The coast at St Mary Hoo. Image © Simon Fowler, 2016
Dick Dowsett, photographed by Jonathan Juniper, 2017

Muddies and cement

Cement is made from clay mixed with Gyproc and limestone, which is found in chalk. The Hoo Peninsula (and the entire Medway area), is great for chalk pits and clay digging and was well known for the different factories for the cement industry and became best known for its Portland Cement. Before mechanisation the clay needed for the cement industry was gathered by hand by ‘muddies’ who would gather at low tide on the foreshore of the Stoke Saltings and Hoo on the southern side of the peninsula as the mud there was particularly rich in clay. So much mud was removed from this area in the C19th that the shape of the coastline was altered. The ‘muddies’ would load the clay mud onto converted barges or old lighters beached on the mud. When the barges were full they would wait for the tide to return then carry the material away to the various cement works, located beside the river. The ‘muddies’ were tough working men, and fights sometimes broke out between rival gangs in local pubs after payday.

‘They would load 100 ton of mud in a tide by a gang of eight or nine of them and they would run up a wooden staging and fly the mud over the comb into the barge, because when a barge is on the mud it’s got quite a high free board, so you need to throw the mud quite high. It’s very hard work and it was done with a special shovel called a fly tool with a narrow blade so that it did not catch the suck when they lifted the mud.’

Tony Brooks, Muddy and Bargeman

Francis and Co Cement works opened in Cliffe in 1860 near to the Thames Estuary. The riverside location provided ease of transport and wharves were built at the mouth of Cliffe creek. In 1910 the Alpha cement Works (part of the Thames Portland Cement Works) opened nearby, the two companies merged in the 1930s and became a major employer for local people until it closed in the 1970s.

‘I worked on the clay digging pontoons. Over a thousand acres of lake, which was marshland, was dug for clay for the cement industry. The machine I worked on floated on the water. The clay we dug here would be ground up into slurry aboard these pontoons by crane and then go into the wash mill and be pumped away by mixing it with water into slurry. The slurry boats would pick up the clay from land tanks then pump it back up to shore. There were two clay boats, Clay Carrier and Clay Transporter, they both carried a thousand tonnes – and there were storage tanks on the shore at the relay pumping station.’

Dick Dowsett, Salt Shepherd and Cement Worker

The chalk quarry to the south side of Salt Lane in Cliffe has since been flooded with water and is around sixty feet deep in parts. The quarry is now an RSPB nature reserve called Cliffe Pools, which is home to the country’s largest population of avocets and many other rare wading birds such as black-winged stilts and redshanks.

‘We did have the cement industry, that’s where RSPB Cliffe Pools are now, it was taken over for wildlife even while the men were working there…they used to watch the herons, it’s always been a magical place for wildlife even while industry was here’.

Gill Moore, Environmental Campaigner