Combe Martin Lime-Burning and Quarrying

By Combe Martin History and Heritage Project 2023-2024

Posted on April 03, 2023 | Modified on June 06, 2024

Combe Martin's Lime Kilns

Abstract

This original article by J.P. provides a detailed overview of the historical lime-burning and quarrying industry in Combe Martin, a village in North Devon, England. It discusses the nineteen lime kilns that were once located in the area, some of which still survive today as important heritage monuments.

We explain the process of lime-burning, where limestone was heated in the kilns to produce quicklime and slaked lime for use in agriculture, construction, and other applications.

The article describes the major limestone quarries that supplied the raw material for the kilns, as well as the fuels used, which included charcoal and low-grade coal. It highlights Combe Martin as having one of the highest concentrations of lime kilns in North Devon.

We also provide details on the current status of the remaining kilns, particularly the Kiln Field lime kiln at EX34 0AE. That kiln is accessible to visitors, but requires care due to its fragile condition as a protected historic structure.

Overall, this original study offers a comprehensive look at a major aspect of the significant industrial heritage of Combe Martin.

Our Photographs

The images above are of the Combe Martin Lime Kiln (Grade II), standing in Kiln Field, about 100 metres north of Park Lane in the area of postcode EX34 0LL. Map: NGR SS5781346757. Kiln Field is accessible, and its lime kiln is an important but fragile national monument.

The crinkly photo in the carousel shows Combe Martin harbour beach, including its old lime kiln demolished for Kiln Car Park. It got in the way of tourism but Combe Martin's beach kiln featured in a c.1824 watercolour by J.M.W. Turner.

Judging by the contemporary height of Combe Martin's Fo'c'sle Inn sea wall, the main harbour beach was of a lower level than it is today. The old sea wall along the old main road (now the A399 central trunk) has since been replaced.

See also: Culm anthtracite smokeless fuel, stored and used in old Combmartin.

Combe Martin's Lime-Burning Heritage

Combe Martin is a very fine example of quarrying and lime-burning, having had a total of 18 or 19 mainly circular lime kilns, located near quarries. Some of those kilns survive today. However, lime-burning was a dangerous occupation.

Combe Martin's quarries were worked for hundreds of years, supplying fast-acting quicklime (calcium oxide) and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) to farmers, market-gardeners and builders. Lime sweetened the soil, and accelerated crops.

Combe Martin had the highest concentration of such limekilns in the whole of North Devon; and our surviving kilns are listed on the National Heritage List for England.

There were nine limestone quarries on the southside of Combe Martin's valley, ranged in a line close to the limestone quarries; the belt running parallel to the south of the long village A399 central trunk road. 

Many of Combe Martin's limekilns were sited at the limestone quarries where firewood was also available. Constructions containing limestone, lime binding and lime putty for mortar render and plaster are commonly found near to these workings. 

About North Devon Lime Kilns 

From the early 17th century, lime kilns in North Devon were concentrated in the valleys of Torridge and Combe MartinNo public domain images were available of the monument standing in Combe Martin Kiln Field, so we took our own.

Shammickites have mistakenly called this kiln 'the turret', for seemingly obvious reasons. It is actually a nineteenth-century lime kiln built into an earth bank which marked field or land boundaries; mainly in the southwest of England.

Burning the Limestone

Continuous curve-shaped layers of limestone, and bundles of wood, sometimes gorse and often coal, were built up in the kiln on grate bars across the eye. Openings on either side, known as kiln eyes, connected to the base of the crucible.

The kiln was lit through the eyes, and air was drawn up into the crucible, into which raw limestone would be placed for baking. Most commercial fuel-burning kilns are updrafts; largely because they were simpler to build or move elsewhere.

After loading, the kiln was kindled at the bottom, and the fire gradually spread upwards through the charge. After the lime cooled down, it was removed and “slaked” by adding water to it. In this condition, the lime was used for plaster and soil dressing.

Read more at Historic England: Pre-industrial Lime Kilns.

