Kent's mining heritage: Meet the miners
PUBLISHED: 14:44 21 July 2016 | UPDATED: 14:44 21 July 2016
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Betteshanger, the former East Kent colliery, is being redeveloped into a landmark destination embracing Kent’s mining heritage, green energy education and sustainable business
One of the largest brownfield sites in Kent, Betteshanger has stood derelict since the closure of the colliery in August 1989. Yet many people have no idea that we even had coalmines in Kent.
All that is rapidly changing, however, thanks to the involvement of Hadlow College (now the Hadlow Group), who took ownership of the Betteshanger Colliery site in 2012.
A sustainable future
As Richard Morsley, Betteshanger Sustainable Parks Director, says: “The site is now a major social and economic regeneration project for Kent. Its mission is to champion the exploration of energy, both old and new, and tell the story of the east Kent coalfield with the creation at its heart of the Kent Mining Museum.
“Split over two sites, the site of the former pit head will become a green technologies business and education park for companies in food security, environmental technology and green business, all housed in low-carbon buildings. The former spoil heap will become an international visitor destination showcasing mining heritage and sustainable energy in a 250-acre country park.”
Led by the Hadlow Group, the £40m project, which combines sustainable business and commerce with education, sustainable energy and tourism, will develop private sector investment, thousands of jobs, new education and training opportunities and high-quality commercial space.
Work on the first-phase Visitor Centre, encompassing the Kent Mining Museum and a Green Energy Centre, has begun and the centre is due to launch in spring 2017; with backing from the Heritage Lottery Foundation, the Kent Mining Museum will open next summer.
“We are fundraising for a £1.8m campaign to help the development of Kent Mining Museum and wider Park improvements. We are confident this can be achieved, and have a dedicated and passionate group of people leading our campaign including Lady Northbourne, Peter Williams MBE, Amanda Cottrell OBE, Desmond Crampton, Jim Davies, Valerie Hale, Paul Hudson, George Jenkins OBE and David Ralls CBE,” says Richard.
In the beginning
Geologists first speculated that there was coal beneath Kent in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until 1880, when work began at Dover’s Shakespeare Cliff on a Channel Tunnel from Dover to Calais, that the theory was properly investigated. Two years later, work was halted by the government while it considered the military implications.
With its workers lying idle, the Channel Tunnel Company decided to drill bore holes to investigate Kent’s geology and in 1890 both iron ore and coal were discovered.
Shakespeare Colliery was Kent’s first coalfield, followed by Snowdown, Tilmanstone and Chislet. All suffered from bad geology, poor investment and strike action. Snowdown, the deepest, hottest and most humid of them all, was dubbed ‘Dante’s Inferno’ by the miners and regarded as the worst pit to work at in Britain.
Betteshanger Colliery was the biggest in Kent, its circular road the length of a dog racing circuit and used by miners to race their whippets.
After the first shaft was sunk, 1,500 miners and their families came down to live in Deal, the closest town to the pit. Deal was then a genteel seaside resort and the arrival of these “rough and dirty men with unintelligible accents” horrified many residents. Lodging houses, cafés and pubs soon had signs up saying “no miners,” while butchers and grocers sold the worst-quality goods as cheap miner’s specials.
As part of the Mining Industry Act of 1926, a Government-run Mines Welfare Committee was set up which established grants to provide better welfare facilities for colliers. Pithead baths were opened in 1934, allowing the colliers to return home at least reasonably clean.
Deputies’ houses were built close to the pit, but it was not until 1929 that the farmlands of Mill Hill on the outskirts of Deal were acquired for a new colliery estate. Betteshanger attracted a lot of the hard-line union men blacklisted in their home areas after the General Strike of 1926 and Betteshanger miners were regarded as the most militant in Kent.
It was the only pit to strike during the Second World War and never really allowed to develop to its full potential, with restricted quotas and markets holding back production.
