The majority of the quicklime that was produced was mixed with water to produce hydrated lime or slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). Calcium oxide is chemically unstable in normal atmospheric conditions but the chemical reaction, which turns calcium oxide into calcium hydroxide releases heat and results in a stable white powder. This was a key ingredient in plasters, renders, mortar and concrete. It was also used in lime-wash to waterproof walls and lighten the interiors of buildings; to bleach paper; by tanners to prepare animal hides for tanning and as a disinfectant in medicine.
The production of lime was introduced to Britain by the Romans. Demand for lime increased in the medieval period when more buildings were built from stone and large quantities of lime were needed for mortar, which was used in the construction of castles, city walls and religious buildings. In parts of Britain lime was also used to neutralise acidic soils to improve their fertility and to improve the structure of heavy clay soils from the late medieval period onwards.
There were three types of lime kilns:
- Clamp kilns. This was the earliest design of kiln to be used. Layers of coal or wood and limestone were stacked together in a mound. This was then covered with clay or turf and slowly burned in a method similar to that used in charcoal burning.
- Flare kilns. These were also known as intermittent or periodic kilns. This type of kiln was used in the Roman and medieval periods. The limestone was stacked on top of the fuel but separated from it by stone blocks, so that the lime was not contaminated with ash. After burning for several days, the kiln had to be cooled down completely before the lime could be removed and the kiln could be re-loaded for the next firing.
- Draw kilns.
These were also called perpetual or running kilns and they were in use
more recently than flare kilns. This type of kiln was kept burning
continuously. There was a permanent grate
above the hearth. Fuel and limestone
were stack in alternate layers above the grate.
The calcined limestone dropped down through the grate and could be raked
out, while new layers were added at the top of the kiln.
Until the mid-18th century most lime kilns were built to produce lime used in the construction of buildings and they were therefore located a short distance from those buildings but away from inhabited areas, as they produced noxious fumes and smoke. Lime kilns were usually located in sheltered locations close to a source of limestone or chalk and where sufficient firewood was also available. They are also often found in coastal locations where limestone/chalk and/or coal could be delivered by sea. Sometimes a single kiln was built but it is not usual for there to be two or more in the same location. Some kilns were built into banks of rising ground.
By the end of the 19th century industrial kilns were mass producing lime at lower prices and an improved transport network allowed the lime produced to be distributed across the country.Some of the lime kilns still standing today in Britain date from the 16th and 17th centuries but most are from the 18th and 19th centuries. They are a relatively common sight in Somerset.
Lime kiln south of Rich's Holford
Information board at Bishopswood Meadows Lime Kiln
On the coast to the west of Watchet
This complex of three lime kilns was leased from the Luttrell Estate by the Gooding family from 1863 until c1913. They also operated a small industrial complex at Colling's Mill, Washford where they produced artificial manure, plaster of Paris and hydraulic cement. Local lias limestone was burned using coal imported from Wales.
Wiseburrow Farm, Greenham
Wiseburrow Farm, Greenham
On the coast at East Quantoxhead
Daws Castle, Watchet
Whitley Brake, South of Bilbrook
Quarry Road, Sandford Batch
Plaque on the Sandford Batch lime kilns
South Landing, Steep Holm
Black Rock Drove
This lime kiln at Black Rock Drove in the Mendip Hills was built in 1936 but became disused when the adjacent quarry, which had only opened in 1930, was sold and closed down in around 1940.