The story of the Kent coalfields is, as the director and producer of A Century of Coal Peter Williams told us at The Marlowe Theatre, is a ‘unique’ one. The county is usually described as a green and verdant garden or known for its fecund agriculture. Black fuel and deep pits are things we don’t associate with Kent. Yet mining has played a key role in the evolution of some of Kent’s towns and a significant part in its people.
It was in 1890, whilst testing the viability of a tunnel under the Channel, that diggers at Shakespeare Cliffs near Dover, struck coal. Looking at maps, this made sense. If you were to draw a line between the coalfields of North Wales, Lancashire, the Black Country and mines in the north of France, Kent was right in line. It was estimated that here, in a corner in the south east of England, was ten billion tons of workable coal. Under the Chamberlain government, 18 pits were dug in the area, with it being announced in 1926 that Kent could be a new industrial black country, and one that was close to London, cutting the costs of fueling the capital.
But Kent had no history of mining, and so workers were recruited from Scotland, Nottingham, Lancashire, Wales, and other areas with a mining history. It’s these families that the film focuses on. The families of Aylesham, Betteshanger and Snowdown, villages that mining was at the centre of.
Mining always seems to have brought with it tensions and tussles. Earning more than the agricultural workers, a divide was created by the newcomers and locals right from the start. Those used to seeing green fields were worried that dirt and spoil heaps would tarnish the land. Of course, there are the strikes in the eighties, when coal towns became dark and desolate places to be, surviving only through the warmth and community that this film so brilliantly conveys existed. And the debate between the Betteshanger Pie and Snowdown Pasty, one of the biggest rivalries of all.
The film seamlessly links the history and heritage of the Kent mining towns with the development and regeneration in the county today. Villages that were almost wiped out when the collieries closed are being given funding and attention to help rebuild their communities. A Century of Coal aims to support that through raising money for the building of a mining museum, green hub and leisure space at the site of the old Betteshanger colliery. It’s not just a story about yesterday, but one that has relevance to today.
There was a certain demographic in the Marlowe Studio for The Century of Coal. Most of the audience were older and wiser than me, and as the post-screening questions revealed, had mining in their history and in their blood. I enjoyed learning more about a story I’m unfamiliar with, despite it taking place so close to home. It’s a part of history that I knew nothing of, and now feels relevant. The way of life might be gone, but the story lives on.