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
, and overlooks the
London 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
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
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 Angerstein
Football Club's stand) converging northwards to run under the main east-west passenger line, and thence northwards to the
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.
'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. England
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
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
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
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
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
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 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 ' 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
The Nichols's kilns, from this account, were close to the junction of
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