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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By the end of 1901 work was at a standstill, and the lack of progress resulted in the ousting of the Board of Directors with the company being taken over by the Anglo-French Consolidated Kent Collieries Corporation Ltd, who undertook to eliminate the water difficulty by the adoption of the Kind-Chaudron method of sinking a deep shaft of large diameter, in which a pilot bore of smaller diameter is first cut, after which the cut is enlarged to the final diameter. Cast-iron tubes (tubbing) are used to line the shaft as it is being sunk ensuring that the shaft would be sealed off from any water in the rocks.
The shaft linings were brought by sea from Germany by freighter to be unloaded at the Admiralty Pier; here they were transferred to small barges which were then towed by a tug to the Shakespeare Colliery landing stage. Although tedious and costly, the lining was successful. The preparations and the actual accomplishment of the work of sinking 120ft occupied nearly two years.
Arthur Burr severed his connections with the colliery in 1903 and established a new company, Kent Coal Concessions, to buy mineral rights in east Kent between Canterbury and Dover.
The Kind-Chaudron method carried the pit through the first seam of coal. The tubbing of the pit was finally completed in December 1904 down to a depth of 1195ft, after which sinking was resumed in the bottom. The first seam was disappointingly thin, and by 3 February 1905 just 12 tons of coal had been brought to the surface. In an attempt to convince a party of visiting shareholders that the seam was viable they were, misleadingly, shown wagons of coal from Newcastle.
At that stage the French element left the Board of Directors, and a new administration, Kent Collieries Ltd, continued the sinking until August, 1905, when No. 2 Pit had been carried down to a depth of 1,632ft. This sinking of 400ft below the Kind-Chaudron tubbing passed through five of the seven ‘workable’ seams accounted for in the diagrams of Francis Brady’s earlier borings. Some of them proved not as thick as the boring indicated, and none was regarded as satisfactory except the last, a two-foot seam, found at 1,600ft, which was described as of ‘fair marketable value.’ Unfortunately, immediately after reaching that seam, water came in at a rate of 10,000 gallons an hour, which reintroduced the water difficulty, suspending the sinking in No.2 Pit.
By the end of 1905 work was concentrated on No.3 Pit, then 650ft deep, bringing it down to the same depth as No.2, and to equipping No.2 Pit with permanent winding gear, with the intention of producing a regular output of coal once the two shafts reached the same depth. A ventilation heading was driven between them.
By 1907 the colliery was producing about eight tons of coal a day. This still did not represent commercial success, as it was less than the colliery consumed in its own boilers and engines. In 1907 Leney’s Phoenix Brewery in Dover purchased the first commercial coal from the pit and advertised their Dover Pale Ale as ‘brewed by Kent Coal’. This was soon quietly dropped when the coal proved to be of a poor quality. The colliery was closed in 1909 and placed in the hands of the Receiver.
In 1910 the colliery changed hands yet again and production was restarted by the Channel Collieries Trust. By 1912, only 1,000 tons of coal had been raised. Brady shaft had already been abandoned and the other shafts produced very little coal, still insufficient even to power the colliery’s own winding and pumping engines.
On the 5 September 1912 there was another fatal accident. A water tank holding 1,200 gallons was being brought up to the surface of No.3 pit when it became detached and fell back down the shaft, where 14 sinkers were working. On its way down it crashed against the sides of the shaft bringing bricks and other debris with it. Two sinkers were killed outright when the tank hit them. Another, J Little, was so badly injured that he was not expected to survive. Mr Little was trapped under the debris with water rising around him, and by the time he was released the water had risen to his chest. A few years earlier Mr Little had a lucky escape from the colliery when eight of his colleagues drowned at the bottom of No.2 shaft. The colliery manager immediately organised a rescue party but as the winding gear being out of action it took some time to rescue the men. The accident was due to either the chain holding the tank snapping or the winding gear being overwound.
All production stopped in 1914 and the colliery finally closed just before Christmas 1915. An announcement was made at the time stating that the mine had been closed owing to the wartime shortage of labour - it never reopened. Although there was little coal, a 16ft-thick seam of limonite was intersected during the sinking of Borehole Shaft. Limonite is one of the two principal iron ores, the other being hematite, and it has been mined for the production of iron since at least 2500 BC. 1000 tons of ore were extracted, and testing proved the seam to be commercially viable with reserves of over 100 million tons of ore over an area of 6 sq miles. The two working shafts were sealed off with concrete plugs, just below the level of the iron seam, to reduce the pumping requirement. Ownership was taken over by the Channel Steel Company Limited in 1917. This company was not wound up until the 1950s, but it never operated as a working iron mine as the necessary capital could not be raised.
The colliery shafts were eventually capped by civil engineers Mott, Hay & Anderson. Local ship breakers A O Hill Ltd purchased all the machinery at the colliery (except main winding engine), in January 1928; the sale included electric engines, pumps, pipes, tanks, small winding engines and 150,000 bricks.Although Shakespeare Colliery was not financially viable several opened in the area between Canterbury, Sandwich and Dover and were productive until the 1980s.The first record of miners using the railway to reach the colliery is a working timetable for 1900 which shows early morning trains stopping at Dover Colliery. There was no platform at this time with miners clambering in or out of the trains directly from or onto the track. The South Eastern & Chatham Railway issued tickets to ‘Colliery Works Platform’ in the first decade of the twentieth century. The site of this platform is not known and it may be on a different site from Shakespeare Halt which officially opened on 2 June 1913 for use by miners. The halt consisted of two timber platforms on the main line a short distance to the west of Shakespeare Tunnel, level with Borehole Shaft. Initially passengers had to cross the line using a barrow crossing but in 1914 a footbridge was provided. At this time the SECR restated that the halt was not to be used by women and children.
By the early 1950s some of the redundant colliery buildings were still standing including the boiler house, one of the largest buildings on the site. By the mid 1950s all the buildings had been cleared and new sidings were laid across the site.
- Davis, Jim - Job, Robert Ross - Sherren, Richard Tilden - Invicta Coal (Unpublished manuscript 1992)
- Bravington Jones, John Dover, a Perambulation of the Town, Port and Fortress (published by Dover Express 1907)
- Varley, Paul From Charing Cross to Baghdad (The Channel Tunnel Group Ltd 1992)
- Holt, Paul Shakespeare Cliff - A People’s History 1843 - 1973 (2008)
- Samphire Hoe web site