Geology Site Account
Harwich Roman Cement Works (site of John Pattrick’s cement works), HARWICH, Tendring District, TM251316, Historical site only
Site of former cement works at Harwich. The Harwich cement industry was a major employer in Harwich in the early 19th century using 'cement stones' gathered from the local cliffs.
History of the industry
Before the invention of Portland cement, ‘Roman cement’ was made in Essex from accumulations of septarian nodules washed out of the London Clay cliffs along the coast. Invented by James Parker in 1796, it was also called ‘Parker’s cement’. Harwich was the main centre of this industry, where the nodules were collected from the foreshore, excavated from the cliffs and later, when the supply of stone dwindled, dredged offshore where nodules had accumulated on the sea bed. During the early part of the nineteenth century up to 500 men were employed in this industry at Harwich and the cement was supplied to all parts of Britain and northern Europe.
The method of manufacturing Roman cement was to break up the cement stones into small pieces and place them in a kiln to be burned, just as chalk is burned for lime. Finally, the product was ground up to produce a brownish cement which was packed in barrels for transport. When required for use it was mixed with the correct proportions of sand and water. The quality of the cement deteriorated rapidly when kept, so that it was always used as fresh as possible. Roman cement was used for most of the purposes for which Portland cement is used today and there was, therefore, a great demand for it. It was a very rapid setting ‘hydraulic’ cement, which set hard even under water. Much of the waterproof external rendering known as ‘stucco’ used during the Regency period was made from this cement, particularly by the famous architect John Nash for London’s buildings.
There was much difficulty in obtaining sufficient quantities of cement stone to meet the enormous demand and the collection of cement stones at Harwich caused great concern because of the effect it was having on the erosion of the cliffs and the threat this was causing to Harwich Harbour. At Harwich there was, and still is, a continuous layer of cement stone at the base of Beacon Cliff which provided a degree of protection from erosion. This natural barrier was soon removed and the cliffs themselves were attacked for the stone. The scale of the industry is clear from a report to the Admiralty in 1843, which stated that since 1812 upwards of a million tons of the stone had been carried away from the shores at Harwich and at Felixstowe on the other side of the river. There were many disputes and the matter was even raised in Parliament. When at last the taking of stone from the cliffs was prohibited by a Government Commission, dredging for the stone from the sea bed off Harwich began, using smacks - sailing vessels each with a crew of three or four men. In 1851 it was estimated that over 300 smacks were engaged in this work, most of them from Kent ports, and it was not uncommon for them to race each other to and from the dredging grounds. The dredging of stone was also carried out at other places on the Essex coast including Brightlingsea.
The digging of stone by hand from the cliffs and the dredging of stone from the sea bed has proved to be of great value to science. Numerous priceless fossils of early mammals were found to be preserved in the Harwich cement stone nodules together with giant turtles and other marine creatures. Many of these fossils went to the Natural History Museum in London but several are in the collections of Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich Museums. Of particular interest was the first discovery in the world of the skeleton of the earliest ancestor of the horse (Hyracotherium).
By the 1870s the Roman Cement industry was in decline, having been replaced by Portland Cement for most uses although the property of rapid-setting gave it an advantage for special purposes. From a total of five cement factories in the 1830s, this had dropped to three by 1852 and by 1859 John Pattrick was the sole manufacturer. By then, Pattrick had started producing Portland cement alongside Roman cement. Pattrick’s works finally closed in 1890 and was finally sold in 1906, bringing an end to the cement industry in Harwich. In later years Pattrick’s works had a chimney, 320 feet high, which was a feature on the Harwich skyline until about 1939. The site of the works was just south of the railway at the end of what is now known as Pattricks Lane. The works are described and illustrated in Leonard Weaver’s 1990 book Harwich: Gateway to the Continent. Pattrick’s wharf, where the cement was exported, is said to have been on the site now occupied by Harwich Sailing Club.
A detailed account of the Roman cement industry in Essex can be found in volume 2 of the Victoria County History of Essex (1907).
Locating any remaining evidence of the Roman cement industry in the town would be an ideal Local Heritage Initiative project for a local society.
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Reference: Clifton-Taylor 1983 (p.234), Weaver 1990 (p. 44-49, 73), George 2006 (p. 7-9), George 2016, Page 1907 (p.408-411).
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