Maidstone’s Industrial Heritage
With its river, road and rail routes to London and the Continent, Maidstone became the County Town of Kent.
The town’s history really begins in the medieval period, when the Archbishops’ Palace, overlooking the River Medway, became the focus of small-scale development with markets and fairs. The river provided water, power and transport and was another key factor in the town’s development.
Maidstone began to boom as an industrial and society town in the 18th century, with principal trades including brewing and papermaking and, in its heyday, Maidstone supplied London with “more particulars than from any single market town in England.” The coming of train links in the 19th century also meant easier commuting for workers, as well as transportation of good and materials.
However, the economy has changed over the years from predominantly heavy to light industry and increasingly service industries. Maidstone remains the administrative centre of Kent in the 21st century but has expanded as a retail centre, as well as developing its social side, particularly with its bars, clubs and night-time economy.
The Original Society of Papermakers was one of the earliest trade unions, formed in 1800, although it had been covertly active prior to this date. The Society’s headquarters were in Maidstone which, by this time, was one of the largest papermaking centres in the country.
Maidstone was well positioned for paper making: nearby London both used the paper and produced the old rags from which it was made; the Medway provided transport and clean water (at first – paper production soon polluted it!). The industry developed slowly during the 16th century. But in the next century many paper mills were established in the area, including Sandling Mill in 1671 and Upper Tovil Mill in 1680.
The 18th century saw a paper making boom, partly due to increased mechanisation, which made production more efficient. The Fourdrinier machine, a moving endless belt of wire or plastic screen that receives a mixture of pulp and water, dominated papermaking from the early 19th century to the end of the 20th. During this period the Whatman family of Turkey Mill developed a reputation for high quality paper, the artist Gainsborough commented: “Upon my honour, I would give a guinea a quire for a dozen quires of it”. While other paper mills such as Hayle Mill also grew.
The Whatman name and brand was internationally known for handmade papers, it was the artists paper of choice, Turner also commented on its quality. James Whatman Jr, born in 1741, took over his father’s businesses/mills after his death, inheriting 4 mills – Old Mill, Pull Mill, Turkey Mill and Upper Loose Mill. He was an entrepreneur and innovator, using new techniques and types of machinery, developing the largest sheets of paper, known as ‘antiquarian’ size from the 1770s.
Having no son or heir, Whatman Jr took on William Balston as a protégé, who later bought out the business and the Whatman name with the Hollingworth Brothers, forming the Hollingworth-Balston Partnership 1794-1804. In 1805 Balston bought land at Springfield (given its name for the good water supply through springs in the area – essential to the paper making). Here, he built a steam mill in the Whatman name, one of the earliest of its kind, opened in 1807.
Sadly in 1862 Springfield Mill was destroyed by a fire, but was rebuilt. The Balston brothers bought Medway Mill in 1899, expanding their empire and giving them a total of 21 handmade paper vats for a higher level of production. By 1916 there was a move to diversify to make laboratory papers as handmade papers were becoming less popular due to cost compared to machine made paper. Springfield didn’t install its first machine until as late as 1931, but didn’t cease its handmade paper production until 1957.
GE Healthcare Life sciences took over the site, making paper products for the science industry such as filters, testing papers, and also food production papers, closing in March 2015, and moving operations to China and Cardiff.
Confectionary & Food Production
Over the years there have been a number of food and sweet producers based in Maidstone, but two became international names and were large employers in the town – Sharps and Foster Clark.
Sharps – Maidstone Toffee
Edward Sharp was dismissed from his first job for not raising his cap to the owner. In 1876 he opened a small shop on Week Street, which was at first a grocery. However, he also sold a small selection of sweets made by his wife, which became so popular that he gave up on the grocery and it became a sweet shop, turning a local ice rink on the bank of the River Medway into a factory. This would lead to the production of ‘Kreemy’ toffee, which was perhaps Sharp’s best known confectionery.
By 1921 Sharps claimed to be the largest toffee makers in the world, this was mostly due to superb advertising, including the character ‘Sir Kreemy Knut’. Their success saw Edward Sharp and Sons Limited appointed as Confectioners to Her Majesty in 1968 and the Queen chose Sharp’s products as Christmas gifts to London children’s hospitals.
In 1923 Edward Sharp donated Clare Park (on the Tonbridge Road), to the people of Maidstone and named it after his wife with a drinking fountain by the main gate commemorating the event. He died in 1931 aged 77.
In the 1960s Sharps joined with the company Robertson and Woodcock to become Trebor Ltd (now run by Cadbury Schweppes) and continued to manufacture in Maidstone until 2000, when the factory was closed. But the family trade continues – Eddie and Sheila Sharp run Sharp Confectionery Products in Australia and still make toffee.
