Site Records


Base of Shakespeare Cliff
(Now Samphire Hoe)
OS Grid Ref: TR295393

[Source: Nick Catford]

There had been numerous proposals for a tunnel under the English Channel throughout the nineteenth Century but the first serious attempt to build a tunnel came with an Act of Parliament in 1875 authorising the Channel Tunnel Company Ltd to start preliminary trials.

By 1877 several shafts had been sunk but initial work carried out at St Margaret's Bay, to the east of Dover had to be abandoned due to flooding. In 1880, under the direction of Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the South Eastern Railway, a new shaft was sunk at Abbot's Cliff, between Dover and Folkestone with a horizontal gallery being driven along the cliff. This 7ft-diameter pilot tunnel was eventually to be enlarged to standard gauge with a connection to the South Eastern Railway. After Welsh miners had bored 800ft of tunnel a second shaft was sunk at Shakespeare Cliff in February 1881. The site chosen was a platform at the base of the cliff created from the debris from Round Down Cliff which had been blown up by the South Eastern Railway in 1843 during construction of the Folkestone - Dover railway. There were already two railway cottages and a bungalow on the site built by the South Eastern Railway. This tunnel was started under the foreshore heading towards a mid channel meeting with the French pilot tunnel.

The Channel Tunnel Company expected the pilot tunnel to be completed by 1886, but by 1882 the government was growing anxious about the military implications of a link to Europe and a new military commission was set up to advise on this matter. Sir Edward established a new company, the Submarine Continental Railway Company, which took over the shafts and headings from the South Eastern Railway.

In an attempt to put a stop to the tunnel the Board of Trade invoked Section 77 of the South Eastern Railway Act of 1881. Watkin put various obstacles in the way of this inspection and eventually the Board of Trade applied for a High Court order giving them access to the Shakespeare Cliff heading; following this the tunnelling stopped. By the end of 1882, the Abbot's Cliff heading had reached 897yd and that at Shakespeare Cliff was 2,040yd in length. The Board of Trade paid a further visit and reported that a further 70yd had been bored in breach of the injunction, as a result of which the Board took out further court proceedings against the company. Following abandonment of the works at the end of 1882 all the plant and buildings were retained on site.

The Channel Tunnel work site c1882 seen from Shakespeare Cliff: the shaft head frame between the two buildings is in the centre. Channel Tunnel siding terminates alongside the frame. In the foreground two workers' cottage and a bungalow are seen. These were built by the South Eastern Railway following the construction of the Folkestone to Dover railway line which opened on 27 January 1844.
Copyright photo from
White Cliffs Countryside Partnership collection

The Channel Tunnel work site at Shakespeare Cliff looking west from the bottom of Akers steps c1882. Akers steps was a steep zig-zag path with 333 steps cut into the cliff face during the construction of the Folkestone - Dover line and, until Shakespeare Halt was built, was the only means of getting to the site other than by walking through the main line tunnel. Click here to see a 1985 picture of Akers Steps. The steps have now been cut away near the bottom as they finish near the modern ventilation plat for the Channel Tunnel. Washing hanging on the line confirms the cottages were occupied at this time.
Copyright photo from White Cliffs Countryside Partnership

The first suggestion that there might be coal in the area was made in the 1840s. Prior to beginning work on the Channel Tunnel, Frederick Beaumont, one of the co-designers of the tunnelling machine, was the secretary of the Kentish Exploration Committee which was established to promote public interest in proving the existence of a concealed coalfield in south-east England.

Francis Brady's 1886 borehole at Shakespeare Cliff.

In 1886 the South Eastern Railway Co approached William Boyd Dawkins asking him if his Channel Tunnel work had shown if any coal existed, under Kent as this would have given the company great financial benefits. Professor Boyd Dawkins enlisted the support of the SER's Chief Engineer, Francis Brady, to persuade Sir Edward Watkin to apply for a Bill to let him search for a viable coal seam below the Channel Tunnel workings.

Francis Brady conducted operations under the geological supervision of Professor Boyd Dawkins. The first borehole was sunk in 1886 striking coal measures in February, 1890, at a depth of 1,100ft, and between that depth and 2,274ft, where the boring ceased, 14 seams of coal were encountered, varying from 6in to 4 ft, of a total thickness of 23ft 9in, distributed through 1,173ft of coal measures. This discovery was regarded as of great national importance, for, although some of the upper seams were thin and shalely, lower down the beds seemed richer.

Sir Edward Watkin was keen to begin mining operations and tried to start a £30,000 fund to sink a trial shaft into the coal measures. Shareholders of the Channel Tunnel Co refused to exploit the coal, and no efforts to sink shafts were made until 1896 when the Kent Coalfields Syndicate was established by speculator Arthur Burr to take over the freeholds and mineral rights at the old Channel Tunnel workings. The new company was to extract coal, shale, ironstone and fireclay for a period of 20 years.

After obtaining a lease from the Crown and Ecclesiastical Commissioners, sidings were laid into the site. The pit was known as Shakespeare or Dover Colliery and was the first of the Kent coal mines.

