Saturday, March 27, 2010

Demolition of Blue Circle / Lafarge Cement Works Northfleet

In just a few hours from now the skyline of Northfleet, Kent will be changed for ever when the two 550' tall chimneys at the former Blue Circle (Lafarge) cement works are demolished by controlled explosion.

The destruction of the two chimneys, which have towered over Northfleet on the banks of the River Thames for the last forty years, marks the end of (yet) another established local industry.

The history of cement manufacture in this part of Kent dates back to the late 1790's when a clergyman called James Parker patented "Roman Cement" and set up his factory in Northfleet.

"Roman Cement" was made from a dry mixture of chalk and clay, both available locally in great abundance, which were mixed together and burnt to form a mortar like material.

In 1825 James Frost patented "British Cement" which was also made from a mixture of chalk and clay but this time it was mixed together with water to form a slurry before being fired. Frost set up a cement works in Swanscombe - a few miles further up the Thames from Northfleet.

Around the same time that Frost patented his "British Cement", a businessman from Leeds called Joseph Aspdin patented "Portland Cement" - the forerunner of the cement we all know today. Aspdin had no background in chemistry and his product was developed purely through trial and error.

In 1841, Joseph Aspdin's son William left the family business under a cloud having got himself into debt, and moved to London.

William, who seems to have been a bit of a chancer, set up a factory in Rotherhithe, London making "Modern Portland Cement". Production was transferred to Northfleet in 1846 when he took over the works founded by James Parker.

The product was an improved version of the cement produced by his father's company but was never separately patented.

William used to imply that his product was covered by his father's patent and would go to extreme lengths to keep his formula a secret. It is said that he would emerge from his office when each kiln was ready for firing, and scatter in handfuls of brightly coloured crystals over the rawmix, in order to give the impression that the special properties of his product were the result of an unidentified "magic ingredient".

William Aspdin and money were not good bedfellows and he was declared bankrupt on several occasions. Often having to move on to remain one step ahead of his creditors, he finally emigrated to Hamburg, Germany where he founded the first Portland cement factories outside the UK.

By 1900, there were around fifty or sixty small cement manufacturing companies located all over the country competing with each other for market share. In that year twenty four companies merged together to form Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers Ltd (APCM).

In 1912, most of the remaining independent cement manufacturers merged to form The British Portland Cement Manufacturers Ltd (BPCM).

In 1920 the Cement Marketing Company was set up to control the sale of all cement produced by APCM and BPCM and the Blue Circle logo, which still exists today, was introduced.

By the 1960's, many of the smaller cement works were becoming uneconomic due to advances in technology. APCM commissioned a "new" Northfleet Works which came on stream in 1970 and was, at the time, one of the largest and most advanced cement factories in the world with annual production of over one million tonnes.

Apart from serving the UK market, clinker and finished cement was exported to many countries from the plant's own deep water jetty on the Thames.

Northfleet Works in 1973 (picture by Pierre Terre)

Chalk was quarried at two enormous pits at nearby Bean, one of which now houses the Bluewater shopping complex. Clay slurry was pumped under the River Thames from Ockendon, Essex and coal for the kilns was delivered direct to the works by rail.

The factory originally had six rotary kilns - they are the very long steel tubes shown in the 1973 picture above - that rotated slowly and sloped down away from the river. A slurry of chalk and clay was pumped into the back end of the kiln which was heated to a very high temperature and turned into clinker, the base material for Portland cement.

The clinker was then passed through a series of grinding mills which were large rotating steel drums full of ball bearings that crushed the material into a fine powder. Gypsum was added to the ground clinker to make Portland cement.

In the early 1980’s two of the kilns were removed to make way for a press plant. The press plant was used to squeeze some of the moisture content from the chalk/clay slurry and turn it into a drier cake like material. This reduced the amount of energy required to heat the kiln and was therefore more efficient and cost effective. Two of the four remaining kilns used the cake instead of slurry. Shortly afterwards the remaining two slurry fed kilns were taken out of operation.

In 2001 Blue Circle was taken over by Lafarge of France and in 2008 the Northfleet Works was closed due to a shortage of chalk reserves at the Bean quarry. Lafarge are currently developing a new cement works on the River Medway near Snodland.

Demolition of the Northfleet Works commenced in 2009 as part of a major redevelopment plan which covers a large swathe of the Thames river front between Gravesend and Northfleet.

Here are some more pictures that I took of the demolition in progress....

Clinker and cement was shipped by Blue Cirlce to many countries from Northfleet Works.

Part of the conveyor system that fed coal into the kilns.

One of the rotary kilns can be seen to the left of the picture.

In this building coal was pulverised and then blown into the kilns using large fans.

Part of one of the rotary kilns can be seen to the left of this picture.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please feel free to leave a comment. They are always welcome.

Other posts you may enjoy....

W T Henley / AEI Cable Works, Northfleet

Viscount Northcliffe - Pioneer Press Baron

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Kent's Big Day Out 2010 - 27th March

Visit Kent is organising another Big Day Out on 27th March.

Local Kent residents only (I'm afraid) can apply for free tickets to around 100 participating venues across the county but you will have to hurry...

To apply for free tickets, you will need to register at the Kent Big Day Out web site by LATEST 1700 hrs on Monday 8th March.

The number of free tickets available is restricted so names will be pulled from a hat if demand exceeds supply.

Here are just a few of the participating venues for which you may be lucky enough to receive free tickets....