This company was created and founded by George Foster Clark who started out mixing ingredients together in his mother’s kitchen. As the years went by, it went from a small business in a shed to a multi-site international business with factories worldwide.
In 1889, age 25, George began to experiment with the manufacture of small batches of baking powder, cake flour and lemonade powder in his mother’s kitchen. The products proved popular, so he sold them to customers in the shop. With confidence in his products, he started out as a grocer’s sundries man, working out of a small shed, with capital of £27.50. He was then joined by his brothers, and the firm became ‘Foster Clark & Co’.
As the company’s products grew in popularity and demand, in 1895 George bought part of the old Chambers’ Jam Factory in Hart Street, Maidstone. By 1910, with growing successes, the capital of the company had risen to £54,300 and it registered as a private company. The size of the premises grew, as did the range of products, becoming one of the most modern food manufacturing companies in the country, annually producing thousands of tons of soups, jellies, custard powder, blancmange powder, and lemonade products.
In 1928, Foster Clark’s had a capital of £500,000 and became a public company and Company Shares were given to all employees who had served for ten years’ or more. By 1929, the canning of fruit and vegetables was also started, using mostly local produce from Kent including millions of cans of peas, carrots, cherries and many other fruits and vegetables. It was one of the first companies in the country to undertake this process.
The 1950s saw a change in public eating and cooking habits with a move to frozen and fast foods. This caused Foster Clark financial problems, with a drop in sales for their type of food products, so in 1960 it merged with the St Martin Group of Companies. But in 1961 catastrophe struck when one of their warehouses, on Hart Street / Barker Road, was engulfed in fire. Sales continued to struggle and in 1965, the Foster Clark name was sold to Oxo Ltd.
Alongside Maidstone businesses such as Rootes, Haynes, Jesse Ellis and Drake & Fletcher, the companies of Tilling-Stevens and Weeks were big names in the engineering, vehicle and agricultural equipment industries.
Formed in June 1906 to take over the business of Stevens & Barker at Maidstone and to manufacture “Tilling-Stevens” commercial vehicles powered by petrol-electric transmission engines. The variety of vehicles produced was vast and were used all over the world. The company’s workshop and offices were based on St Peters Street, near the railway bridge and river.
At the conclusion of the First World War the Tilling-Stevens company was reconstructed and by 1920 improved gear boxes were replacing petrol-electric transmission. A proposed amalgamation with Clayton’s Karrier Motors Limited of Huddersfield was rejected in 1932. Richard Clayton left Karrier when the firm was purchased by Rootes Securities in 1934 and became managing director of Tilling-Stevens. He revitalised the company by the introduction and development of diesel-powered vehicles. During the Second World War, large orders from the War department kept the company in full production, but shortly after, the Rootes Group realised the necessity of the highly reputable Tilling diesel to its future expansion. Tilling-Stevens became part of Rootes in 1951 and by 1966, the American company Chrysler had acquired a controlling interest and the group was again reconstructed as Chrysler (UK) Ltd.
For nearly 60 years the factory had been in continuous use for the production of motor vehicles and engines; it had seen a number of reorganisations of processing and had accommodated the updating of technology and machinery, but it wasn’t quite enough to keep it open; with the Maidstone factory closing in 1975.
The Tilling-Stevens petrol-electric buses are interesting as an early example of a hybrid vehicle, with more recent hybrid petrol-electric cars, such as the Toyota Prius, now being seen as a partial solution towards cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Tilling Stevens were decades ahead of their time.
W. Weeks & Sons Ltd
This long-running family firm was established in Maidstone in 1742, at Perseverance Iron Works on Waterside, with – for a time – a showroom at 47 High Street. A bridge from the carpenter’s loft to a door in Brenchley Gardens (still seen in the wall below the gardens) avoided Medway floods.
Weeks made machinery for the hop industry – dryers, presses, insecticide sprayers, sulphureting machines, bine cutters, hop drying apparatus and hop pole dipping tanks to list just a few. In the 1960s Weeks moved to Rye and ceased trading a few years later.
Maidstone has been fortunate in being situated on the River Medway, as for centuries the river was the town’s main means of transport. By the 19th century small industries had mushroomed along its banks and the river trade had increased considerably. There were several wharves in Maidstone, situated mainly near the bridge, and by 1834 between fifty and sixty barges were trading from the town.
Maidstone’s role as a major distribution centre encouraged the development of other industries like Clifford’s of Bank Street, who traded as ‘Sail makers, Spinners and Weavers’.
The advent of the steam train in 1844 did not severely affect river traffic; it was only when the road transport industry expanded significantly that the river trade declined. Gradually the barges disappeared, then one by one the industries vanished too.