Cement Kilns

A Demonstration at Swanscombe in 1874

Home About this site About cement List of plants Raw materials Kilns Other technical advances Trends in innovation Sources

The following is a transcript of an anonymous article that appeared in the London Standard on Monday, 24 August 1874, page 6.

By 1874, the overwhelming majority of people of the region between Dartford and Gravesend were employed in the cement industry. The largest producer and employer was the Swanscombe plant of John Bazley White & Brothers. As at many other locations, long after the establishment of extractive industries, relatively well-heeled commuters started to move into the area, and began to complain about the local industry, bringing to bear legal resources that the earlier working-class residents could never have afforded. As it turned out, their efforts to curtail the industry failed, and the plant continued in operation for another 116 years.

The demonstration was also described in The Building News on 28 August, and the article is quoted by Francis. It says that the complainant was S. C. Umfreville of Ingress Abbey. It says that the foreman (here called Walkland) stated the object of the proceedings was to "shut up all the cement works in the county".


The high road running through Northfleet, Stone, and Galley-hill, was, on Saturday, the scene of an unwonted demonstration. A procession of bloused workmen, their wives and children, to the number of between four and five thousand, accompanied by bands, and carrying numerous flags and banners, was on the march to the Rectory Grounds, Swanscombe. The main body of these people consisted of the employees of Messrs. J. B. White Bros. Portland Cement Manufactory, Swanscombe, and their friends. The occasion of the display needs a word of explanation. Certain of the inhabitants of Swanscombe and Northfleet state that their health is seriously affected by the smoke from the chimneys of the cement manufactory; others, that the vicinity of these works deteriorates the value of their property. Those finding reason for complaint have taken legal proceedings with a view to entirely suppressing the manufacture of Portland cement in the neighbourhood. To consider their position then, under this aspect of affairs, the workers belonging to Messrs. White's firm, and the tradespeople and residents of the several immediate parishes, turned out to enter their solemn protest against any disturbance of the existing state of things. The country for several miles round was profusely decorated with flags, many of which bore inscriptions, such as " Honest labour should be well protected," "Live and let live", "Success to all cement manufacturers". Before the procession marched a man bearing a loaf aloft on a spear, behind came several with paintings representing the cement factories, over which were written the significant words— "Our daily bread". The occupations of some of those depending for their livelihood upon the manufactories were brought very visibly before the eye. The boatmen were drawn along the road in an immense boat with sails unfurled and pennons flying; the carrier had his van. Those trades which did not admit of so forcible a representation as the foregoing were depicted, in their leading characteristics, upon canvas. Northfleet and Swanscombe contain a population of about 6500 inhabitants (Note 1), the majority of whom, either directly or indirectly, derive their sustenance from cement manufactories. In the one establishment of the Messrs. White 800 men and boys are employed, and the number of souls depending upon the exertions of these is 4000. The average earning for a man is 30s. a week; the total weekly wages paid is upwards of £1000 (Note 2).

