KEVIN GORDON - Limekilns step into the lime light

A rural limekiln (Watford Museum)
A rural limekiln (Watford Museum)

I recently bought a book called ‘The South Downs Murder’ by John Bude first published in 1936. It is a cracking Agatha Christie style mystery. Superintendent Meredith has to leave police headquarters in Lewes to investigate a murder, the victim’s bones having been found in a working limekiln. I had heard of limekilns but was not too sure what they were used for.

For hundreds of years the Sussex countryside was dotted with columns of smoke from industry. There were ironworks, brick and tile kilns, potteries, charcoal burning and limekilns. Lime is used for a number of applications today. The British Lime Association tell me that it is used in construction, (mortar) decorating, the treatment of both clean water and sewage, making iron, steel, glass, sugar and paper. It is used for treating soil and even making toothpaste.

The Romans brought the technology to Britain. They discovered that if limestone or (in Sussex) chalk was heated to over 800oC, the carbon dioxide would be burned off leaving a substance known as quicklime. Quicklime was used by our ancestors as a disinfectant; it is highly toxic and was once thought that it would aid decomposition of a dead body. The Anatomy Act of 1832 directed that hanged prisoners should be buried within the prison grounds and the graves filled with quicklime. (It has since been discovered that this process actually preserves a body – prospective murderers take note!) Quicklime was also used by farmers when burying animals affected by swine-fever, rabies or other diseases. When quicklime is mixed with water a chemical reaction occurs and the stone is broken down into a powder known as hydrated lime. When quicklime is re-burnt to over 2000oC, it glows brightly and was therefore used for lighting – especially in early theatres. This is why we ‘step into the limelight’. It is thought that quicklime was also used as an early form of chemical weapon and in the 13th century the navy were experimenting with firing it at French ships.

When the chemical reaction of quicklime had ended it was known as slaked lime and this could be mixed with more water to make lime putty. This was used extensively in the building trade. Many buildings (some can still be seen in Lewes) were made of wattle and daub. This is where lime putty was mixed with sand and cow-dung and straw (sometimes even wool and horse hair). This concoction had to be thoroughly mixed and sometimes mills (known as Pug Mills) were used. There is reference to a Pug Mill at East Blatchington, Seaford, in 1324. Lime was also used for making putty and the rendering around buildings. Further watering down would result in ‘whitewash’ which again was used to decorate buildings. Mixed with ochre this would turn yellow and mixed with pigs blood it would be pink.

By the 16th century it was discovered that spreading lime onto fields would greatly enhance crops and this led to more limekilns being built. There were agricultural lime works at Goat Farm, Streat and Offham. There were large lime-works at Holywell at Eastbourne and also at Southerham to the south of Lewes, indeed in 1838 the owner, William French, applied for a licence to open a beer-shop nearby to accommodate the needs of his workers. There were much smaller lime kilns scattered around the countryside and if there was a large building project (such as a castle, large house or church) a temporary kiln would be built.

A kiln was fired and then kept alight (often for weeks or months) by filling it up from the top with a mixture of coal and chalk. This mixture was known in Sussex as cullum. A kiln would be refilled twice a day and after many days the chalk would be broken down and the lime raked out from the bottom.

Because limekilns were warm and usually unattended at night, they attracted the homeless but they had their dangers. In 1819 John Fairhall of Brighton was found half incinerated in a lime kiln in Brighton. The inquest jury found he had suffocated ‘by the sulphurous fumes of the limekiln’. In 1841 three itinerant labourers, who had travelled to Brighton to work on the new railway, slept overnight next to a limekiln to give them warmth, but the fumes suffocated one man who died ‘from the vapours from the kiln’.

Making lime was a profitable business. At Christmas 1866 Mr Blaker, the owner of the Clayton Limekilns, held a ‘Lime Feast’ for his customers. By the latter part of the 19th century making lime was industrialised and huge limekilns were built usually adjacent to chalk quarries. Smaller limekilns tended to be abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Limekilns are no longer a feature of the Sussex countryside but lime is still an important part of our lives.