BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 11th Aug 1997 (p.3), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: LIME BURNING

The process of lime burning has a long history in the White Peak, where the necessary raw material, limestone, occurs in great abundance. The end product, lime or quicklime, has many applications; it was used in plaster work by the Egyptians about four thousand years ago, whilst the Greeks and Romans used lime in making cement and mortar. This latter use was recognised in a Roman bath which came to light at Buxton many years ago.

For hundreds of years lime has been or enormous importance in agriculture, where it is used to improve sour soils. One of the earliest references occurs in The Boke of Husbandrye written by Fitzherbert in the early 1500s. In the middle of the following century fourteen lime kilns were recorded at Dove Holes alone, apparently used according to local requirements. Constructed of stone, a kiln was fuelled with wood, peat and furze and filled from the top with alternate layers of fuel and broken limestone. The kiln was lit through an opening at its base, starting the burning process which reduces stone to lime. After a burning period of five to ten days, followed by a couple of days' cooling, lime was drawn out from the bottom of the kiln.

One common type of kiln, the pye kiln, was usually built by an individual farmer, often on common land, and therefore only in intermittent use. Sites are commemorated in the common field name of Kiln close.

After taking enough lime for his own needs, a farmer could sell his surplus to other farmers. From the 17th century it was also in demand for use as a flux by smelters of lead and iron. Lime had, and perhaps still has, a domestic use too. Mixed with water it becomes slaked lime, used as a whitewash on the walls of cottages and outhouses all around the country.

Lime burning depended on a good source of wood but as supplies diminished, coal came into use. Coal was already being utilised by the early 17th century around Axe Edge, which had the twin assets of coal seams and developing limestone quarries. The region became a major lime burning centre, with many dozens of kilns concentrated on Grin Hill.

During the 18th and 19th centuries. Grin Hill was dotted with independently operated lime kilns, interspersed with large hillocks of ash waste which hardened as it weathered. Some were hollowed out into simple dwellings of up to four rooms by the poorer workers, who lived there rent free. For many the only natural light came from the 'chimney' - a round hole in the roof - but in winter the occupants benefited from the warmth of the kilns and one resident lived to the age of 93.

The roofs of some ash houses were covered with turf and one visitor recorded seeing one of them being grazed by a cow.

MURKY VOLUMES

No longer was lime burning confined to occasional work on the farm, or even to 'sale' kilns which supplemented a farmer's income. In order to meet a constant demand from manufacturing industries, 'running' kilns were introduced. These were kept working day and night.

From the late 18th century Stoney Middleton had a deserved reputation as an unhealthy place, lying as it did under a constant pall of acrid smoke from large-scale lime burning activities. Cart-loads of coal were brought in from Sheffield and Chesterfield, returning with processed lime. The poet Anna Seward of Eyam described how natural pinnacles had been broken off the towering rocks above Middleton Dale for the 'perpetual consumption of the ever burning lime kilns'. These, she added, were very impressive by night, 'emitting their livid flames which seem so many small volcanoes'.

Small Dale left a similar impression on Ebenezer Rhodes who wrote in Peak Scenery: 'The burning of lime here is a considerable trade; and the kilns used for the purpose are situated at the bottom of the dell, one side of which was formed by the rocks where we stood; of the other, aided by a transient light emitted from the fires of the lime-kilns, we caught occasionally an uncertain glimpse ... the whole dale indeed was one immense cauldron steaming with smoke, that at intervals was partially illumined by momentary gleams and flashes from the fires below - then curling into mid-air, it rolled over our heads in murky volumes.'

NEW MARKETS

Advances in transport systems further boosted the lime burning industry. By 1799 both the Peak Forest Canal and the Peak Forest Tramway were in use and resourceful operators set up numerous kilns along the canal banks. Boat-loads of stone and coal were brought in and shipments of lime sent out. In 1830 the Macclesfield Canal opened, linking the Peak Forest and Trent and Mersey Canals. This gave access to new markets, not only the chemical and steel industries but also the building trade with its constant need for mortar in constructing mills, factories, warehouses and housing.

Lime burners were soon to take advantage of the railway, which in 1863 reached Buxton with a siding at Dove Holes. As with the canal systems, lime kilns were established alongside the railways. The railway was a major factor in the expansion of quarrying in Great Rocks Dale and Miller's Dale. A limeworks opened in Miller's Dale in 1878, with a purpose-built system whereby stone and fuel was tipped into the top of the kiln from wagons and the lime shovelled out at the bottom to be sieved and taken away. Two restored kilns are maintained by the Peak Park but the vast crushing plant of 1914 is derelict. Work ceased here in 1930.

Eye-witnesses accounts of lime burning have been set down by Peak Dale Local History Group in More Than Just Dust (1989). At the turn of the century more than forty kilns provided a variety of jobs in the Peak Dale area. There were the burners who managed two kilns each and whose wages depended on the amount of lime they produced. Drawers, or pikers, extracted the lime from 'eyes' at the bottom of the kilns, after which it was sorted from the ash by pickers and taken to the railway wagons. A lad's first job might be as a bull head knocker, a bull head being a stone which had not quite burned through so that it was still hard in the middle. As much lime as possible was knocked off before the raw stone went into the waste.

Limestone in the Buxton area is the purest in massive formation in the world and although small scale lime burning may be a bygone industry, giant plants now supply the massive needs of agriculture and industry. Lime is still essential for removing impurities during steel manufacture, in building and oil refinery and in preparations for road-building work. The old, redundant field kilns have not completely disappeared from the Peak landscape and many can be seen from public footpaths, occasionally preserved from further decay and identifiable by means of an interpretative board.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 11th Aug 1997.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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