Old Ways

The History of Lime and Lime Kilns

During the medieval period, lime kilns became more widespread across Britain. These were typically simple, small-scale operations.

With roots dating as far back as Roman Britain, lime burning has played an integral part in the development of England’s industrial, architectural, and agricultural landscapes. This significant historical practice boasts a rich legacy within the country’s cultural heritage.

From the 14th century onward, lime production chiefly through lime burning burgeoned into an influential rural industry.

Lime served as a critical ingredient in the production of mortar, a substance widely utilised in construction. This process was integral to the erection of not only residential structures but also significant historical landmarks such as castles and churches.


In addition to its constructional uses, lime, from the onset of the 19th century, began to play a crucial role in agricultural practices. Lime proved efficient in neutralising acidic soils, especially in high-rainfall areas prone to significant leaching, thereby creating more favorable growing conditions for crops.

A path in Old Chalkpit Plantation, which adjoins the River Yare in the south, leads past a lime kiln that has been built into the hillside.
A path in Old Chalkpit Plantation, which adjoins the River Yare in the south, leads past a lime kiln that has been built into the hillside. Image Credit: Evelyn Simak

Technological advancements progressively influenced the methods of lime burning. Initially, lime was burnt in simple, open heaps.

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Industrialisation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries ushered in the usage of specialised structures dubbed lime kilns for burning limestone. This advancement marked a notable increase in production efficiency, which in turn further broadened the applicability of lime across different industries.

Was Chalked Used in Lime Production?

It is a form of limestone composed primarily of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), is one of the traditional sources of raw material for the production of lime.

Chalk, a form of limestone composed primarily of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), is one of the traditional sources of raw material for the production of lime.

The process of transforming chalk into lime involves heating it in a kiln to a high temperature, a process known as calcination. This causes the calcium carbonate in the chalk to undergo a chemical reaction, producing calcium oxide (quicklime) and releasing carbon dioxide gas.

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The quicklime produced from chalk can then be slaked with water to produce calcium hydroxide (slaked lime or hydrated lime), which is used in various applications, including construction (for mortar and plaster), agriculture (as a soil amendment), and water treatment.

This was a major chalk quarry and lime kiln in Shillingston, Dorset.
This was a major chalk quarry and lime kiln in Shillingstone, Dorset.

The use of chalk for lime production is particularly common in regions where chalk deposits are abundant. Chalk is a soft and relatively pure form of limestone, making it a suitable and often preferred material for lime production due to its high calcium carbonate content and the ease with which it can be quarried and processed.

You often see ‘chalk pits’ listed on Ordnance Survey maps, and often near a ‘lime kilns’ that are also marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

Ocean Water

Limestone is the primary rock used in the production of lime. Limestone, a sedimentary rock, is predominantly composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the mineral calcite. It often forms from the accumulation of shell, coral, algal, and fecal debris. It can also be a chemical precipitate from lake and ocean water.

A sedimentary rock Limestone, is predominantly composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the mineral calcite. Portland quarry in Dorset.

In the process of producing lime, limestone is quarried and then subjected to high temperatures in a lime kiln. This process, known as calcination, causes the calcium carbonate in the limestone to decompose into calcium oxide (quicklime) and carbon dioxide gas. The chemical equation for this process is:

CaCO 3 (limestone) → CaO (quicklime) + CO2 (gas)

The quicklime (CaO) can then be used in this form or further processed by adding water to create calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)_2), commonly known as slaked lime or hydrated lime, which has various applications in construction, agriculture, and other industries.

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In Limestone there is an abundance and high calcium carbonate content make it the ideal choice for lime production. The quality and properties of the resulting lime can vary based on the purity and composition of the limestone used.

Some limestone deposits may contain impurities like magnesium carbonate, which produces a type of lime known as dolomitic lime when calcined. Dolomitic lime has different properties and applications compared to pure calcium lime.

Lime kilns Not so Simple

Lime burning, although seemingly simple, has witnessed considerable evolution throughout England’s history. The process originally entailed burning limestone in open-air piles reinforced with wood fuel; a procedure heavily reliant on weather conditions. This method gradually evolved into the clamp kiln technique, which allowed for greater control over burning conditions.

Cross section of typical early kiln
Cross section of typical early kiln

The progressive technological strides taken during the Industrial Revolution resulted in increasingly sophisticated lime kilns.

Flare kilns, which facilitated continuous operation, became commonplace within England’s lime burning industry by the end of the 19th century. The advent of more energy-efficient fuels, such as coke and coal, coupled with procedural improvements significantly enhanced lime burning efficiency within these kilns.

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By the time the 20th century rolled around, the rotary kiln emerged as the most efficient and commercially viable lime burning apparatus. These industrial-grade kilns, heated internally by burning fuels, catered to the mass-scale lime production needs of modern industries.

