The Lime Kilns of Rosemary Topping by Averil Kear

The Lime Kilns of Rosemary Topping

With Averil Kear

Meeting of 14th June 2012

‘Our lime kiln’ is Common Grove Lime Kiln, at Rosemary Topping (near Bicknor Court).

As lime was dangerous to transport, most large estates had their own lime kiln to provide the lime to use on the fields, and each ironworks probably had one as lime helped produce purer metal.

There is a long history of lime burning in our area. A 1619 lease for Blackthorns Farm includes the rights to build a lime kiln and dig coal to fuel it (the rent included a couple of capons!). The 1688 Survey of the River Wye showed that Owen Thomas had a lime kiln below Coldwell Rocks. Our lime kiln was probably established around 1685 and can be seen in Common Grove field on a 1792 map. In 1787 there were 21 kilns in the Forest, in 1942 Drybrook’s was still in use.

Lime comes mainly from fossilised shells within the rock. It can be got by open cast extraction – as at Coldwell Rocks – or mining. Once you have your rocks, you need to get the lime out and usable, which is where lime kilns come in. Lime nowadays is got from the rock by mechanical crushing, but before we had the tools for this extreme heat (900-1100 degrees centigrade) was needed. This makes quicklime (which is very good for getting rid of bodies). Quicklime reacts with water to give slaked lime which will set hard to make good plaster.

You could use the lime for spreading on fields to reduce soil acidity, whitewash, road building, floors (often inlaid with pebbles), preserving leather, limelight, in iron processing etc. Brian Carne used lime plaster on the 17th century The White House as it expands and breathes with old houses, unlike modern alternatives, the house also gets whitewashed with lime regularly.

These limes are dangerous to use, causing blindness, burnt hands and sometimes carts to burst into flame.

Lime burning was a hazardous and unpleasant job. Burners were paid by weight. The kilns were set into hillsides so lime could be brought to the top by horse and cart and tipped in. Alternate layers of fuel and lime were put in, then a fire started at the bottom and left to burn for a week or two. The lime was raked out through the arch at the bottom and more lime added at the top – whilst the fire continued. In winter vagrants often gathered near the kilns for the warmth.

In 2002 the campaign to raise money to restore the kiln was begun. In April 2006 the huge job of clearing out the debris began. On completion, display boards were erected and English Bicknor Heritage Walk launched.