Rochester Castle and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.

The Kent & East Sussex Railway and the Chatham Historic Dockyard.

The Bredgar & Wormshill Light Railway.

Further posts you may enjoy......
Day Trip to Rochester

Bredgar & Wormshill Light Railway

RHDR Steam Gala

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Kitty Gordon - Kent's Colourful Silent Movie Star

I quite often buy and sell items on Ebay and recently purchased a collection of vintage postcards from a lady here in Kent.

Whilst sorting through the cards I came across the one above inscribed "Miss Kitty Gordon" and on the off chance thought I'd do some research to see if there was any Kent connection....

Kitty Gordon, real name Constance Minnie Blades, was born in Folkestone, Kent on the 22nd April 1878. Her father Joel was a Captain in the Royal Artillery stationed at "C" Battery in the town.

Kitty became an actress and her first professional stage performance was in 1901 at the Princes Theatre in Bristol in the popular long running musical comedy San Toy.

In 1903 Kitty married the first of her four (or possibly three?) husbands, Michael Levenston, theatre manager. Sadly the marriage was ended by the premature death of her husband less than four months later.

Kitty did not remain unattached for very long. In October 1904 she married London born actor Harry Beresford with whom she later had her only child, a daughter Vera, also to become an actress.

In 1909 Kitty moved to America and became a regular performer on the New York stage in productions such as the musical "The Enchantress" written for her by Victor Herbert.

Her popularity grew in leaps and bounds and she became as famous in America as she was this side of the Atlantic both for her back, said to be "the most beautiful in the world" and her magnificent trade mark gowns "the most magnificently gowned woman on the screen".

According to a report I found in the New York Times archives, by 1911 Kitty's marriage to Beresford was in trouble. Reading between the lines, Kitty was a bit of a diva and had many male admirers.....

Christmas 1911 was supposed to be spent with her estranged husband and eight year old daughter Vera, but in the end little Vera sailed alone from England to New York to meet her mother.
Instead of attempting to reconcile her marital problems with her husband, Kitty entertained Count Maurice Fries, formerly of the Austrian Embassy in London.

When the New York Times enquired politely as to the purpose of his visit to Miss Gordon, the Count replied, somewhat theatrically, "An Enchantress can exert her influence across the sea".

In 1916, Kitty starred in her first silent film entitled "As in a Looking Glass" and during the next three years she appeared in a further twenty one films!

Little heed was paid to health and safety by the early film makers. During the shooting of a war film in 1917 at studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Kitty and another actress Pinna Nesbit were badly burned during a battle scene when an explosion set fire to their dresses. Kitty suffered burns to her body and face preventing her from working for several weeks. In 1920 she successfully sued for damages and was awarded $ 1400 in settlement.

Kitty was to become a frequent litigant over the years, involved in numerous contractual wrangles which usually ended in her favour, on one occasion to the tune of over $ 20000 - a small fortune at the time.

At some point in the early 1920's it would appear that Kitty may have married a third husband, Jack Wilson although I have not been able to confirm this for definite in my research so far. Jack was an American vaudeville stage actor who sometimes performed as a black face artist , later a camera operator and eventually a film actor (possibly through his wife's influence and connections with the studios?).

On 25th June 1920, Kitty accidentally shot another actor called Joseph Hack who was waiting in the wings, whilst performing on stage in Chicago. The revolver from which she fired the shot was supposed to only be loaded with blank cartridges....

However, the gun, apart from acting as a stage prop, was also used by her husband Jack to guard his wife's jewellery! He told the Chicago police that he always removed the live cartridges and replaced them with blanks before each performance but had obviously overlooked one of the live ones on this occasion.

Fortunately, Hack was not killed in the incident. The bullet passed through his right arm, between two ribs and emerged from his back under his shoulder blade. He later sued Wilson for damages.
When questioned by detectives, Kitty said "Why really, I don't know much about it, except that I fired the revolver and it burned my hand. I dropped it. It never burned me like that before. I'm dreadfully sorry about the whole thing, but I really didn't know anything had happened except that the gun jumped and it burned me. That's all I can tell you"

Kitty and Wilson were both subsequently exonerated from blame although it may have well played on Wilson's conscience over the following years and contributed to his suicide in 1931 at the age of only 50.

The marriage (if it ever was) to Wilson appears to have been short lived.

In 1922 Kitty publicly announced her engagement to rich New York stockbroker Ralph Ranlet - who was to become her fourth and final husband. Kitty seemed to revel in the attention of the media and used it to advance her career at any opportunity (a 1920's Jordan maybe?).

Unfortunately Kitty neglected to tell told poor old Ralph of her intention to announce the engagement causing him considerable embarrassment when he was contacted by the press and congratulated on his forthcoming nuptials! Despite this setback, they did eventually marry in 1932.

Following the end of her short career in silent films, Kitty continued to tour across North America with her stage show for many years and even appeared on television in the 1950's when she was in her eighties.

For some reason, she never made the crossover into the talkies possibly due to her age (she was already in her forties) or perhaps due to her uncanny ability to win court cases in contract disputes!
Kitty died at a nursing home in Brentwood, Long Island, New York on 26th May 1974 at the age of 96, having outlived all her husbands and her daughter Vera.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please feel free to leave a comment. They are always welcome!

Further posts you may enjoy....

Viscount Northcliffe - Pioneer Press Baron

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel - British Naval Hero