THE ORIGINAL VISION
The name Aylesham is thought to derive from the old English ‘Aegeles ham’ meaning Aegel’s settlement. Though the name is old, Aylesham is a comparatively modern place chosen as the first of a number of new towns to be created in east Kent for miners working in the area’s coalfield.
Mine owners Pearson & Dorman Long acquired 600 acres of farmland on which to build the village as it was roughly halfway between Snowdown colliery, which it purchased in 1924, and a proposed new mine shaft in Adisham.
During the 1920s renowned architect and town planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie was commissioned to design Aylesham. His inspiration came from new towns such as Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire.
He originally intended that Aylesham would house up to 15,000 residents living in 3,000 houses served by a range of commercial, community and civic buildings including seven schools, four churches and two hospitals. The plan of the main thoroughfares in the village was designed in the shape of pit head winding gear.
By 1927 the first mining families were settling into their new houses. Prior to this, many Snowdown miners had lived in Dover. For many, it was the first time they had lived in a place equipped with electricity, running water and internal bathrooms. Gardens were a boon as well.
Abercombie’s original vision of a self contained workers’ garden village in the east Kent countryside was not to be. The falling price of coal, economic depression and industrial unrest meant there was no money to continue with the plan and only 650 or so houses and a few community facilities were built. That didn’t stop many more miners moving to the area though during the 1930s. They had been forced to move south to look for work after mine closures in the north of England, Scotland and Wales.A thriving community developed and, linguistically at least, it is claimed the Aylesham community developed its own accent which is a combination of Northern, Scottish, Welsh and Kentish dialects. In recent times, the University of Kent has closely studied and recorded this phenomenon for posterity.
Set in relative isolation in the middle of the countryside meant Aylesham had to be largely self sufficient. It soon got its own primary and secondary schools, fire station, police station, Co-op, social club, sports clubs, parish council and churches. The railway arrived in 1928 bringing with it easy journeys by train to Canterbury and Dover.
MINING BLACK DIAMONDS
The former Snowdown colliery pit head was located about two miles south of Aylesham and raised its first coal in 1912, five years after initial excavations began. Thus, it was the first commercially viable pit in the county and by the following year was raising 800 tons of coal a week from a depth of nearly 1,400 feet.
Snowdown was often known as Dante’s Inferno owing to the sheer heat and humidity of working at more than 3,000 feet below ground in what had become Kent’s deepest colliery. Some miners found it more comfortable to work naked while cutting coal and could drink up to 14 litres of water in an eight hour shift.
Kent coal was some of the most difficult to mine and consequently, among the most expensive in Britain. Until nationalisation of the entire UK industry in 1947, the business of cutting coal was often precarious.
Plans to close the four Kent mines had been considered as early as 1960 but came to nothing until 1969 when Chislet, near Hersden, was shut down. Its main market was supplying coal to British Railways but with the end of steam trains on its network, that source of revenue had vanished.
By 1975 there were 3,000 miners working in the three surviving Kent pits, extracting one million tonnes of coal each year and this was used as a coking blend for the steel industry – itself in crisis at the time.
Industrial relations in the Kent coalfield were often tense. Over the years there were a number of walkouts, centring around national as well as local issues. Most notably, matters finally came to a head in 1984 with a national miners’ strike. This would last for a year and proved very difficult for all involved.
Neither the National Coal Board, which operated the mines on behalf of the government, and the National Union of Mineworkers would fully recover. With the resulting downsizing of the industry that followed, Snowdown, along with nearby Tilmanstone colliery, was soon earmarked for closure and both finally ceased operations in 1987.
BUILDING A NEW FUTURE
The danger of relying entirely on one form of employment had been recognised in Aylesham several decades before. In the 1960s, the parish council successfully campaigned for an industrial estate to be built at Cooting Road. This was followed in the early 1990s by creation of a second industrial park on the north side of the village, close to the former secondary school. The old school itself now has a variety of community uses.
At the same time, the first discussions took place around building new houses and shops in Aylesham. It took 15 years of negotiation and planning before the first bricks were laid in 2014 to build the Aylesham Garden Village development of 1,200 new homes on farmland just off Dorman Avenue North. The layout of the development keeps to the design principle of Abercrombie’s original plan of a defined centre, with roads radiating off them to quieter avenues and crescents.
The first 200 homes had been built and occupied by 2016 with the remaining 1,000 expected to take between eight and 10 years to complete. By then, the population will have grown from nearly 5,000 in 2016 to a figure set to be greater than the market town of Sandwich, about 12 miles from Aylesham.
All of the old photos you see on this page have been reproduced with the kind permission of Aylesham Heritage Centre which works to preserve the history of the village and Snowdown Colliery. Learn more about its work via its Facebook page.