Uses for Burnt Lime

Lime was mixed with water for 'lime paint'; colours were created using alkali-resistant ('lime-fast') pigments, particularly metal oxides from natural earths.

Lime was mixed into a thick slurry with sand and water to make mortar for building purposes, and for limewash. It is found in Combe Martin's houses and in the mortar of enclosure walls all over the village.

Combe Martin Quarries

Berry’s Quarry was worked until 1929. Lock’s and Tracy Quarry were active from the 1850’s. Pigs Lane became known as Kiln Lane after the numerous - nineteen - lime kilns in the surrounding area.

In Combe Martin; lime was burnt using charcoal and low-grade coal imported from Wales. The low-grade coal for the lime kilns could well have been culm; fine-grained waste from anthracite coal

Kiln Field Lime-Burner in Combe Martin

Kiln Field at Combe Martin is accessible and usually open. The historic lime kiln is an important but fragile national monument, and it has recently been repaired.  Kiln Field lime kiln dates to the 19th century (National Heritage LEN 1237379).

The kiln is constructed of unrendered stone rubble, and built into an earth bank. This example is circular, with rear steps up to a circular well. Accidents happened when the tops caved in under sheer weights of limestone and people.

On this kiln there is a low opening at the front and a flat timber lintel, with a low parapet around the well. It is thickly encrusted with lime (Historic England, 2023). The kiln is a treasured local heritage asset.

Visitors are asked to take care not to damage this British Listed monument. We are fortunate with Kiln Field - several lime kilns in the county have fallen into disrepair - or not - and 'have had to be demolished'. 

Lime Kiln Near Barton Gate Lane Combe Martin

A lime kiln is depicted near Barton Gate Lane on historic Ordnance Survey maps. Grid Reference: SS 579 468 - Map Sheet: SS54NE. Devon and Dartmoor Heritage describes the kiln as semi-circular and built against a bank.

HER Number MDV31263, the kiln is constructed of stone (slate); the dimensions of the combustion chamber are diam 3.5m and height c.6m.

The Demolished Lime Kiln on Combe Martin Beach

Lime kilns are found in almost every community along the coast (John H. Moore, 2023). The undated crinkly photograph of unknown origin, included in the set above, was taken from the direction of Seaside Hill. Unfortunately that kiln has vanished.

The building behind the massive sea wall was the New Inn, now The Focsle. Note how much deeper the harbour beach was at the time that photograph was taken.

Combe Martin Kilns in Popular Art

There is a painting by Joseph Mallord William TurnerA Lime Kiln at Combe Martin, dated to 1824. It shows Seaside Hill in the background to the southwest.

Famous artists also painted pictures of Combe Martin limestone quarries. One watercolour dates from John Middleton's visit to Devon during 1850. These paintings can be found online.

This lime kiln at the top of the beach was owned by the Cutcliffe family of Rosea Bridge. It was surrounded by a Culmhay, for the culm cereal plant or perhaps coal culm fuel, landed by vessels. That was demolished in about 1900 for a pair of coastguard cottages. 

Combe Martin Cobblers Park

According to the Combe Martin Local History Group (1989), there was supposedly a kiln on what is now Cobbler's Park at Lester Point. Here, there was a large cliff fall one Sunday morning in 1916 during high tide. No-one was hurt.

Cobblers Park was once divided into allotments until it was purchased by the Parish Council in 1947. Hemp (for Cobblers thread) and strawberries were grown on this land.

Lime Burning in Combe Martin

Lime-burning began in the sixteenth-century in England, and large quantities of lime were required to improve agricultural land, over hundreds of years. There were once 18 lime kilns sited near 9 quarries in Combe Martin (CMLHG, 1994) and they were used well into the twentieth-century. 

In the North Devon Journal dated February 16, 1928, a Mr Jewell of Combe Martin 'begged to inform the inhabitants of Combe Martin and district, that he had again commenced to burn lime in Berry's Kiln. A quantity was available to anyone requiring first-class lime'.

