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Industrial Kent

Jim Preston

Cloth and textiles
Although Kent is labelled ‘the Garden of England’ it has, since the 16th century, been an industrialised county. Through to the end of the eighteenth century activity was located mainly on the Weald. The long established textile industry in the form of woollen cloth (broadcloth and kerseys) and linen were in rapid decline in the 18th century due to competition from Gloucestershire and Yorkshire which mechanised and had lower wages. The woollen industry, organised on the domestic system, has left a legacy of clothiers houses, wool halls and weavers houses in Cranbrook, Biddenden, Staplehurst, Goudhurst, Headcorn and Smarden.


The Wealden iron industry

The second major Wealden industry was iron production which blossomed in the late 16th century. Furnaces and forges were set up in rural locations using the narrow valleys to utilise waterpower for bellows and hammers. Ore was dug locally and charcoal from the extensive woodlands used for fuel. Producing mainly cannon and shot, the industry declined with the introduction of coke fired furnaces in the 18th century. Furnace ponds and bays remain at production sites, e.g. at Horsmonden, Lamberhurst and Cowden. The extensive woodlands of the Weald are a legacy of charcoal industry.


Fulling and copperas

Two activities outside the Weald were dependent on the woollen industry. Fulling mills, later converted for grinding corn or papermaking, lined the Len and Loose streams, such as at Gurney’s Mill, Loose. These used fullers earth from Bearsted, Boxley and Barming. Copperas Works at Whitstable, Queenborough and Gillingham  used iron pyrites stones gathered at Seasalter and Minster in Sheppey to produce dyes for textiles as well as ink for the London market. However, new dyes and cheaper production near coalfields had destroyed the industry by the early 19th century. Elsewhere, silk weaving at Canterbury and Sandwich declined with the migration of the industry to Spitalfields.          


During the 18th and 19th centuries industry was increasingly concentrated on the north coast, the Thames and the Medway which offered good water communication with London and other markets. Almost incessant warfare in the 18th century produced a demand for gunpowder, with works located at Dartford, Faversham (Marsh, Oare and Home works) and Leigh and for a short time at Tovil.


Brewing and malting

Brewing, using local supplies of malt and hops expanded in centres such as Maidstone, Medway, Faversham, Canterbury, Margate, Deal and Dover supplying the needs of the Navy, army garrisons and passing shipping. The industry expanded in the late 19th century when restrictive licensing saw the beginning of the concentration of the industry and the closure of breweries. Brewery buildings remain at Faversham, Canterbury, Rochester and Chatham.


Malting to supply the Kent brewing industry used barley largely grown in North Kent, but particularly in Thanet. Farm maltings and maltings in rural areas gave way to multi floor operations largely controlled by the brewers, with some of the best examples in Canterbury, Faversham, Gravesend and Ramsgate. Kent, preeminent in malt production in the 17th century, saw its importance decline as farmers changed to more profitable crops such as hops, and improved communications opened the London market to other areas such as Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Lincolnshire.


Tanneries, to meet industrial as well as domestic needs for leather operated in most market towns, including Canterbury, Dover, Ashford, and Cranbrook with the Weald supplying hides and oak bark. The industry remained important until after the First World War when cheap imports and new materials reduced demand.



Milling in various forms using wind, water and steam power continued into the 20th century. Corn milling by wind and water persisted until the mid 20th century, having from the late 19th century slowly given way firstly to steam powered mills (Chatham, Faversham and Ashford), and then to mills in the larger ports such as Liverpool. Oil seed crushing, for paint-making cooking oil and animal feed, processing initially locally grown rape and linseed and later imported cotton and rape seed, utilised wind mills (Gillingham) or water mills (Dour and Medway). In the second half of the 19th century steam power was applied (Strood and Teston). Ruins of Tutsham Oil Mill stand near the lock at Teston. The industry in the 20th century concentrated into the British Oil and Cake Mills combine. Strood closed c.1946 leaving only BOCM Erith (1913) with its pioneering reinforced concrete silos.

 Mackay's Oil Mill, Gillingham

Image: Mackay's oil mill, Gillingham (Jim Preston)



Papermaking began in the late 16th century at Dartford, but soon was concentrated in the Maidstone area, largely due its mineral free water essential for white paper. Paper mills were established in the Len and Loose valleys where there were redundant fulling mills, at East Malling, and on the Darent, the Stour and the Dour at Dover. The raw material, rag from London, was brought by barge. London was also the main market for high-grade white paper for which Kent was the leading county. In the second half of the 19th century Kent was well placed to receive wood pulp from Scandinavia. Steam powered paper mills producing newsprint then migrated to the Thames to Dartford, Northfleet, Gravesend and Sittingbourne.


Boat, barge and ship-building

Boat, barge and ship-building took place on the rivers and creeks and around the coast of Kent to meet the needs of fishing, commerce and the Royal Navy. However, Kent’s industrial revolution really dates from around 1850 with the rise of the building materials industries and engineering.



Building materials industries have left the biggest impact on the landscape in the form of quarries, chalk, clay and sand pits. Ragstone had for centuries been quarried between Westerham and Folkestone, but especially around Maidstone at Allington, Boughton Monchelsea and Offham. Ragstone came back into fashion in 19th century for use on public buildings, and was used in 20th century for roadstone.


