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The Discovery of Coal in Kent

Geologists first speculated that there was coal beneath Kent the in 1840's but it was not until 1890 that the theory was properly investigated.

In 1880, work began at Shakespeare Cliff on a Channel Tunnel from Dover to Calais but in 1882 the government halted the work while it considered the military implications. With its workers lying idle, the company decided to drill bore holes to investigate Kent's geology and both iron ore and coal were found in 1890.


sinkers at Shakespeare cliff 1908
sinkers at Shakespeare cliff 1908

coal boring at Shakespeare cliff
coal boring at Shakespeare cliff

Shareholders of the Channel Tunnel Co. declined to allow the company to exploit the coal and in 1896 Arthur Burr set up the Kent Coalfields Syndicate to buy the mineral rights and then commenced Shakespeare Colliery at the old tunnel workings.

During the next 25 years the Kent coalfield came close to being abandoned on numerous occasions. From 1896 more than 45 test bores were carried out in east Kent and at least 10 collieries started yet it took 16 years of continual investment before any commercial coal was raised to the surface.

Kent Coalfield Map
Map of the Kent Coalfield
This map shows the nine collieries that survived long
enough to sink shafts although only 4 would
actually produce coal.

Part of the problem was that the coal was down very deep, in thin undulating seams and was difficult to mine. More serious were the vast pockets of water held in the chalk greensand beds. They provided a constant stream of water into mine workings, often as high as 250 gallons (1135 litres) a minute. This taxed pumps to their limits leaving miners wading in water and in constant fear of the pumps failing. There was also a danger of flash floods, which, on occasion, killed miners and filled 1,000 feet shafts to surface level within minutes.

The Kent Coal Measures 1925
The Kent Coal Measures 1925
A cross-section of east Kent from Lympne on the English Channel to
Margate on the North Sea. The deepest (and best) seams were over
3000 feet (915 metres) down.