Combe Martin's Water Lane Lime Kiln

A good surviving lime kiln stands in Water Lane, on private property near to a quarry. The kiln located at Wild Pear Beach has collapsed. A kiln once stood on the harbour beach on the site destroyed for Kiln Car Park - it belonged to the Cutcliffe family and can be seen on photographs. 

Continuous Draft Kilns

Crushed limestone was heated to around 1,000 degrees Celsius, in local shaft furnaces or rotary kilns. Lime was burnt by skilled families of workers, and it was dangerous work requiring great skill and knowledge.

In order to meet demand, lime kilns could be kept burning for months at a time.  

About Quicklime

Lime is a soil conditioner and a fertiliser, controlling the soil acidity by neutralising the effects of acids from nitrogen fertiliser, slurry and high rainfall. And until the early 20th century, lime was still used for domestic cleaning. 

Lime improves earthworm activity, improves soil structure, and makes grass more palatable to livestock.

Quicklime was also used for crafts, as dyes, and for mortar, plaster and limewash. Lime kilns were once part of everyday life, and working them was dirty and dangerous.

A lime kiln was a structure used to manufacture lime (calcium oxide or quicklime) by burning calcium carbonate at very high temperatures. Commonly they had a flat top, and they looked like ring doughnuts or upturned mugs in the early 19th century.

Tons of quicklime were spread on Combe Martin's fields. Farmers typically used slaked lime (calcium oxide mixed with water), quicklime (burnt lime), and chalk, to boost soil fertility. Quicklime also quickened the absorption of animal dung into the soil.

Kilns were lit with coal and/or with combustible materials: faggots of sticks, coal, furze (dry shrubs), straw and piles of wood for the fire. The two main kiln types had the same basic structure, built with a thick walled stone chamber and a hearth at the base.

The calcinated lime was removed from the base. In Devon, many lime kilns were constructed between about 1700 and 1850, and fatalities in Combe Martin lime-burning were far in excess of fatalities in the mining industry ("OLD COMBMARTIN", 1994, P. 39). 

Combe Martin Museum and Information Point has pictures and information on local lime-burning, with geological displays.

Historic England and many others, report that Combe Martin's lime kilns stand in a line close to its limestone quarries, in a chain running parallel to, and southwest of, the long street.

Kilns were sited conveniently near quarries, and at a safe distance from dwellings. Lime was burned in kilns all along the North Devon coast, and Combe Martin's kilns were built of rendered or unrendered stone rubble, making them more resilient to cracking.

Lime was often imported by sea from South Wales, in exchange for locally mined ores. This is indicated by the ruined lime kiln at Wild Pear Beach.

Combe Martin was able to supply much of its own limestone from local quarries, and the kilns were necessarily sited near to the agricultural fields on which lime was to be spread.

This facilitated good communications but quicklime is extremely corrosive. The less time quicklime had to get wet or cause damage to carts and horses, the better.  

Accounts of kilns and lime-burning in North Devon include farmers getting up very early to collect their lime. There was competition between farmers, and between the lime-burners.

The lime had to be carted away for spreading. This continued until railway connections, and larger industrial scales, made the whole business redundant.

Artificial fertilizers were introduced in the nineteenth-century, and kilns ceased to be built before the First World War.

Wild Pear Beach

Above Wild Pear Beach are the remains of a lime kiln, and supposedly an accounts house, on the eroding cliff edge. The Exmoor National Park HER MDE8267 record states that the remains were inaccessible. No exact measurements could be obtained.

Fragments of walling remain after the rest fell into the sea. "There is no record on the 1843 tithe map".

Exmoor National Park states that Dr Peter Claughton confirmed the rectangular building he saw in 1973, was a lime kiln.

He believes it was using lime and coal brought in by sea from South Wales by ships. They returned with iron or manganese from the adjacent workings (Exmoor National Park, 2023).

