Wednesday 26 February 2020

Gilbert's and other pits at Charlton

by Paul Sowan

At our December meeting we heard a presentation from underground historian and geologist Paul Sowan about Gilbert’s pit at Charlton.   Paul has now sent part of an enormous dossier of information on these pits – some extracts are included below and, hopefully, more will follow

The village centre of Charlton (Old Charlton) is on high ground on the Lower London Tertiary beds in south-east London, and overlooks the Thames to the north. Between the village centre and the area of the former Thames-side marshes the ground drops away northwards. Geologically this constitutes the escarpment formed by the Lower London Tertiary beds. The old village centre is about 150 feet above the level of the Thames- side marshes.

New Charlton had developed on the lower ground by the Woolwich Parish boundary, effectively a suburb of that town, by 1839, when two lime burners are recorded there - Sarah Cutts and Lewis Glenton. It later extended westward along the Woolwich Road, and from 1849 was served by Charlton Station, this area becoming known as Lower Charlton.

The North Kent Line of the railway was built along the foot of the escarpment between 1847 and its opening on 30 July 1849. The formerly wooded escarpment has been eaten into by opencast mineral workings (principally for chalk and sand), and in part covered by 19th century and later residential development.

Interestingly, none of the four large chalk and sand pits between Charlton Station and Woolwich appears ever to have been equipped with standard gauge railway sidings into the pits. The Railway Clearing House's 1904 Handbook lists only Beadle Bros.' siding, which was perhaps associated with the Angerstein Wharf branch line of 1852 to the south and west of Charlton Junction. The first edition of the Ordnance Survey large scale plans for the area, surveyed 1866 - 67 and published in 1869, shews several lines of rails in the westernmost pit  - currently the location of Charlton Athletic
Football Club's stand) converging northwards to run under the main east-west passenger line, and thence northwards to the Thames.

No such railways appear to have been provided for the other three pits further east. If only horses and carts were employed to distribute the materials from these, it may be concluded that they were largely consumed in the immediate locality, or alternatively carted to jetties on the Thames and shipped away.
Woolwich Dockyard was immediately downstream, within a kilometre of Charlton Station, and the large chalk and sand pits.  England's first salt-glazed stoneware kiln was set up near the Arsenal early in the 17th century, and, soon afterwards, a glassworks was established on an adjoining site. There was thus, from the 16th century onwards, a demand for ballast, moulding-sand, glass-sand, and other mineral products, including large quantities of clays, lime, and sand for the bricks and mortar employed in the Dockyard and Arsenal buildings.  

There have been four major pits excavated at the foot of, and into, the escarpment at Charlton. These are referred to here, from west to east, as follows:

Charlton Station pit  - Bounded by Charlton Hill on the west, the main railway on the north, and Charlton Lane on the east - indicated as Ballast Pits (sand and chalk) by the Ordnance Survey in 1866 – 67.  (now occupied by the football pitch and stands) Gilbert's pit  - Lying to the east of Charlton Lane / Pound Park Road  and south of Charlton Tunnel - forming the western part of Maryon Park - disused (transferred to LCC) 1938 - this pit contains the  SSSI

North pit - Lying north of the railway line and tunnel, and south of the Woolwich Road - now forming the northern part of Maryon Park

East pit  - Lying to the south and east of the railway line and Mount Street Tunnel. Now forming the eastern part of Maryon Park.

The SSSI represents the eastern working face of Gilbert's pit. The western face of the East pit is only a few metres further to the east, the SSSI being thus positioned on a narrow ridge of unworked ground between the two pits.