The last colliery to return to work following the 1984-5 miners strike, Betteshanger was also the last colliery to remain open in Kent, closing in 1989, just one year short of the centenary of the discovery of coal in Kent.
When Kent coal was discovered in 1890, there were no experienced local workers so they had to be imported from traditional mining areas such as Wales, Scotland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands – all places where the coal industry was booming. The miners had little incentive to come to Kent, so our collieries had to pay higher wages in order to compete.
Pit villages were developed at Elvington (Tilmanstone), Hersden (Chislet), Aylesham (Snowdown) and Mill Hill (Betteshanger) to house around 6,000 miners.
The first three were in isolated rural areas, while Mill Hill was deliberately separate from Deal due to local intolerance and prejudice.
Consequently, the villages developed a very strong identity and a self-sufficient, close-knit sense of community that is still evident today.
When Betteshanger closed, the 620 men who remained (3,700 worked there at its heyday), many by then in their 50s, all had to find new jobs, often in completely different fields – but a miner is nothing if not adaptable.
James Idwal Davies
Jim Davies was born in Kent to a Welsh father (known as ‘Bingo’) who came down south in 1932 from Blackwood in the Welsh Valleys to work in the colliery at Betteshanger.
At the time Chislet Rugby team was unbeaten and the Betteshanger pit manager wanted a decent rugby team, so he got the local union man go to Wales to find the best rugby players he could – with the promise of a house and a job in it for them. Bingo was a county player for Monmouth, so he was a much-valued addition.
Jim takes up the tale. “In the 1920s, when they were developing the coalfield, they built the villages away from the collieries because they didn’t want it to be like in the industrial north where you rolled straight out of bed and into the pit yard. Being away from the local community made them grow inward, which is why you always find a very strong community within the miners. They have their own welfare, football, rugby and bowls clubs, choirs, brass bands.”
Bingo notched up 51 years underground and Jim, who went down in 1957 and at first worked alongside his father, eventually became his boss. “I’d got to work on a Monday morning, never knew when I was coming back up again, but I’d go back tomorrow if I could,” he says.
Jim was the very last miner in Kent when it closed on 25 August 1989. He stayed on until March 1990, overseeing filling the hole in and has now become the group’s historian.
“SEEDA came in, demolished the buildings, then it lay dormant until Hadlow College came in. I was very excited about what [Group Director of Finance and Operations] Mark Lumsdon-Taylor had to say; we’ve had many a false dawn in the past where people promised the earth, but when we actually saw the spades going into the earth, we knew it was going to happen. It’s given us a new lease of life.”
“Our nearest mining museum currently is in France, then it’s Wales and the Midlands, but we have a lot to offer here in Kent. I give talks to schoolchildren now, you show them a lump of coal and they don’t know what it is.”
Colin (‘Gandhi’) Hill
Colin Hill did 30 years down the mine, starting in 1953 when he was 15. “I left school on the Friday, started on the Monday. Everyone was a comedian, everyone had a nickname – mine was Gandhi. We used to go swimming when the stream in Northbourne Park overflowed and one day and my mother told me to put my shirt on because I looked like Gandhi. I was a bit slimmer then. One of my mates started calling out ‘Gandhi, Gandhi’ and my mother said ‘his name is not Gandhi it’s Colin’, and I said – ‘hold on, you called me Gandhi, so they can call me Gandhi’ and it stuck. I’ve also been called ‘Chilli’ because I’m C. Hill; my boy Dan is ‘Dilly’.”
“My family was originally from Wales, my father was working in the pit and that’s the reason I worked there, and my two brothers.
“My missus worked at Kent Salads and when the pit shut I got a job on the fields cutting lettuce through the summer. When it came to winter I went on a building finishing course to learn how to work on houses.”
