Arcadian Times



The Ham River Grit Company & The Ham Lands


In the late 1890's William and George Brice had taken over their father's business as clay merchants and barge owners in Rochester, Kent (W&G Brice). In the process of obtaining clay from the marshes in Kent, they also came to have an interest in sand and ballast after finding very good quality sand on a hillock called Motley Hill in Rainham which they had excavated.

In 1903, whilst taking a stroll along the towpath of Ham one of the brothers noticed a small excavation of ballast. Impressed by the quality and discovering the land belonged to the Earl of Dysart, he made enquiries in taking a lease on the land with the intention of excavating it. A lease was granted and in 1904 eighty acres were taken over on a royalty basis and the lease also allowed for plants and machinery to be installled in order to process the ballast into different grades of aggregate and sand.


Early Days

Following the signing of the lease the two brothers seperated with George remaining in Rochester whilst William took over the new business at Ham.

When work began at Ham the industry was quite small scale, basically because the infrastructure did not really exist to support large scale excavation. In the early days, the ballast was dredged by small punts that scooped the material from the river bed and then was raised by winch. The material was then transported by horse drawn carts to building sites.

In the early days no permits were required so operations at Ham begun and buildings erected where required. The exception was the wharf on the river bank which had to be planned and built under the supervision and agreement of the Thames Conservancy Board.


Digging below the water level was impossible in the early days, until the advent of a steam driven pump mounted on a concrete pontoon that pumped the ballast through a pipe to reception bins.

As more building contracts in London were being struck the output of The Ham River Grit Co. had to increase. Permission was obtained from the Thames Conservancy to build a wharf and also a light railway which went along the towpath to load the barges.

In the first few years of obtaining ballast from below water level The Ham River Grit Co. applied for the right to clear a cutting through the towpath in order to utilise the tidal waters to allow barges to the pits.

The residents on the other side of the river were not overly enthusiastic as this piece from the Surrey Comet in 1912 conveys.

"It will be remembered that at the last meeting of the Surrey County Council certain proposals of the Earl of Dysart for the cutting of a canal through the riverside lands at Ham and for the construction of a dock on his estate to facilitate the removal of gravel in barges, was referred back for further consideration on the motion of Mr. W. Thompson. Since then the proposal has been adversely criticised by the Richmond and Twickenham Council and the latter authority appealed to the Middlesex County Council for support in opposing the scheme, but as the proposed works are in Surrey the County Council could do nothing in the matter."

Surrey Comet 10/1/1912

The Ham and River Grit Company was expanding , but the area of water was increasing, and the need for a lock and a dock to accommodate the barges was applied for. After various objections Surrey County Council gave permission for the building of the lock and the dock.

Ham Lock

Ham Lock was constucted between 1922 and 1923 and is now part of the Thames Young Mariners. The Thames Young Mariners is the last remains of the quarrying that took place on the Ham Lands and gives a glimpse of the industry that took place and how it looked.

The Lock and the area where the barges would have arrived still exists and the path carries you over the Lock. The quarry is now used for sailing and kayaking and is a natural habitat for wildlife.

With the arrival of the motor lorry in the inter war years, the pits at Ham were able to continue to expand as the newer and faster method of transportation allowed faster delivery. A depot was constructed on the main road to Kingston and a rail track was constructed from the site of the works to the depot. These developments saw the barge delivery method decline, and a road was constructed from the pits to the main road in Ham.

The Ham River Grit Co. lorries were also a toy

Work continued at Ham until 1952, in which time the Ham pits had been in operation for forty-eight years and over 200 acres had been excavated.

It is a sign of the quality of the material produced by the Ham River Grit Co. that the term "Ham River" or of equal quality was the standard given when architects specified the material to use in construction of new buildings.

The Legacy of The Ham River Grit Company

The Ham River Grit Co. has a long list of important building projects that the company contributed material.

The Bank of England, Bush House at Aldwych, Thames House at Millbank, Westminster Cathedral, London University, Dolphin Square to name a few, as well as other projects such as the Kingston By Pass, The Great West Rd and the North Circular Road as well as Heathrow Airport.

Since The Ham River Grit Co. started business in 1904 the company determined albeit unknowingly at the time the destiny of the present Ham Lands. The Ham River Grit Co. has also contributed significantly to the building of important landmarks in this country that can be traced to the land of the estate of the Earl of Dysart for their raw material.



The first few years for The Ham River Grit Co. were unspectacular, but with the construction technique using reinforced concrete becoming the accepted mode of construction, the need for quality graded aggregates became greater.

There was demand for the smaller ballast up to 3/4 inch that was being excavated at Ham, but the problem was that a lot of larger size stone had been accumulated that was not in demand.

In these early years the construction of the Brooklands race track in Weybridge required a large quantity of large stone. The Ham River Grit Co. won the contract and were able to sell their larger pieces of stone and so much more was needed that they had to continue to excavate.

The journey to Weybridge was arduous as the stone was carried by barge to Kingston, unloaded into carts and taken to Kingston station, where it was transported to Weybridge station, unloaded onto carts and then transported to the construction site in Weybridge. The Brooklands race track opened in 1907.


Ham Railway

The railway in Ham was a narrow gauge 2 ft (610 mm) light industrial. The clipping from the London Evening News gives a delightful account of London's Smallest Railway (Click to enlarge).

The locomotive Odin was owned by the Ham River Grit Company and is still running at the Abbey Light Railway.




After 1952

With the closure of the pits, the secondary use of the land was initiated. The excavations on the Ham Lands were now used for the disposal of earth and rubble from building wreckage that occured in the Second World War. This was infilled with other rubble from finished building projects and is the basis of the Ham Lands we know today.

In order to reduce the risk of subsidence no land was allowed to be developed for a number of years. This changed with the building of the Ham Wates Estate. There was a plan to further develop the remaining 33 acres, but in 1983 The Ham Lands Action Committee secured the land as Metropolitan Open land which did not allow for further building with the exception of the Locksmeade estate which was built in 1983.

Hawthorns are prevalent on The Ham Lands

The Ham Lands are now a local nature reserve with an abundance of flora and fauna, though it should be held in mind there is a risk of flooding which is subject to monitoring and discussion on restoring a naturally functioning floodplain.

Sources: The Ham River Grit Company 1904 - 1954; Richmond Library Local Studies; The Matchless Vale.

Article: Arcadian Times, May 7th 2011