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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

George Smeed

he life of George Smeed is a story of rags to riches, of a jailbird, smuggler, and above all a businessman, who from humble beginnings became one of the wealthiest men in Kent, commanding an industrial empire to compare to those of the Midlands and North of England.

George Smeed was born in 1812 to a widow with 18 children, or so legend has it. It would seem the reality is somewhat different, to the myth perpetuated by Smeed himself. It is more likely George Smeed’s widowed mother died when he was quite young and left him a small freehold house, a parcel of land with a £3,000 legacy.

He used the inheritance to buy a small holding, purchasing additional land with the profits. With these fields, he entered brickmaking, employing managers, to make the bricks for him.

By the time, he was 26, George was moving up in the world. He had acquired a house higher up in the town, founded a cricket club and added a small fleet of barges to his business activities.

Apart from using the barges to transport fruit, ashes, bricks and coal, to and from London, he occasionally included manure, which concealed contraband. It was on one of these occasions that the ‘Alfred’ was boarded by Revenue men and towed in by the cutter ‘Vigilant’.

George Smeed was convicted and sentenced to one year in
Maidstone prison. However, before leaving the court, it is said, he made a request for additional evidence to be submitted. Once his request was granted, the doors opened, and footman entered carrying trays of glasses filled with wine.

George said ‘if you approve this sample, you will be provided for, while I am away'. The sample was approved, and the magistrates continued to receive the fine wine, while Smeed served his sentence.

George Smeed took a keen interest in the 16th Kent Rifle Volunteers and joined the local company as a private. One year, the annual dinner, was held at the Fountain Inn in
Canterbury. There was not enough room at the Inn for everyone to dine together, so the Officers ate upstairs with the lower ranks in a room on the ground floor.

When the meal was finished, the officers sent a cup filled with beer downstairs with the message ‘The officers invite the privates to drink beer with them.’ Smeed immediately ordered champagne; and filled the cup, returning it upstairs with a note: ‘The privates invite the officers to drink champagne with them’.

George’s interests were extensive. His brickfields covered 2.5 square miles of land. He owned a cement works, gas works, and two barge yards. He had 200 cottages built for his workers and owned many of the properties in
Sittingbourne and Murston.

He owned a fleet of 70 barges, which carried bricks, cement, flint stone and fruit to his depots on the Thames, and bricks and cement to many south coast ports, for export around the world. Colliers and the railways brought gas coal to his Murston gas works. Flint produced in his pits were used by Trent & Mersey for making pottery, district surveyors in road construction and contractors for building facings.

He became justice of the peace, despite the many appearances before them, and one of only a few individuals permitted to hold a personal account at the Bank of England. He was one of the wealthiest men in Kent.

George’s extensive land holdings were managed by George Hambrook Dean, the son of a tailor who had supplied uniforms to the British army during the Napoleonic wars. Dean married Mary Ann Smeed, George’s eldest daughter, and in 1875 became co-director of a new private limited company, Smeed, Dean Co Ltd.
On 2 May 1881, George Smeed died of a paralytic seizure, leaving a fortune assessed at £160,000. The obituary on his death read ‘He may almost be said to have made Sittingbourne what it is today’. The sailing barge George Smeed was built in 1882, in his memory and can now be seen in Maldon, Essex.

Although a tough businessman George was generous, he introduced Sundays as a rest day, for his workers, donated land and funds to build Keycol Hill Hospital, while providing the land for Murston Church and a recreation ground.

George Smeed had turned Sittingbourne into one of the most concentrated industrial complexes outside of the Midlands.

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