Irrespective of these advancements in technology, traditional lime kilns, replete with historical value, still stand as preserved landmarks in areas like the Peak District National Park and the South Downs, commemorating the longstanding legacy of lime burning heritage in England.

Methods and Techniques

Clamp kilns, also known as field kilns or scove kilns, were comparatively simple and temporary structures that were generally used for small-scale production.

They were constructed by stacking alternate layers of limestone and coal or wood. Once the pile was covered with turf or clay, it was ignited at the bottom and allowed to burn through. This method could take a week or more and the quality of the lime produced varied greatly.

Twin lime kilns, Alnwick, Northumberland. Image Credit: Leanmeanmo
Twin lime kilns, Alnwick, Northumberland. Image Credit: Leanmeanmo

Draw kilns, on the other hand, were permanent structures that enabled continuous production of lime. They came in various designs but consistently had sections or ‘pots’ built above a tunnel or ‘draw hole’ where lime could be raked out.

Fuel was added from the top, which allowed the heat to rise and burn the descending limestone. This process provided consistent and higher-quality lime but required a more significant investment in terms of construction and operation.

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The lime making process commenced with quarrying or mining the rock and then transporting it to processing plants where it was washed to remove impurities. The cleaned limestone was then broken up into lumps and heated in a kiln at thousands of degrees until it disintegrated into a white, powdery substance known as quicklime or burnt lime.

In England, limestone was often quarried by hand using mattocks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. In later years, machines such as steam shovels and portable narrow-gauge railways were used.

Skills and Experience

The art of lime burning was more than just a simple process; it required extensive experience and skill. Lime burners, as they were known, needed to carefully monitor the process, ensuring a precisely controlled heat to prevent overheating, which could cause the limestone to convert into unusable quicklime.

The 1867 Hoffman limekiln at the former Betchworth Quarry. Grade II listed
The 1867 Hoffman lime kiln at the former Betchworth Quarry. Grade II listed. Buckland, Surrey, England. Image Credit: Ian Capper

Precise stacking of the limestone and fuel within the kiln was essential to ensure an even burn throughout. Moreover, maintaining a continuous process in draw kilns required a deep understanding of the kiln’s behavior under different weather conditions and limestone types.

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Over time, the process of lime burning in England transitioned from being a small-scale venture to a full-scale industrial operation, facilitated by enhanced kiln designs and mechanisation. Nevertheless, the essential expertise and know-how have been dutifully conserved and handed down through generations, thus keeping this pivotal English custom thriving.

Heritage Conservation

One of the most widespread uses of lime in England has been in the building industry. Given its adhesive, protective, and decorative qualities, lime has been a critical ingredient in the production of mortar and plaster. Mortar, made with lime, helps hold bricks and stones together in construction.

Meanwhile, lime plaster provides a hardwearing and weather-resistant coating for walls. The use of lime in historic building conservation has surged recently, given its compatibility with older building materials and techniques.

Lime kiln, Rylagh, Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Image Credit: Kenneth Allen

Top view of lime kiln, Rylagh. Image Credit: Kenneth Allen

Lime, as a building material, has been integral to construction and architectural heritage for centuries. Its significance in the heritage of building is multifaceted, encompassing both practical and aesthetic aspects. Traditionally, lime was used in the form of mortar, plaster, and render, playing a crucial role in the construction and maintenance of buildings.

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One of the key properties of lime is its breathability, which allows moisture to permeate and evaporate from walls, thereby reducing dampness and the potential for mold growth. This characteristic is particularly important in older buildings, where moisture management is crucial to preserving structural integrity.

Historic Buildings

Furthermore, lime mortar is known for its flexibility and ability to accommodate slight movements within a structure without cracking. This quality is especially valuable in historic buildings that may have settled or shifted over time.

In terms of compatibility, lime is often the material of choice for restoration and conservation work on historic buildings. It is compatible with the materials and techniques used in older structures, ensuring that repairs and restorations are in keeping with the building’s original character.

Lime plaster is a type of interior plaster composed of sand, water and lime, obtained by burning limestone, and often contained animal hair for reinforcement.
Lime plaster is a type of interior plaster composed of sand, water and lime, obtained by burning limestone, and often contained animal hair for reinforcement. Image Credit: www.chalkdownlime.com

Aesthetically, lime provides a distinct look that is often considered more visually appealing and authentic for historic buildings compared to modern cement-based products.

Carbon Dioxide

Its use in plasters and renders can create a range of textures and finishes that contribute to the building’s historic character.Lime’s sustainability is another important factor. It is more environmentally friendly than modern cement, both in terms of its production process, which emits less carbon dioxide, and its ability to absorb carbon dioxide as it cures.

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The durability of lime is evident in the many ancient and historic buildings that still stand today, a testament to its effectiveness as a long-lasting building material. These structures not only represent architectural achievements but also reflect the construction techniques and cultural practices of past eras.

Take another look on maps and online maps, it is surprising how many there are.

