Swanscombe Cement Works

Frost’s Swanscombe works was purchased by John Bazley White in 1834. White already had a partnership in a firm known as Francis, White, and Francis, which operated a lime works at Nine Elms. This partnership was dissolved as of 1st January 1837, when the company split into two: Francis & Sons of Nine Elms, Vauxhall, and Bazeley, White and Son of Millbank. The latter company retained the Swanscombe works.

Maps from the 1860s show the Swanscombe works to be feeding off a single chalk pit located on the southern side of London Road, just above the 1849-opened North Kent Line. A thoroughfare between the main works and pit was afforded by boring a tunnel through the chalk ridge under the road. By this time, the internal railway network was already extensive, the aforementioned chalk pit accommodating twenty-one sidings, these of which fanned out from a single track laid through the tunnel. Within the main works complex, north of London Road, a series of sharp railway curves linked the various buildings on the site, and extending northwards for ½-mile was a single-track line across the marshes which terminated at a wharf on the Thames.

By 1879, there were forty-one cement works in Kent, this county having by far the most such operations than anywhere else in England and Wales (Northumberland and Lancashire came joint second, each being home to thirteen cement works). Swanscombe was the largest of these and has the distinction of being the site where England's earliest commercial-scale rotary kilns were commissioned. The first of these is believed to have been installed here in 1901, being built to a design originally patented by American firm "Hurry and Seaman" in 1898. The kiln is at the heart of cement production, being the furness in which raw materials such as clay and limestone are heated to very high temperatures to produce clinker. The latter then cools and, after the addition of gypsum and further grinding, forms the basis of cement powder. By 1905, the Swancombe Works comprised sixteen rotary kilns, producing a combined output of 3,300 tons of cement weekly. The kilns measured 70-feet in length by 6-foot 6-inches width, and the cement works was powered by electricity, this ultimately being generated by steam.

On 10th July 1900, twenty-four cement-manufacturing concerns amalgamated to form "Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers Ltd" (APCM). £5,000,000 was authorised as the initial capital, and the amalgamation included John Bazeley, White & Bros Ltd, which ran the Swanscombe Works. By this time, the operation at Swanscombe had grown substantially: a larger cluster of buildings had developed on the northern side of London Road and the narrow gauge railway had been expanded southwards, by burrowing under the SER's North Kent Line to reach another chalk excavation. The original, now exhausted chalk pit immediately south of London Road, became host to additional works buildings, which resulted in more tunnels being bored through the chalk ridge to accommodate further railway tracks. Additionally, the SER had laid a trailing siding off the "down" track of the North Kent Line, which bordered with the southern edge of the cement works' original chalk pit. Whilst maps show evidence of a road link between this siding and the chalk pit, there was no physical railway connection, due to the cement works' network and the North Kent Line having been built to different gauges. Naturally, the SER's line was of the 4-foot 8½-inches standard gauge, whilst the Swanscombe Works' network was of 3-foot 5½-inch gauge. The cement railway also had the peculiarity of being worked by locomotives and rolling stock which possessed outside-flanged wheels, reportedly a legacy from the days of horse power.


The main part of the works complex around Manor Way, including the pit south of London Road. The numbers on this and previous map correspond to the photographs in this section, so their locations can be identified. © David Glasspool


Photograph 3: Saddle Tank No. 4 is seen heading northwards at Manor Road level crossing. In the background can be seen one of the pylons which carried an aerial cableway, this running from the Thames Wharves to the main cement works' buildings north of London Road. © Roger Goodrum


This is one photograph in this section which is not numbered, because it is out of the scope of either track plan by some margin. This is a north easterly view along that part of line which linked the exhausted chalk pit seen in the "South" track plan with Eastern Quarry. One of the 0-4-0 Hawthorn Leslie saddle tanks is seen hauling eight 4-wheel wagons, half loaded with chalk, towards the exhausted pit and, ultimately, the main works north of London Road. The kink in the wagon formation is a result of the train exiting a passing loop on this section of track. © David Glasspool Collection


Photograph 4: Diesel dawn. To replace the 0-4-0 saddle tanks, a fleet of Rolls Royce-built Sentinel diesels arrived at the works in 1971. In the background is one of two 623-feet-high pylons, completed in 1965, which carries electric cables across the Thames. © David Glasspool Collection