East Kent mining and WWI: a first look

Posted on January 17, 2015

Mining activity in East Kent during the First World War mainly consisted of boring and tunnelling:


Coal was discovered at 300m below Shakespeare Cliff in 1890 during the earliest borings for the Channel Tunnel, triggering the establishment of Shakespeare Colliery (located in West Hougham) which lasted until just 1915. The private Shakespeare Cliff Halt railway station was opened in 1913, used only by miners, the military, Channel Tunnel workmen and railway staff over its lifetime. The East Kent Railway was also built over the First World War period between 1911 and 1917, first constructed to serve Tilmanstone colliery which was connected to the line in 1912.

Although Shakespeare Colliery’s productivity was very low (only 1,000 tons had been brought to the surface by 1912), the discovery of coal led to sinking of the other primary mines in the area – when war broke out in 1914, major plans had been put in place to exploit the East Kent coal. It was in the 1920s and ’30s that the output of the coalfield most rapidly expanded, but the outbreak of wars caused only four collieries to survive: Betteshanger, Chislet, Snowdown and Tilmanstone.

Shakespeare Cliff coal mine courtesy CHIK Project Dover Museum

^ Shakespeare Colliery, 1913 (image source: http://www.kentcountysociety.co.uk/Kent%20Coal.html)


During WW1, many miners were refused permission to leave their  jobs to fight because of the importance and also the increased risk of maintaining coal supplies during the war.

However, some specialist miners, due to their experience and expertise of working underground in extreme conditions, were sent to dig tunnels running beneath enemy lines and plant explosives (under No Man’s Land in particular).

During the Great War miners started out as some of the lowest paid workers. There were many wage battles and hardships for miners and their families that extended into the 1930s (especially in Wales), but wages did improve greatly over the course of the wars.