The century-long history of coal mining in Kent, one of the UK’s most southerly coalfields, is now commemorated at a new museum. The Kent Mining Museum, based at Betteshanger Country Park near Deal, opened its doors to visitors on 2 April, and aims to provide a permanent home for the stories and collections of Kent’s mining communities.
Former miners from the county’s collieries are among those responsible for launching and running the £1.7 million museum, which was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The museum draws on material collected over many years by the East Kent coalfields communities, and includes among its permanent displays four original small gauge colliery tubs, used at Tilmanstone Colliery and donated by Dover Transport Museum, and an underground exhibition space. The museum will also provide a hub for volunteer-led heritage centres in the former mining towns of Aylesham and Elvington.
Nearly 200 people from local mining communities were at the opening, and the official ribbon cutting was performed by miners who had worked in the four main Kent collieries, John Baldwin (Tilmanstone Colliery), Phil Sutcliffe (Snowdown Colliery), Ross Llewellyn (Chislet Colliery), Jim Davies (Betteshanger Colliery). The photo of the opening below was taken by Kay Sutcliffe, who was herself active during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike in the Kent women’s support group.
Entertainment for the launch was provided by the Betteshanger Colliery Welfare Band and the Snowdown Colliery Welfare Male Voice Choir.
Coal was first discovered in Kent in 1890 during work on an early Channel tunnel project, but serious development of the coalfield did not begin until shortly before the first world war, with the opening of Chislet Colliery. It was later joined by collieries at Betteshanger, Tilmanstone and Snowdown, with production reaching its peak in 1936.
However, as Kent had no history of mining, pit owners had to recruit the skilled workers they required from established mining areas such as Wales, Scotland, Durham, Yorkshire and Lancashire, and wages were often higher than elsewhere to encourage miners to move south. After the 1926 General Strike, some of those who had been blacklisted elsewhere headed to Kent where they sometimes signed on under assumed names.
The first record of a Kent Miners’ Association dates to 1915, when it became a constituent member of the Miners Federation of Great Britain. An entry in the Historical Directory of Trade Unions notes that ‘the Kent Association has always been noted for the militancy of its membership’.
In 1941, 1,000 Betteshanger mineworkers were taken to court and fined £1 each for striking in breach of wartime regulations; three branch officials were sentenced to hard labour. The men refused to pay the fines or return to work, and after eleven days of demonstrations by the miners and their families, the government agreed to waive the fines and release the officials from prison.
The Kent Association became the Kent area of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1945 with 5,100 members. In 1961, 127 miners staged a stay-down strike at Betteshanger in opposition to redundancy notices issued by the National Coal Board. Once again, the strike succeeded.
All but a handful of Kent miners stayed out on strike throughout the 1984-1985 dispute with strong support from local communities and successful fundraising drives in London. However, the final Kent coal mine closed in 1989.
Colin Varrall, who took the photograph below, is a volunteer at the museum, and also helps at a local heritage centre set up ten years ago to archive the heritage of the mining community of Elvington and Tilmanstone Colliery. Five generations of his family were coal miners, first in Yorkshire and then, after moving south in the wake of the general strike, in Kent.
Other mining museums in the UK include:
- The Big Pit National Coal Museum at Blaenafon in Wales;
- The National Coal Mining Museum, which runs Caphouse Colliery between Wakefield and Huddersfield in Yorkshire; and
- The National Mining Museum Scotland at Dalkeith near Edinburgh.
- Historical Directory of Trade Unions vol 2, by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan, Aldershot: Gower, 1984, ISBN 0566021617.
- Dover Museum has an online exhibition of Coal Mining in Kent.