Friday, November 13, 2009

W T Henleys / AEI Cable Works Northfleet

In October it was announced that one of the last manufacturing companies based by the River Thames in Northfleet, Henleys/AEI, would be moving it's remaining operations to a new site in Sandwich after more than 100 years in the town.

Cable making finished in Northfleet a couple of years ago but one division of the company continued to make specialist compounds (used to cover cables). Some of the last submarine cables manufactured at the plant were used on the Kentish Flats wind farm project in the Thames Estuary off the North Kent Coast.

A public footpath starting in Crete Hall Road runs alongside the River Thames in front of the now closed and semi derelict cable works. A few weekends ago I thought I'd take some pictures for prosterity and before it is turned into another faceless housing estate (more of that later.....)

William Thomas Henley was born in Midhurst, Sussex in 1814 and started his working life as a porter and docker working in London. Through force of character, hard work and by educating himself in the sciences, Henley was later able to found his own business.

He took an active interest in new technologies of the era which included telegraphic cable. He developed the first machine to cover wire cables. His machine is displayed at the Science Museum in London.

Business grew rapidly and in 1859 he set up his cable works at North Woolwich. Henley was an early pioneer of submarine cable manufacture and was involved in many prestigious projects including the first cable across the North Atlantic. The company operated their own cable laying ships. Not bad for a man who started as a docker.

In 1906 a bigger site was needed and the cable works next to the Thames in Northfleet was established. In 1959, W T Henley & Co was taken over by the AEI conglomerate. AEI was in turn taken over by industrial giant GEC in 1967. Finally in 1997 the cable operations were divested to T T Electronics.

W T Henley's fine looking disused office building on Crete Hall Road is unfortunately already attracting attention from vandals. I don't know if this building is listed but in my opinion it should be. I would guess it dates back to the 1930's but if any readers have any further details please let me know.

Henley's main entrance and ship emblem in between each set of windows.

View along Crete Hall Road showing factory buildings which I believe were built around 1939.

View from the riverside footpath of some factory units in poor condition. These buildings look older, maybe from 1906?

This office overlooking the river is in a terrible state.

I believe the cable may have been run out from this tower to the works own jetty where it was loaded onto specialist cable ships.

Some of the cable ships were attended by local shipping company Wavecrest Ltd.

When ships were loading at the jetty the cable used to run in one continuous length from the factory and was wound onto special drums on board the ships. Loading continued 24/7 until finished.

The depth of water at the jetty was too shallow to accomodate some of the modern cable ships. Barges used to be brought alongside the jetty and the cable ships would then more up to them in deeper water.

Getting on and off the ships was an interesting exercise involving scaling a number of ladders from the main jetty up and over the barges and then finally onto the ship. A bit of a marathon especially when carrying ship's papers, sea charts, ship's spares and trying not to drop them in the river!

A view between two factory buildings. Please note the steel rails set in the ground which run in direction of the loading jetty. I believe Henleys may have had locomotives or trams operating at the factory but have not been able to find any information about this so far. If anyone knows what the rails were used for, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

Henleys had their own research laboratory. During the second world war, Henleys were involved in several important military projects. They manufactured degaussing equipment for ships to counteract the threat of German magnetic mines and submarine indicator loops. They made components for PLUTO (pipeline under the ocean) that was used to pump fuel from England to France after the D-Day landings in 1944.

Demolition of the Henleys/AEI site was due to commence on 9th November. A 2.5 kilometre stretch of the Thames riverfront at Northfleet has been aquired by SEEDA for redevelopment which will include up to 25000 news homes, a school and other amenities.

I do wonder where all these new inhabitants will end up working when the local manufacturing industry has all but disappeared.....

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please leave a comment. You may also enjoy the following......

Milton Church Gravesend Porcupines & Masons

The Saxon Shore Way


  1. Great pictures of some fine art deco 1930s buildings. A sad story nevertheless, about the continuing loss of skilled engineering jobs in the UK. We can't all work in call centres or for the State.

  2. Henley also worked for a while for Glass Elliott in Greenwich. for more about Greenwich Industrial history see

  3. Spurred on by this blog I spent some time driving round the area yesterday - sad to see the Press (where my Dad worked) also being demolished. The glass tower built by Bowaters - the brave new world in its day - very sorry for itself now - and the APCM chimneys look magnificent, but, oh dear!

  4. Walk Talk Tours - I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. We are becoming too reliant on other countries for everything nowadays.

    Mary - thanks very much for your input. I hope you enjoyed your tour of Northfleet today.

    The APCM/Blue Circle/Lafarge cement works is also being demolished - another well established local industry which will shortly disappear.

    I do not know when/whether the chimneys will be coming down but suspect they will also be earmarked for demolition.


  5. Fabulous buildings. What a shame that they are being demolished. I just think of the opportunities for adaptive re-use. Multi-function business parks, social housing etc etc.

