3 Membership Secretary Shelia Cope
4 KFAS Autumn Conference Jack Woolford
5 Planning Jack Woolford
6 Cowgate Cemetery Lesley Gordon
7 The October Meeting Merril Lilley
11 Western Heights Preservation Society Chris Taft
12 Bank of England & Tate Modern Adeline Reidy
15 Visit to Lille John Husband
Glimpses of the Past Merril Lilley
16 Extracts from Memoirs of Budge Adams
17 Richard Tilden Smith Derek Leach
THE DREAM OF RICHARD TILDEN SMITH OR TILMANSTONE
– WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN By Derek Leach
There is nothing left of Tilmanstone Colliery, but during its short working life it produced 20 million tons of coal. There were three pit shafts: number 1 was 1590 feet deep, number 2 was 3168 and number 3 was 3139 feet. All were sealed during 1987. Things were different in 1925 when Richard Tilden Smith envisaged a pyramid of businesses centred upon Tilmanstone Colliery, making S E Kent one of the richest industrial areas in the country.
Richard Tilden Smith was born in New South Wales in 1865. His father had emigrated, but had died when Richard was 16. The family owned a pub, but had discovered gold which Richard used to good effect. He soon owned 5 million acres with 75,000 cattle and at 21 he was responsible for developing Australia’s first coalfield. A bank crisis in 1893 made him poor and he came to England, but he still owned property in a gold field which restored his fortune. In England he started restoring failing businesses and refused a baronetcy for his efforts! By 1908 he was a director of Burma Mines and had a controlling interest in Chinese lead, silver, zinc and copper mines. In 1914 he acquired the Swansea Vale Works and built a large modern zinc smelting plant at Avonmouth. Ironically, this plant produced mustard gas for war purposes and Richard’s only son, Jack, died from German mustard gas. In the City he built the impressive office block of Adelaide House, which still stands on the riverside at the end of London Bridge, and lived in its penthouse. He introduced the diesel engine to Britain and had various interests all over the world.
Richard had plans for the Kent Coalfield as early as 1907 and made his first bid for Tilmanstone in 1915, just two years after it produced its first coal, but was thwarted by the then owner, Arthur Burr who, despite dubious methods, did so much to develop the coalfield. In 1925, six years after Burr’s death, 1200 men were about to lose their jobs at Tilmanstone. Richard was appointed manager by the receiver and then became the colliery owner. It was in a poor state, bedevilled with water problems, inadequate pumping systems, dangerous shafts and miners notorious for their militancy. Using all his vast experience of finance, business and mining, he set about not only transforming Tilmanstone Colliery, but building a complex of industries around Dover using the energy produced by the pit. From the outset he knew that the colliery could only survive if ancillary local businesses were created.
First, he tackled the water problem. For every ton of coal mined, 17 tons of water had to be pumped to the surface. He installed the largest pump in the country, called Lady Gray, which is still buried in the pit. New coal washing equipment was installed and a coal briquette plant built to produce poor quality coal – dirty, but easy to burn and cheap at 1s 6d a cwt.
The high cost of transporting coal by rail even to Dover docks was a big drawback. To solve this problem Richard planned an overhead transport system comprising a continuous wire supported by 177 pylons stretching seven and a half miles across country from Tilmanstone to the Eastern Arm in Dover Harbour. Coal would be carried in a succession of buckets attached to this aerial ropeway. On arrival at the Eastern Arm, having passed through a tunnel a quarter of a mile long in the White Cliffs, buckets would empty their coal into a 5,000 ton bunker to await loading on to ships. This would cost only 1s 9d per ton compared with 5s 9d by rail. Despite stiff opposition from the railway companies, parliamentary approval was obtained and the ropeway opened in 1930. It was not used during the Second World War and then fell into disrepair and was dismantled in the 1950s.
