Industrial Lime Burning

As the 19th century progressed, the demand for lime grew by leaps and bounds across the north of England. This was the time when towns and cities were burgeoning, drawing people en masse from the countryside to take up work in new and expanding industries. Leeds and Bradford, Huddersfield and Wakefield, Blackburn and Burnley, Stockton and Darlington, all saw their populations mushroom as iron and steel, engineering, chemicals, textiles, dyeing and papermaking sprang up. All these needed limestone or burnt lime in their production processes. Expanding populations required vast amounts of food – grain, potatoes, meat and milk. By the 1840s British farming was enjoying an unprecedented boom, and the realisation that decent soil and pasture could be an agricultural gold mine led to even greater efforts to improve land quality. Here again quicklime came to be in greater demand than during the early decades of enclosure.


The Dales, with its extensive and accessible deposits of high quality limestone, were ideally placed to benefit from this growth in demand, and there was no shortage of men with the acumen and drive to exploit this situation. Improvements in transport greatly helped as lime or raw limestone could be moved from source to market on the new turnpike roads, by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and on the growing network of railways. These new railways linked Wensleydale with Teesside, Ingleton with Merseyside and even Clydeside, and the Settle-Skipton corridor with the towns of industrial north east Lancashire and the West Riding.


Local entrepreneurs – farmers and businessmen – built enlarged kilns of a traditional design to meet the renewed demand. The intricate external design and solid build of some of these kilns testify to their owners’ sense of pride and optimism. Superb examples of such kilns can be viewed from Kirkby Gate, the footpath from Otterburn to Kirkby Malham; near East Witton Lodge in Coverdale; and on the road side just south of Kettlewell. Others, now sadly decayed, can be seen in their quarry setting near Downholme and on Storrs Common at Ingleton.


The Dales and their immediate surroundings stand out in the development of lime burning technology by virtue of the number of new kiln designs patented here in the later 19th century. Henry Robinson, a coal and lime merchant from Skipton, designed and patented three new draw kiln designs in the 1860s in which fuel was kept separate from stone in the kiln to avoid contamination of the final product. Fuel was fed into fireboxes on the side of the bowls with heat being drawn into the bowl. He also designed a system of loading lime directly into horse-drawn carts to avoid labour-intensive hand loading. Robinson built and operated kilns at Storrs Quarry at Ingleton based on his various patents. His last patent, designed in 1869, was perhaps too ambitious and grand for the time as it failed to work properly and soon collapsed. Remains of a huge twin-bowl kiln, based on one of his 1863 patents, can be seen next to Beezley Grange just inside the National Park.


In the following decade a Settle builder and stone mason, John Winskill, patented a “new or improved construction of lime kiln”. Still built of masonry, Winskill’s kiln had separate feeding points for fuel and stone, and it was very different in concept from Robinson’s designs. In 1889 Winskill’s son, also John, registered in his own name a patent which was markedly distinct from his father’s. All these kilns were conceived on a grand scale, standing at least 12 metres high, substantially bigger than earlier selling kilns.


Another father and son partnership was hard at work trying to perfect new kiln technology. Based in Lothersdale, P W Spencer patented a design of kiln in 1870 but his son, William, took his father’s ideas to a new plane in designs registered in 1894 and 1900 for use at the family’s lime works at Lothersdale, Giggleswick and Swinden. His later design was for a massive, vertical, steel-clad kiln and this was soon to prove itself one of the most successful types of kiln ever. It was efficient in fuel and labour and turned out lime of very high quality. There were banks of Spencer kilns at Horton Quarry and at the Craven Lime Company’s works at Langcliffe, both major lime burning sites.


Though a number of quarries in Wensleydale, such as Leyburn Shawl, Black, Preston-under-Scar and Redmire, were significant producers of limestone, they did not burn lime. Within what is now the National Park industrial lime burning was centred on Ribblesdale and Wharfedale. Four large lime works were situated in Ribblesdale – Giggleswick, Craven, Ribblesdale at Helwith Bridge, and Horton. All operated from the 1870s or 1880s and produced quicklime and hydrated lime until well into the 20th century though by the early 1970s lime production had ceased. Environmental concerns, outdated technology, increasing maintenance costs and loss of markets, led to the demise of the industry. In Wharfedale, Threshfield Lime Works produced burnt lime until 1964 but Swinden’s last kilns were only shut down in 1996.


Of all the major industrial kilns in use in Dales’ quarries, whether masonry or steel clad, no matter of what design or of what date, only three complexes have structures that have survived to the present day, one in Ingleton and two north of Langcliffe. All the rest have been swept away by later quarrying activity.


In 1864 two sons of Austwick, John Clark and Michael Wilson, made the momentous decision to expand their horizons and ambitions. As very young men they started lime burning in Austwick Wood. Then in 1856 they took on the lease of selling kilns at Buckhaw Brow, Giggleswick. Still not satisfied, they took on the lease of the kilns and quarry at Meal Bank in Ingleton in 1864. Four years after this move they purchased a licence to build a revolutionary design of horizontal kiln. They constructed the first Hoffmann continuous kiln in the north of England. Without doubt this type was the most successful lime kiln of the 19th century and proved to be extremely fuel efficient and capable of producing lime of exceptional quality.


Such was their success that, in 1872, the two friends formed the Craven Lime Company Ltd and built a second and much larger Hoffmann kiln at Langcliffe. Meal Bank operated until 1909 and Langcliffe until 1939 but both kilns have survived. The former, now very ruinous, can claim to be the only surviving lime kiln in Britain that is true to Hoffmann’s 1864 patent. The latter is the best preserved example of a Hoffmann lime kiln in the country, though it was substantially modified at the very end of the 19th century. Only the Langcliffe example has public access.


Just north of the Craven Lime Works is a battery of three vertical, masonry kilns. Built in the early 1870s for the North Ribblesdale Limestone and Limeworks, this outdated technology could not compete with the Hoffmann next door and produced lime for little more than ten years. The kilns still stand in almost perfect condition, however.


An insatiable demand for lime in the mid- to late 19th century, for town, industry and farming, spawned a huge growth in lime burning in and around the Dales. The double lime kilns located near Smardalegill Viaduct in the Westmorland Dales are well-preserved examples, They produced lime used in the construction of the viaduct. Within a century, though, this demand had all but disappeared… along with most of the industrial kilns.

Contributor: David Johnson



Johnson, D S (2002) Limestone Industries of the Yorkshire Dales Stroud: Tempus

Johnson, D S (2002) ‘Friedrich Edouard Hoffmann and the invention of continuous kiln technology : the archaeology of the Hoffmann kiln in 19th century industrial development Part 1’ Industrial Archaeology Review Vol 24:2 pp119-132

Johnson, D S (2003) ‘Part 2’ Industrial Archaeology Review Vol 25:1 pp15-29

Mitchell, W R (1999) ‘Michael Wilson a forgotten quarryman’ Yorkshire History Quarterly Vol 4:4 pp133-135

Trueman, M R G (1992) ‘The Langcliffe quarry and limeworks’ Industrial Archaeology Review Vol 24:2 pp126-143