In the field of heritage conservation, lime is crucial. It enables conservationists and restorers to maintain the integrity, appearance, and character of historic buildings, ensuring that these cultural treasures are preserved for future generations.

Thus, the importance of lime in the heritage of building is not only in its physical properties and sustainability but also in its role in preserving and maintaining the historical and cultural legacy of architecture.

Lime in Farming

In the realm of agriculture and farming, lime, particularly agricultural lime, holds significant importance for its ability to enhance soil health and crop productivity. The primary function of lime in agriculture is to regulate soil pH.

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Many crops thrive best in neutral to slightly acidic soils, and lime is used to increase the pH of overly acidic soils, creating an environment more conducive to plant growth. This pH adjustment is crucial as it influences nutrient availability; acidic conditions can lock certain nutrients in the soil, making them inaccessible to plants.

Lime spreading
Lime how it was… exhibition photo dated Jan 1957, shovelling lime.
Image Credit: Alan Dale 

By neutralising acidity, lime makes essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium more available, which can lead to improved crop health and increased yields.

Moreover, lime plays a pivotal role in improving the physical structure of the soil. In clay-heavy soils, it aids in aggregating soil particles, enhancing aeration and water penetration. Conversely, in sandy soils, lime can increase the soil’s capacity to retain water and essential nutrients. This dual action is vital for maintaining soil health across various soil types.

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Another significant aspect of lime application is its role in disease prevention. Many soil-borne diseases flourish in acidic conditions, and by elevating the soil pH, lime helps reduce the incidence of these diseases.

Beans and Peas Love Lime

It also mitigates aluminum toxicity, a common problem in acidic soils, where soluble aluminum can harm plant roots. Liming precipitates aluminum out of the soil solution, alleviating this toxicity.

Lime is particularly beneficial for leguminous crops like beans and peas, which require neutral soil conditions for optimal growth and effective nitrogen fixation. Its regular use is a cornerstone in maintaining long-term soil health, ensuring a stable and productive environment for sustained agricultural activities.

From an economic standpoint, the use of lime in agriculture can offer significant benefits. It enhances the effectiveness of other agricultural inputs like fertilisers, leading to better crop yields and a higher return on investment.

However, careful management is necessary, as over-application can result in excessively alkaline soil conditions, which can be just as detrimental as high acidity.

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In contemporary agricultural practices, advances in soil testing and precision agriculture technologies enable more efficient and targeted lime application. This approach ensures that lime’s benefits are maximised, contributing to sustainable agricultural practices and environmental stewardship.

Thus, lime’s role in agriculture extends beyond mere soil amendment; it is a vital component in the broader pursuit of sustainable farming and environmental health.

Lime kilns and the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution saw an increased demand for lime. It became an essential material in various industries including steel, chemical, and glass manufacturing. In the steel industry, lime is used as a purifying agent to eliminate impurities.

In glass production, it is used to improve the durability and clarity of the product. The chemical industry uses lime in the manufacture of calcium-based compounds that are key components in many products, from toothpaste to cleaning agents.

The role of lime during the Industrial Revolution was multifaceted and significant, contributing to several key industrial processes and construction developments.

Lime kilns
Lime kilns near Lindisfarne Castle. This bank of six kilns was built in 1860 by Dundee merchant William Nicholl, and represent a fairly late development of the traditional style of masonry kiln. Image Credit: Jeff Tomlinson

One of the primary uses of lime was in the construction industry. The Industrial Revolution saw a massive expansion in urbanisation and the building of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and buildings. Lime was a critical component in the production of mortar and concrete, providing the necessary binding properties for these construction materials.

Disused lime kiln near Lindisfarne Castle Looking down at the top of this former lime kiln now preserved by the National Trust. This industry briefly flourished on the island in the 19th century.
Disused lime kiln near Lindisfarne Castle. Looking down at the top of this former lime kiln now preserved by the National Trust. This industry briefly flourished on the island in the 19th century. Image Credit: Jeff Tomlinson

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The use of lime in mortar, for instance, improved the durability and weather resistance of buildings and structures, a vital requirement in the rapidly expanding urban landscapes of the Industrial Revolution.

In the realm of manufacturing and industry, lime played a role in various chemical processes. One notable application was in the production of glass and paper.

Lime also found use in the textile industry, where it was involved in processes like bleaching. Furthermore, it was employed in metallurgy, particularly in the purification of pig iron in blast furnaces, where lime acted as a flux to remove impurities from the iron.

Lime Burning Today

Lime demand in England is expanding due to a growing need for sustainable and environmentally friendly materials in the construction sector and related industries. The increased focus on restoration, especially of heritage buildings, further fuels this demand.

The role of traditional lime burning techniques is critical in maintaining the integrity and longevity of many historical structures in the United Kingdom.

This is because lime mortar, produced through these traditional methods, is more flexible and breathable than contemporary materials, thus preserving the heritage structures in a much better way. Consequently, restoration and conservation projects have led to a resurgence in the lime industry.