By 1929 Richard had acquired controlling interests in various Kent gas companies and he planned a gas plant at Tilmanstone, producing 1,000 million cubic feet of gas a year with coke as a by-product transported to Dover by aerial ropeway. Other by-products would have been pitch, benzol, dyes, creosote and artificial manure! There was more! The existence of rich deposits of iron ore in East Kent was well known, such as the 115 million tons 600 feet below the Shakespeare Colliery – now Samphire Hoe. Richard planned a steel works, once again using his aerial ropeway to Dover docks. Even a brickworks featured in his masterplan to use the waste from the mining activities. Perhaps the most exciting project was a local power station, using Tilmanstone coal, not only to supply the local area but also to attract other businesses to the area. This was before any national grid. He offered to supply London and other towns as well at one farthing a unit. His death intervened and Battersea Power Station was built to supply London.
The manufacture of cement locally was a top priority. It made sense to Richard with plenty of local coal, chalk and clay combined with the proximity of Dover docks for both home and export trade. Twenty-four acres of land at Langdon Hole close to the harbour were leased for the proposed site. He envisaged the largest plant in the world producing one million tons a year, but had not foreseen the extent of local opposition, apathy and red tape. These had not been overcome when he died in 1929. His dream died with him, depriving Dover of many jobs.
What sort of man was this business tycoon? He took over Tilmanstone during a period of major strikes, including the General Strike of 1926, but was concerned for the welfare of strikers’ families and, through a third party, paid out £100 a week to families of men on strike at his own pit! He gave his men the option of co-operating with management to keep the pit open or he would close it. They co-operated. Wages at Tilmanstone were amongst the highest in the country and were never cut despite continuing losses of up to £1,000 a week. The revolutionary practice of making workers part of management was introduced and a joint management committee was formed, but he rejected a profit sharing scheme because the men would also have to bear the losses! Reports of better conditions in Communist Russia were countered by sending a deputation of miners to Russia, with all expenses paid by Tilden Smith, to see whether these ‘better conditions’ could be introduced to the pit. He even offered free passage to Russia for miners and their families, but there were no takers! One of the deputation commented, ‘If men at Tilmanstone had to work under such conditions, there would be hell to pay!’ Concern for his men extended to building 100 new homes at Elvington available at low rent which they would own after several years. Pithead baths were installed.
Richard owned Elvington Court. Its large barn was converted into a miners’ leisure centre that could seat 750 people which was used for dances, staging shows, plays and boxing tournaments. As Tilmanstone expanded, miners came from all over the country. Elvington Court was turned into a hotel for single miners at 25 shillings a week for full board including packed lunches for work. He had a pig farm behind Elvington Court, supplying the local butcher but also providing cheap pork to his miners.
By late 1929 the men of Tilmanstone had something to be proud of. They were treated with respect by management, who received respect in return. A future of security and prosperity seemed assured.
On 18 December 1829 Richard Tilden Smith was lunching in the House of Commons, lobbying the government to amalgamate compulsorily all collieries under a single Coal Board. He was laughing when he suddenly collapsed and died. His premature death at 64 robbed East Kent of an industrial future as well as a great businessman and humanitarian. All his ambitious plans were made. Many projects had started, but nobody was prepared to continue with such complex and expensive ventures. Squabbles and mistrust returned to Tilmanstone and the family estate eventually sold its interest in the colliery in 1937.
What of Richard, the family man? He married and had four daughters and one son, but met a lovely White Russian émigré after the Russian Revolution. He banished his wife to a luxury apartment and installed his mistress in his Mayfair home. Whilst he entertained lavishly and was generous to others, he was always being careful with his own personal spending – always buying secondhand cars! The Salvation Army and Barnardos benefited from his generosity and, of course, his fortune helped to support the Tilmanstone losses.
In 1929 there were still reckoned to be possibly 1,000 million tons of coal at Tilmanstone and Snowdon – enough to last 300 years at 10,000 tons per day. I wonder whether another Richard Tilden Smith will be brave enough to try to exploit it one day?
20 President Wilson at Dover Martin Webster
24 Dover's Prisioner's Friend Terry Sutton
25 Letters to the Editor
26 Inaugural Concert Jack Woolford
27 The Dover Music Society
28 Website Mike McFarnell