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The industrial revolution

Home / History / The History of Sittingbourne / The industrial revolution
Sittingbourne continued to be a thriving coaching centre until the early nineteenth century when the town entered a period of industrial development, heralding a radical new direction and lifestyle for the town. The days of travel by stage coaches came to an end with the introduction of the railway. In 1858 it came to Sittingbourne, and London and Dover could now be reached in a matter of hours rather than days. Although it seemed like the death knell for the town as its many inns were forced to close, there was a bright side to it. Following the repeal of the Brick Tax in 1850 and an expansion of the railway network from the 1850s onwards, there was an unprecedented demand for bricks, but not just any brick. They needed to have a high tensile strength because they were needed for the new breed of large buildings that were being constructed in London, like the Law Courts, Tower Bridge, Kings Cross railway station, Westminster cathedral, Buckingham Palace, et al; they needed to be strong. The railway itself also had a high demand for strong bricks for its many stations, tunnels and other infrastructure. The Kentish Stock brick was found to be ideal and Sittingbourne became its leading supplier. The town was in a geologically perfect area with large reserves of clay and chalk, the essential ingredients for brickmaking. Former brickmaker and leading authority on the history of brickmaking, Sidney Twist said he has never found the origins of the Kentish Stock brick, who discovered it or where it was first made, but he feels sure it must have been in or near Sittingbourne in about 1700. This industry was closely allied to the cement manufacturing industry, both of which are the subject of a number of books. 

This led to another of Sittingbourne’s industrial developments, the barge industry. The bricks and cement had to be transported to wherever they were needed and Sittingbourne rather conveniently stands on the bank of a waterway which could take the barges to almost anywhere in the country. In days gone by, waterborne transport was the preferred option, so rivers and canals were like early motorways; the barges can be likened to today’s juggernauts. As the country’s demand for more bricks and cement grew, it was found that larger vessels were needed to transport them. This resulted in the creation of the Thames spritsail sailing barge, large, flat-bottomed vessels with leeboards which made them ideal for use in shallow waters and despite their size, they could be crewed by only two people. They had a 40ft mainmast and a 30ft topmast which could be lowered when approaching bridges. They became the industrial workhorse of the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. 

Another major player in the town’s industrial revolution was paper making. It had been undertaken here since about 1737 but by the mid-nineteenth century Edward Lloyd had arrived and he began a major expansion programme which eventually included another paper mill at Kemsley, a dock at Ridham on the Swale and a narrow gauge railway linking all three. The paper mill became the town’s largest employer right up until the mid-twentieth century.