In both the Charlton Station or West) pit and the North pit the excavation of Thanet  Sand was carried downwards to exploit the underlying chalk. The upper surface of the Chalk, and base of the Thanet Sand is thus clearly above the level of the Thames in the immediate locality, although Dewey et al.
(1924) observed in connection with the riverside marshes further to the east that: The Chalk which forms most of the southern bank of the Thames between the Erith Marshes and Gravesend is thus saturated with water and numerous springs arise along this stretch. This fact is of paramount importance to engineers.   During recent years the cement manufacturers endeavoured by heavy pumping to lower the water-level in the Chalk in order to make more chalk dry and so available for quarrying purposes, but the cost and want of success rendered the operation unprofitable, and it was abandoned. Previously it had been shown that over-pumping draws river water into the Chalk, where that formation is not protected by impermeable beds. Much of the alluvium, however, is permeable and the Chalk  on which it lies, though at a depth of 70 ft. from the surface, is generally heavily charged with  water

The operators of the chalk pits at Charlton would similarly have been limited in the depth to which they could excavate by the water table at shallow level. One such operator has been identified, and is the subject of a published article by Barbara Ludlow (2001) who informs us: “  For hundreds of years, chalk was dug at Greenwich, Charlton, and Woolwich to be burnt in lime kilns. There were many kilns on the lower slopes of Blackheath Hill and until the beginning of the nineteenth century Greenwich South Street was known as Limekiln Lane. Two other notable sites were Charlton Church Lane and the part of Woolwich, which was  later to become Frances Street.

Lime was essential to the brick and tile making industries. It was also used when making  mortar and manure, however, when Thomas Nichols left Dartmouth, Devon to settle in New Charlton in the late 1840s nuch of the local chalk was built over or worked out. Even so he established himself as a carpenter and lime merchant in Hardens Manorway. Nichols' business prospered and in the mid-1860s, he moved to  site between the North Kent Railway  line and Woolwich Road. Here on the eastern side of Charlton Church Lane and close to the fairly new Charlton Station he concentrated on lime burning. Thomas moved his family into 444 Woolwich Road, promptly named the house 'Lime Villa' and had two Staffordshire style bottle kilns built. The business could not rely on local quarries so he brought in limestone [ie chalk] from Riddlesdown Quarry, near Whyteleafe in Surrey. The 1871 Census shows Nichols employed thirteen men and that they also lived close to the works... Eventually the business passed to Fred Nichols, and in the early 1920s, the then owner Eric Nichols sold the premises. Lime burning was finished in Charlton but the buildings and bottle   kilns, with a chalk capital 'N' set in the neck of both, were purchased by the Crown Fuel Company to produce heating elements for gas fires. In 1950 the Festival of Britain [in 1951]  seems to have inspired the Company to branch out into pottery and use the kilns for making decorated ware and small figures of animals, mostly dogs. These goods marked 'Greenwich pottery' were for export only but they were advertised in the 1951 Greenwich Festival Guide.Towards the end of the 1950s production ceased but a bottle kiln ofc. 1868 and buildings of  about the same date were left. Everything was demolished in 1965 and Barney Close, Charlton, was built over the site.  Before the buildings were demolished an Industrial Archaeologist surveyed the site and a photograph ofc. 1872 was discovered. Nichols is seated and behind him stand five of his workers. A photograph was taken of the attractive mid-Victorian bottle kiln before it was demolished.

The Nichols's kilns, from this account, were close to the junction of Church Lane and Woolwich Road, and not those shewn in the middle of the large Station Pit the other side of the railway line, which is known to have been worked in part for chalk. This large pit presumably went out of production, at the latest, when the football ground was established in it in or shortly after 1900. Fred Nichols certainly worked two chalk pits 'near Whyteleafe' at one time or another. What is usually called the Rose & Crown chalk pit at Kenley, a large working which went out of use as recently as the 1960s, is still a prominent feature on the east side of the A22 Godstone Road just inside the London Borough of Croydon. Over the boundary, in Surrey, were the much shorter lived Whyteleafe chalk pits and kilns; the kilns have gone and the pits are now barely recognisable as the site has been developed for residential purposes. The Rose and Crown pit never had direct access to the railway, although the Oxted line (South Croydon to Oxted) crosses the open pit on a prominent viaduct. The Whyteleafe works further south did have a siding from Upper Warlingham Station, which would have made the transfer of chalk thence to Charlton relatively straightforward

this article first appeared in the January 2006 GIHS Newsletter

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