Lime and cement

Lime was burnt on the Thames and Medway for the London and local building markets from the 17th century. Remains include Lee's kilns (1850s) at Halling for building lime, and kilns in rural areas such as Charing and Westwell for agricultural lime.  By the mid-19th century lime was giving way to Portland cement for building purposes after much experimentation to find a stronger material. Roman cement  made from ‘septaria’ nodules dredged from the Thames estuary  between the Kent coast and Harwich was widely used as it produced a stronger bond than lime. It was produced in 1830s/40s at Faversham, Halling and Northfleet, but production declined during the ‘railway mania’ as the supply of raw material was depleted. A form of Portland cement originated at Northfleet where Aspdin’s kiln survives before modern Portland cement was ‘invented’ at Swanscombe in 1844. The industry ranged from Dartford to Cliffe on the Thames, was established on the Medway in 1851, and eventually extended from Aylesford to Queenborough, with isolated works at Elmley Ferry, Faversham, and a short-lived works at Folkestone, some 60 works in all. Waterside locations facilitated barge transport to the London market and docks, and the carriage of raw materials, chalk, river mud high in silica and alumina. The number of works peaked in 1900 when the Thames and Medway produced about two thirds of England’s cement. Thereafter the introduction of new technology in the form of the rotary kiln and increased foreign competition led to concentration of the industry and closure of works. The industry had transformed Thameside and Medway and there was rapid population growth at Greenhithe, Swanscombe, and Northfleet, and industrial villages such as Eccles, Wouldham and Halling seeing atypical growth. The best remains include: Aspdin's kiln, Northfleet; Cliffe creek works; Lees Halling works and Burham Cement works, while Halling and Northfleet works are still extant.

 Limekilns on Bluebell Hill (copyright Jim Preston)

Image: Limekilns on Bluebell Hill (Jim Preston)



Brickmaking, particularly London stock bricks, took off with the developments in London after the Napoleonic Wars using brick earth deposits which occur between Gravesend and Faversham close to water, facilitating cheap barge transport. Production was centred on the Medway, Milton Creek (particularly Murston), Conyer Creek and Faversham. Bricks and tiles for local consumption were also produced where suitable clay occurred throughout the county from Folkestone to Southborough. The decline of brick-making was partly due to competition from cheap Fletton bricks, distributed by rail, from the late 19th century, but also the exhaustion of brickearth. The industry has left little trace in the landscape apart from changed levels where the clay has been stripped and the topsoil replaced. Substantial malm backs are still to be found in the woods at Burham. Sand extraction at Aylesford supplied not only the building industry, but also glass bottle-making at Queenborough



Kent is typical of 19th century agricultural counties where engineering firms and foundries were set up in market centres to supply farming with iron implements. Agricultural engineers were to be found in Ashford, Maidstone and Medway. Other engineering firms developed from millwrights to supply needs of industry, e.g. steam engines and paper-making machines (Dartford), and brick and cement making machinery (Rochester and Strood).  Traction and plough engines, steam rollers, tram engines and steam wagons were built at Strood. Locomotive and carriage works, together with Alfred New Town, were built at Ashford to supply the needs of the South Eastern Railway Company. Into the 20th century engineering moved into new products such as petrol electric lorry, bus and van manufacture (Maidstone), bus and car bodies (Rochester and Dartford) and bicycles and motorcycles (Ashford) as well as cables and electricals (Gravesend). Aircraft were manufactured between 1909 and 1948 at Leysdown, Eastchurch, Rochester and Gravesend  (See Aviation section).

 Former Carriage Works and Sawmill, Ashford Railway Works ( Jim Preston copyright)

Image: Former carriage works and sawmill, Ashford Railway Works (Jim Preston)


Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals

The Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals industries developed in the second half of the century. These included tar distillation plants (New Hythe and Queenborough), agro-chemicals associated with hop growing (Yalding),  superphosphate fertilizer production (Queenborough), and pharmaceuticals at Dartford.



Public utilities in the form of gasworks (Gravesend, Folkestone), and waterworks (Chatham, Dover, Wingham, East Farleigh, Maidstone) in the 19th century and electricity generating plant (Gravesend, Faversham, Sandwich) in the 20th were important industries.


Coal Mining

The 20th century has seen the rise and fall of coal mining. First mined at Shakespeare Cliff, coal was exploited after the First World War at Tilmanstone, Chislet, Betteshanger and Snowdown bringing employment to East Kent. New settlements were built to house miners at Hersden and Aylesham with facilities like miner's institutes, and the East Kent Light Railway built to carry coal. The best extant buildings are at Snowdown, with other remains at Stonehall (Lydden) and Guilford (Coldred).


Oil Refining

Oil refining and storage was located at Grain from the early 20th century with a new refinery built in the1950s . Oil products were made at Kingsnorth. The plant had gone by 1990 as it was cheaper to move high value refined oil rather than crude oil.



Warehousing and distribution became increasingly important in the 20th century but warehouse buildings date from the 16th century (Faversham) and later (Canterbury).