The development of the Kent coalfield 1896-1946


One of the unique features of the Kent Coalfield is that it is entirely concealed by newer rocks. The existence of a coalfield under southern England, being a direct link between those of South Wales, Somerset and Bristol in the west and the Ruhr, Belgium. and northern France in the east, was predicted by the geologist R. A. C. Godwin-Austen as early as 1856. It was, however, only the rapid increase in demand for Britain's coal in the last quarter of the nineteenth century that made it worth considering testing this hypothesis. The first boring was made in the years 1886-90, and although it discovered coal, this did not in itself prove the existence of a viable coalfield. This could be done only by incurring the heavy cost of boring systematically over a wide area. As the financial returns from such an undertaking were uncertain, it was not surprising that in the early years, around the turn of the century, a dominant role was played by speculators, who were able to induce numerous small investors to risk some of their savings in the expectation of high profits. As minerals in Britain were privately owned, the early pioneer companies not only had to meet the cost of the exploratory borines, but also, if they were not to see the benefit of their work accrue to others, lease beforehand the right to mine coal from local landowners in as much of the surrounding area as possible. This policy was pursued most vigorously by Arthur Burr, a Surrey land specula tor, who raised capital by creating the Kent Coal Conoessions Ltd. and then floating a series of companies allied to it. Burr's enterprise would probably have been. successful had it not been for the water problems encountered at depth in -v- the coalfield. As a result, the Concessions group found itself in control of most of the coalfield, but without the necessary capital to sink and adequately equip its 01ffi collieries. By 1910, however, the discovery of iron ore deposits in east Kent, coupled with the fact that Kent coal was excellent for coking purposes, began to attract the large steel firms of Bolckow, Vaughan Ltd. and Dorman, Long & Co. Ltd. in to the area. The First World War intervened, however, to delay their plans, and to provide an extended lease of life to the Concessions group, which, by the summer of 1914, was facing financial collapse. By the time Dorman, Lone & Co, in alliance with Weetman Pearson (Lord Cowdray), had acquired control over the greater part of the coalfield from the Concessions group, not only was the country's coal industry declining, but so was its steel industry, which suffered an even more severe rate of contraction during the inter-war years. As a result, Pearson and Dorman Long Ltd. was forced to concentrate just on coal production, and this in turn was hampered not only by the water problems, but also by labour shortages and the schemes introduced by the government in 1930 to restrict the country's coal output, in an attempt to maintain prices and revenue in the industry. Nevertheless, production did show a substantial increase between 1927 and 1935, after which it declined as miners left the coalfield to return to their former districts, where employment opportunities were improving in the late thirties. Supporting roles were played in the inter-war years by Richard Tilden Smith, a share underwriter turned industrialist with long standing interests in the coalfield, who acquired one of the Concessions group's two collieries, and by the Powell Duffryn Steam Coal Co. Ltd., which through subsidiary companies, took over the only colliery to be developed by a pioneer company outside the Concessions group. The impossibility of Kent coal, because of its nature, ever gaining more than token access to the more lucrative household market, and then the failure of the local steel industry to materialise meant that the -vi- companies had to develop alternative outlets for their growing outputs. Although nearness to industrial markets in the south-east of England did confer certain advantages were poor consolation for the hoped for developments of either the early pioneers or the later industrialists. Instead of the expected profits, the companies mostly incurred losses, and only the company acquired by Powell Duffryn ever paid a dividend to its shareholders in the years before nationalisation. From the point of view of the Kent miners, the shortage of labour in the coalfield, particularly in the years 1914-20 and 1927-35, was to an important extent responsible for their being amongst the highest paid in the industry. At the same time the more favourable employment opportunities prevailing in Kent compared with other mining districts enabled the Kent Nine Workers Association to develop into a well organised union, which on the whole was able to look after the interests of its members fairly successfully. Throughout the period 1896 to 1946 the Kent Coalfield existed very much at the margin of the British coal industry. Its failure to develop substantially along the lines envisaged by either the early pioneers or by the later industrialists meant that its importance in national terms always remained small

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