By 1791, on a strip of land owned by John Knight, there were ‘lime works’ at the ‘chalk cliffs’, a canal to the north west ‘lately cut’ and wharf and buildings on the Creek (the surrounding property belonged to the Darnley estate). A document dated 1818 stated there were no lime works (kilns) at Cliffe, the chalk being taken by horse drawn punt on the canal to the Creek to be used to make whiting, or to be loaded onto barges for use in agriculture, to be taken to lime works elsewhere or taken as large blocks for making sea walls. Ownership passed to the Comport family, and later to Col. Charles Binney. A whiting factory was constructed before 1842 (referred to as the ‘Chalk House’ on the Tithe Map. In 1853 I C Johnson leased marsh and chalk land from the Earl of Darnley to erect cement works for the manufacture of Portland cement. He set up the Cliffe works in partnership with John Osmotherly, farmer and brickmaker of Courtsole, Cliffe. The 21 year lease of 1853 also allowed for brick and tile making, and mud digging (one acre) outside the seawall and in the Creek. Johnson’s enterprise was apparently unsuccessful. In 1856 he entered a partnership to reopen Aspdin’s old Gateshead works, and Gateshead and Cliffe were run concurrently. He went into partnership with John Poynter and operated as Johnson and Co. They renewed the lease for 21 years in 1874-5. In 1872 Johnson had patented a chamber kiln which used hot kiln gases to dry slurry, and in 1873 he was negotiating to build cement works at Greenhithe which were opened c. 1880 using the new kiln. According to directories, Johnson retained a presence at Cliffe being styled a cement and whiting manufacturer, Stone and Cliffe.
The land was sold to Michele and Francis in 1878. At around the same time, Empson, Holcombe and Co. set up as cement manufacturers on the site of the Pottery – their kilns are prominent on the 1897 map. The old works also remained in use at this time. By 1885 the lease appears to have been in the hands of John Poynter who assigned the three and a half acres of works by the sea wall to Francis and Co in 1888. In 1881, Alfred Francis, owner of the Nine Elms works across Cliffe Creek, appears to have acquired an acre of land near the old pottery, possibly to establish the Canal Tavern – he is listed in 1882 as a beer retailer. The works closed in 1908.
In 1860, the site comprised 2 principal blocks of buildings with an irregularly laid out group of ten wash-backs on the eastern side. The whiting works were situated just to the west, with the pottery to the south. The site was linked to the chalk quarry by the canal, although this was filled in and replaced by a tramway between 1872 and 1897, by which time the works was being labelled on the OS mapping as ‘The Old Factory’, and the wash-backs had apparently been replaced by covered structures, possibly drying flats. The 1897 map portrays a busy and complex industrial site. The 1908 mapping shows the site just after it had closed – much of the infrastructure had been demolished and the network of tramways rationalised. The site is barely recognisable by 1961, and had disappeared by 1980. The canal), built before 1791, has largely disappeared. It was replaced by the tramway during the period 1872-1897, although it may partly survive as a scrubby linear hollow along the south side of the modern trackway. It originally had a basin at the east end and a lock at the west, all of which are no longer visible.
by Jim Preston (with additions by Richard James), Courtesy: RSPB/ASE