  6. Thanks artdeco for your comment. I am hopeful that the main office block will be sympathetically converted into appartments. It's a great location overlooking the Thames. Will update this post next year when the demolition work is finished.


  7. I was so interested to read about WT Henley and to see your photographs of the iconic buildings.

    My grandfather worked for WT Henley for all his working life, retiring around1950. He worked on Pluto. Throughout my childhood I remember seeing these two presentation 'slices through' of the Pluto cable, encased in brass with an inscription to my grandfather, William Bone. I wish I had asked him more about his work. Although young I was aware that it had been a very important time in his life. Until he retired he lived in Whitehill Road, Gravesend, which is where I was brought briefly after my birth at Gravesend Hospital at the end of the war. Although he and my grandmother lived with us until they died, and I spent much of my spare time with him in his workshop, I feel a great sadness that I did not ask him more about his time at Henleys.

  8. chris wakefield30 March 2010 at 10:13

    i worked at aei cables for 9 years, sad to see it now being demolished.

    1. I worked in aei cables as a lay-up driver for many years then becsad day when the factoryame foreman in my own department later days laying up submarine cables on 33 lay up machine.It was day when factory closed.

  9. I am trying to find where my grandfather lived, somewhere along the shoreline, in a cottage possibly opposite Rosherville. There were railway lines on the Rosherville side going across the chalk pit through a tunnel and on to the shore side. Bowaters I believe also run trains along these lines. When mum and I visited grandads we walked along them, so they must have been unused then (about 1950's) whether these connected to Henleys I don't know. Also my mum used to work there, she used to do shift work in the factory. Dad used to go and pick her up at night, what a hive of activity when they all came out at 10pm. As I now live in Scotland it was a real pull at the memory to look at those photos. Any ideas where a cottage would have been situated overlooking river? Great photos

  10. I went to Gravesend last Sunday hoping to get the Tilbury ferry. Having discovered that it doesn't run on Sundays I walked along the riverbank and discovered the huge empty site and the beautiful art deco buildings of Henleys and TT Electronics. I knew nothing about these companies or their presence in Gravesend so I was delighted to read your succinct and excellent history of this site. Thank you.
    On the way to Henleys I passed a beautiful building called The White House which seemed disused although not derelict. It bears two plaques, one commemorating Lord Northcliffe and one commemorating employees (?) who died in the war. Do you have knowledge of the history of this building?
    Best wishes and thank you
    Peter Wight

  11. Hi Peter - thanks very much for your comment.

    The White House was part of the Imperial Paper Mills and when that closed was used as the wharf office for the adjacent jetty.

    I wrote a post about Lord Northcliffe which you may find of interest. Here is the link -

    Best regards,

  12. The world doesn't stand still, but doesn't it annoy you when perfectly fine and interesting buildings are destroyed, rather than adapted.

    Look at the Menier Chocolate Co. buildings which were saved and reused for a different purpose. Thanks for your history of Henleys


  13. Does anyone know when the demolition/rebuilding will actually be taking place? I stopped by a couple of months ago and noticed a couple of the more inland buildings (Crete Hall Rd) gone but most others intact. In fact, a cement company (Fleetmix) had seemingly opened on what was once part of the riverfront walkway. I used to visit the pub in the middle of this area regularly, and have heard that it might be retained in the plans.

  14. Hi Sam thanks for the comment. A lot of the site has now been cleared but I believe there is work to be done before building can start (like decontamination, removal of asbestos etc)

    Fleetmix has been there for a number of years. I assume you mean the Old Sun pub? If so this will be retained as far as I know.


  15. Terrific site ! I've watched the clearing of the AEI buildings - especially sad to see the Research Labaratory go, even if the facing was already part destroyed. There's a fair bit of info about proposed development at the following link - some of what is talked about here already happening, eg the rail link through to La Farge. Thanks for putting this all here !

    Published as Anonymous but I'm Charlie McNeilly

  16. Thank you for showing us these photographs. So much history in this area which has just been allowed to rot and then to be cleared away. My family were all working in the Imperial Cement works at Northfleet in 1911 and after. G Grandfather was the foreman there and lived in Howard House The Shore, must have been an interesting place to live when industry was in full flow there, the ships and barges and all that activity.

  17. this is 2018. My name is gareth george.I'm 80 yrs old now. I was a maintenance fitter at AEI cables Gravesend between 1970 and 1975 before moving to north Wales to Wylfa power station.

  18. March 2018. I walked down The Shore and past the Henley building this morning. It is still there and really is a stunning piece of architecture, but becoming more dilapidated now. The newer building to the side seems to have some structural problems.

    I noticed the land to the side along Crete Hall Road which has been cleared, some time ago, has discrete signs for Homes England so I expect a big housing development is in planning.

    The area is very run down but reminds me of London Docklands 30 years ago, and with so much happening around Ebbsfleet I can only hope this will be regenerated sympathetically over the next decade.

    Like others here I hope the Henley building is preserved and reused for posterity.