1898 1:2,500 OS map shows the first stage of development of Shakespeare Colliery. The three shafts shown are, from left to right, Brady, Simpson and the Channel Tunnel construction shaft with Channel Tunnel siding alongside. This is where visitors to the Channel Tunnel alighted from special trains from Dover Town. There would almost certainly have been a wooden platform here.

The sinking of No.1 pit (Brady) commenced in June 1896, 280ft west of the borehole. Francis Brady, acting on behalf of the Channel Tunnel Company, carried down that shaft for the first 82ft, and then, in July, 1896, the Kent Coal Syndicate took over the sinking. Although the earlier borings had indicated the presence of water-bearing Greensand and Wealden beds, no plans were made to have pumps ready in the event of water ingress.  Sinking progressed rapidly but at 366ft water broke in at the shaft bottom, much to the surprise to the shaft sinkers. The shaft filled quickly and it was clear that no further progress could be made without pumps. The ingress of water would prove a major problem for the Kent coalfield in the years that followed. Hidden in vast underground lakes, water could pour into a shaft at the rate of a million gallons per day.

To save a delay waiting for pumps to arrive, the sinking of No.2 Pit (Simpson) was started in autumn 1896 midway between the Brady Pit and the borehole. The management’s intention was to sink to the level of Brady shaft and there install pumps to keep both shafts free from water.  The sinking progressed quickly to 300ft.  At that level the gault rock was too hard to extract and it was considered safe to fire a lightly charged shot-hole.

A late nineteenth century view of Shakespeare Colliery before any major buildings were constructed on the site. Brady shaft is closest to the camera with Simpson shaft to the rear. The shorter headframe for the Channel Tunnel construction shaft is seen beyond the far chimney. Click here for a larger version.

On 6 March 1897 an explosive charge was fired, and before the sinkers went back down the pit an inspection was made to see if water had broken in. After the inspection the men went down to start loading the loose rock into a hoppit - a large bucket, usually up to about 80ft³, used in shaft-sinking for hoisting men, rock, materials, and tools. The material in the first hoppit was found to be damp but the next load was dry. While the sinkers were filling the third load, water suddenly burst through the shaft floor 'with a force like that of an explosion' and rose rapidly up the shaft. A hoppit and rope were immediately sent back down.  The hoppit quickly filled with sand and water but the men in the shaft made a grab for the rope.  Although some fell off, three managed to hold on and were hauled to the surface. The hoppit was sent down again and three more men were hauled up.  The master sinker and one of the exhausted survivors went down in a third hoppit but by now water had risen 40ft up the shaft and there were no more survivors.  Within 30 minutes the water had risen 80ft and three days later it had risen to 100ft.

It took one month before workers could pump out the shaft and recover the bodies of the eight sinkers who had died. A management report on 25 March concluded that a feeder of hot water was coming up the shaft so quickly that it was uncontrollable. The men’s candles exploded gas on the surface of the water indicating the presence of firedamp (methane). The editor of the Dover Express opined that coal would never be mined from the pit.

Once the water was pumped out sinking recommenced, although the flooding of the shafts had added to the company's financial difficulties. Work at No.1 Pit again had to be stopped at a depth 520ft, this time owing to running sand; this shaft was later abandoned with no further sinking being undertaken.

No.2 pit (Simpson) is seen in the foreground with No.1 pit (Brady) to the rear c1898. The large circular object on the railway wagon is a hoppit: a large bucket, usually up to about 80ft³, used in shaft-sinking for hoisting men, rock, materials, and tools.
Copyright photo from
White Cliffs Countryside Partnership collection

An attempt was made to float a new company to take over the syndicate's holdings, with the Kent Collieries Corporation Ltd taking over operations on 6 March 1897.

A third pit (Borehole) to replace the lost Brady shaft was started on the site of Francis Brady's borehole in March 1898. In an attempt to reduce the danger for a further inrush of water a cross heading was driven between the new shaft and Simpson shaft at a depth of 310ft and pumps were installed there. The total water that had to be dealt with at a depth of 450ft was 54,170 gallons per hour, of which 1,100 gallons was top water, 27,810 gallons from the greensand and Hastings beds, and 25,260 gallons came up the borehole from below 450ft.

With this amount of water coming in, the sinking was tedious.  In 1899 progress became very slow, financial difficulties having intervened, but during the sinking a thick bed of ironstone was found, imparting additional value to the coalfield.  After reconstruction of the Company and changes in the administration the sinking was continued, but, eventually, before the coal measures were reached, the increasing water stopped the sinking.

The winding engines for No 3 Pit (Borehole in June 1898. Click here for a larger version.
Copyright photo from
White Cliffs Countryside Partnership collection

1907 1:2,500 OS map shows Shakespeare Colliery during development of the mine. The boiler house, one of the largest buildings on the site, has not yet been built. The miners' halt officially opened in 1913 although it is known that miners' trains ran from at least 1900 as one is shown in a working timetable. The blue arrow shows the position of the halt in 1913. Only Borehole shaft is shown. Brady shaft had been abandoned by this date. Click here for a larger version.

Engine hand Charles Gatehouse is seen in the winding house at Shakespeare Colliery circa late 1890s.
Copyright photo from
White Cliffs Countryside Partnership collection

Click here to continue Shakespeare Colliery

[Source: Nick Catford]

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