Alan Victor (‘Dinger’) Bell, 63
Baby of the group, Alan (‘Dinger’) Bell, 63, was also the most militant but is now arguably the most welfare-minded of his group of friends. A flying picket in the 1984-5 strike, he was one of 21 men who were picked out and sacked, then blacklisted from working. “I was even stopped from going on a day trip to France, couldn’t get work anywhere,” he tells me.
After a series of odd jobs via mates, Dinger’s breakthrough came when he got the chance to work with children (and later adults) with disruptive behaviour disorders (DBD).
“I went from being blacklisted to Ofsted calling me ‘a little gem’,” he says with pride.
The former rugby player volunteers with Kent Shared Lives and is a trustee of the Deal Welfare Club. He loves fishing and enjoys the rich variety of local wildlife, including beavers in the Betteshanger ponds, tree bats and kingfishers.
At 81, David Fraser is the eldest of the group. His family – mum, dad, six sons and four daughters – came south in 1948 from Lanarkshire, where the pits were closing “left, right and centre.”
“I went to Deal Secondary and after I left school I worked in the butchers’ trade, but there was no money in it so I went to the pit. Dad didn’t push me, but I was the only one of my brothers who did. I was coming up to 16,” says David.
“You had to look after yourself and your mate next to you on both sides. It was a mucky, hard, dangerous job but it was the camaraderie that kept so many of us there for so long.
“I was 16 years as an official, in charge of the coalface and with 24 men under me. The last team I had were brilliant, you couldn’t fault them. It was the best job I ever had.
“I was moved from the coalface to make room for a younger deputy. I was 58 when it closed. I was going to start a window cleaning business, then I saw an ad in the paper for an engineering business in Dover. I had the interview the next day and they said can you start tomorrow, we’ve got a big order coming in? So that was that.”
A woman’s lot
I ask Jim Davies about the role of women in the mining communities and he is quick to sing their praises. “A miner at the end of his shift is black from head to toe and the women had to help bath them in front of the fire and dry their clothes.
“That’s all fine when it’s just your husband, but some of them had maybe six sons and they were all working at the pit the same time.
“She’d get up at 5am and get them off to work, the night shift would come in at 7am then the afternoon shift would go off at 12pm and the day shift lot would come home at 3pm, then the same again at night. These women had that continual, day in day out. On top of that trying to dry their clothes and get their meals ready, and look after the children too.
“We had to buy everything, even our boots and helmet. They only supplied overalls after the 1980s, before that we wore any old clothes we had. But when you got down to the coalface you’d either work in women’s underwear or nothing! Women’s underwear was nice tight briefs that kept the old tackle out of the way.
“Every August Bank Holiday you’d have to take everything out of your lockers because they’d be hosing it all down, then you’d throw the clothes away – you can imagine, 1,000-plus men and all these filthy clothes.”
It was tough on the health, too. Jim only has half a lung, all the men say years of crawling along the coalface has take its toll on their knees, vibration white finger and tinnitus is common, and they’ve all seen dead people, despite Betteshanger being regarded as a safe pit.
As I drove away into the sunshine I thought how many older people are isolated in their own communities; not here. The ex-miners might have had a tough life, but they look after each other, they might have swapped rugby for bowls because their knees have gone, but they’re happy. And their stories won’t disappear.
Bonkers Bike Festival: 14 August
A family fun day celebrating all things pedal powered, including Bicycle Ballet’s Strictly Bicycle and Mr Phoebus’ Penny Farthing Experience, time-trials and the Bonkers Bike Race and Fancy Dress Race.
Open Air Cinema:
The Jungle Book:
Bring a blanket and picnic, sit back, relax and enjoy Disney’s all new live-action epic under the stars.
Explore the Park through activities, guided walks and trails. Take part in family workshops in Wild Cooking and Woodland Craft, watch Birds of Prey displays.
Find out more
Betteshanger Sustainable Parks
Almond House, Betteshanger Road, Deal CT14 0EN. 01304 619227 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Open: 8am-8pm. Last bike hire: 4.30pm