Shortly after four o'clock in the evening the processionists assembled in the meadow appointed for the purpose at Swanscombe, and the Rev. T. H. Candy, rector of the parish, was called upon to preside. His testimony with regard to the alleged nuisance was that during the six years of his residence the number of deaths had been steadily diminishing, even although the population was increasing. At present it is about eleven or twelve in 1000 (Note 3). The parish of Swanscombe numbers 2000 people, which is double what it was 20 years ago (Note 4). After the reverend chairman, a host of working men came to testify their soundness in wind and limb. John Bardoe, a bricklayer, had been employed in the cement works for 36 years. He was as healthy as could be desired, and knew no cause of complaint in the neighbourhood, save one— that cement workers were universally troubled with large families. This sally produced a good deal of mirth, which rather increased when the philosophic bricklayer reproved the audience in the following terms: — "It's no laughing matter, mind you, I've got the trouble to bear on my own shoulders". James Walkley, a man of about 24 stones (Note 5) weight, remarked that he was "one of the sick ones". He had been engaged in cement making since 1830, during which time he had not been a day either sick or idle. Before the factories had been established in the district ague had been very common (Note 6); but, owing to the smoke from the furnaces heating the air, the disease did not amount to one-fourth its former prevalence. Hugh Mitchell, the secretary to the working men's benefit club, had been engaged in the works for seventeen years. The health and comfort of the men and their families were shown in the fact that at Christmas there was a balance of £123 14s. to the credit of the club, which sum was apportioned among the men in shares of 8s. 6d. each. The Rev. Mr. Odell, Wesleyan minister, explained that an application had been made to the attorney for the prosecution of the indictments to allow the case to stand from October till the following sessions, in order that there might be an opportunity to judge of the effect of the extensive improvements in process of being carried out at the manufactories. The reply was that no alterations or improvements would satisfy the complainants, who believed the nuisance to be irremediable (groans) (Note 7). Nearly £4,000,000 had been paid for labour in the various cement works since they were commenced. Fathers had placed their sons in the factories, and the latter, in their turn, brought their children up to the same employment. They could not consent to the wishes of those who wanted the position of the works changed; as the manufacture could be only carried on where nature had provided a suitable place (Note 8). The Rev. Mr. Shrewsbury, Congregationalist, said the experiment which had been made within the last two years for diminishing the smoke had proved satisfactory. He lived a great deal nearer the chimneys than some of those who complained, and only once or twice in the period of the four years of his residence had he noticed anything like smoke in his neighbourhood. It had never in the slightest degree injured his health. With regard to the deterioration of property, three or four years ago there were 18 empty houses worth from £40 to £80 per annum to the landlord. These were now all let except two. A portion of land near the factories of the Messrs. White had been offered eight years ago for £500 per acre; only a short time since it was valued at £1000 per acre (Note 9). Those chronically sick persons who were affected by the smoke, and their number could be counted upon the fingers, would have to leave the vicinity. Large interests could not be disturbed because a few people murmured. James Ward, aged 60 years, had been employed 40 years in the cement works. He was now "open to run or jump with the best of them". Mr. Heys proposed a resolution to the effect that the proceedings against Messrs. White were unjustifiable. He had an experience of fifteen years, close under the chimneys, and neither he nor his family during that time had been affected by the smoke. The only nuisance in the neighbourhood was the marshes, the owners of which, he thought, should be compelled to drain them. The resolution was adopted. Mr. D. Pearse moved a resolution to the effect that the meeting regarded with anxiety the misery that would ensue should opponents succeed in closing Messrs. White's establishment. The resolution was adopted. The Rev. Mr. Shrewsbury moved a resolution to the effect that the meeting was cheered by the idea that those who figured in the prosecution would considerably modify their mode of procedure on maturer reflection. The Rev. Mr. Odell, in seconding the resolution, maintained that if the manufactory were to be closed "some 20,000 Kentish men would know the reason why" (great cheering). The testimony of the masters of the ships in the river was, that health of the boys on board the Goliath, Chichester, or the other vessel, had not been in any way affected by the smoke from the factories. The resolution was adopted. A protest against the pending proceedings, signed by a great number of those who were prevented from attending the meeting, was read; and a protest of a somewhat similar character was extensively signed in the field. Votes of thanks to the chairman and principal speakers brought the proceedings to a close.

- o - O - o -


Note 1. The actual census data are of interest:


In subsequent censuses the number directly employed in cement manufacture declined, reaching zero in 2011.

Note 2. £1 (1874) = £95 (2015)

Note 3. The crude death rate for England as a whole was around 21 per thousand in 1873. However, crude death rate is irrelevant, since a low and falling death rate is to be expected in a rapidly-expanding population consisting mainly of young people.

Note 4. He probably means the ecclesiastical parish, excluding Greenhithe.

Note 5. 1 stone = 6.35 kg. James Walkling (born in Horton Kirby, Kent, 1814) was listed as "labourer" in the 1841 and 1851 censuses. In 1861 he was "superintendent" and in 1871 "sampler". He died in 1880.

Note 6. Malaria had been an endemic scourge, and the principal cause of death, around the Thames estuary. Mosquitoes are attracted by carbon dioxide, and kilns kill them! The reduction in malaria in places with lime kilns is frequently claimed in 19th century texts.

Note 7. There is a degree of logic in this point of view, in that the "improvements" probably consisted mainly of "being seen to be doing something" rather than actual remedies. The installation of chamber kilns with high stacks would have improved things, but White's were reluctant to do that.

Note 8. Mother Nature provided the Thames Estuary with the perfect raw materials for a cement industry of exquisite inefficiency.

Note 9. Strictly speaking, of course, this is the price - not the value.

Note 10.

Note 11.

Text and notes for this article are in preparation.
Original content © Dylan Moore 2015: last edit 09/05/16.

Return to Writings