census revealed that a quarter of the local labour force now worked in managerial, professional or associate professional occupations though 40 percent of these worked 10 km or more from home. (In housing terms, 59 percent of households were owner occupiers, compared to the then English average of 68 percent.) (11)
It had been quite a journey. The bustling industry envisaged for East Kent had never taken off and the healthier and happier model settlements envisaged for its projected workforce – Abercrombie had suggested that up to 278,000 would move to the area – withered on the vine. For all that, we should celebrate that early attempt to create working-class homes and communities suitable for the modern age. Aylesham is a decent place to live and it boasts a strong community which has overcome many difficulties. Our subjection to the economic forces which govern our lives for good or ill apparently remains.
(1) ‘The Kent Mining Community’, The Times, 22 March 1930
(2) Gina Harkell, ‘The Migration of Mining Families to the Kent Coalfield between the Wars’, Oral History, vol. 6, no. 1, Spring, 1978. Other direct quotations from residents are drawn from the same source.
(3) David Jeremiah, Architecture and Design for the Family in Britain, 1900-70 (Manchester University Press, 2000)
(4) ‘Growth of a New Town’, The Times, 27 April 1927
(5) 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
(6) ‘Aylesham Calling: Another View’, Letter from Richard Carter, Missioner, Dover Express and East Kent News, 28 January 1938
(7) Ministry of Fuel and Power, Kent Coalfield Regional Survey Report (HMSO, 1945)
(8) ‘County Council and Aylesham’, Dover Express and East Kent News, 22 February 1946 and ‘Discussions of Future of Aylesham’, Dover Express, 24 February 1950
(9) Aylesham Village, ‘Welcome to Aylesham Garden Village’
(10) Richard Ford, ‘Snowdown Colliery men are in fighting mood, The Times, February 16, 1981 and Nicholas Timmins, ‘Case of the untypical pit’, The Times, 7 September 1982
(11) Keith Kintrea, ‘Imagined communities? Contextualizing claims about the White working class’, Dialogues in Human Geography, vol 6, no. 1, 2016
Kent History and Library Centre have produced an excellent timeline of Aylesham’s history which is worth consulting for further detail and illustration.