Clogg's Quarry Combe Martin

A tunnel from Pig's Lane into Clogg's Quarry is actually stone arches, built to support quarry waste while preserving access (CMLHG, 1994, p. 39) In the 1800s, the Clogg family were limeburners and strawberry growers (CMLHG, 1989, pp. 98, 169). Nicholas Clogg owned Clogg's Quarry in 1863 (CMLHG, 1989, p. 102). 

Berry's Quarry Combe Martin 

On Kiln Lane, there is an arched tunnel to the south, leading to Berry's Lime Quarry. Officially a Grade 2 listed building (1987), it is 19th century and made of stone rubble (Historic England LEN 1106804).

This is a short tunnel -16 ft long- through a quarry bank, giving cart access to the enclosed quarry. Historic England states that the tunnel is an unusual survival.

Breaks in the masonry suggest that it was continually extended as the spoil banks steadily piled up around the quarry. Modern Combe Martin still remembers the accidental death of Mr Norman, at Berry's lime kiln.

In local legend - and by his descendants - he is remembered as praying and singing 'Nearer My God to Thee' before his tragic demise. Lime kilns existed further afield as far as Dartmoor, and the many dangers of working these kilns are starkly listed in records.

There were several kiln related accidents in the village. In May 1855, Samuel Norman and his cart horse were badly injured when they fell into the Lee limekilns at Combe Martin. Richard Comer, aged 8 and the son of a kiln owner, was also killed there. 

Quarry on Little Hangman, West Challacombe Farm

The quarry on Little Hangman is a national monument on National Trust land. The quarry is undated and its former purpose is unidentified by the National Trust. Record ID: 100904 / MNA148436 - GR SS 58529 48029. 

The Origins of 'in the Limelight'

The origins of “in the limelight” or being the focus of public attention, link back to a type of stage lighting popular in the 19th century. The “lime” in limelight has nothing to do with the green citrus fruit; it was calcium oxide also known as quicklime.

In the early 1820s, English inventor Sir Goldsworthy Gurney - inventor of Limelight - heated calcium oxide in a blowpipe. The flame produced an intense white light, dubbed limelight, Drummond light or calcium light.

Limelight in Theatres and Music Halls

Gurney addressed the difficulties of theatrical lighting which used limelight, and this led to the Bude-Light. Gurney extended his work to lighthouse lamps and lenses, for aiding seafarers. In 1837, limelight was used to illuminate a stage in London’s Covent Garden.

Around the world in the 1860s and 1870s, most theatres and music halls adopted this powerful form of light which could be focused into beams or a spotlight, “lighting-up” actors or sets, bathing them in moonlight and sunlight.

“In the limelight” is still used as a term for people who are front-and-centre the focus of public attention, not always positively.

The actual lamps are called "limes", a term still used for electrical equivalents. One problem was that limelight – and two cylinders of dangerous gases that fuelled it - needed constant attention. The bigger problem with these lights was the ever present fire hazard.

Limelight Disasters

In 1885, The Theatre Royal in Exeter burnt down while still using limelight, and 278 people perished as a result of a fire caused by a stage light at the Brooklyn Theatre in New York during 1876.

The Royal Alhambra Theatre in London had a major fire in 1882, in which a wall collapsed, nearly killing amateur fireman the Prince of Wales (Firehouse Magazine).

Theatrical limelight was not the sole cause of such disasters, for while it presented inherent dangers there were other contributing factors such as overcrowding, lack of sufficient fire escapes, and poor risk assessments.

Other factors included back-stage fires and careless safety management. Lessons were learned, and firefighting measures with iron safety curtains were more widely introduced in theatres and music halls during the 1870s.

Thomas Edison is credited for introducing the first practical electric light bulb in 1879, and by the end of the 19th century most theatres had switched to electricity.

On the next page you can read about the little-known culm that was once stored and used as smokeless fuel, for lime kilns and steam engines, in Combe Martin.

 

Next >

© Author  J.P. 2023-2024                                                          

Sources accessed April 2023:

Beach and lime kiln, New Inn, Combe Martin; Unknown; 4 | eHive

Combe Martin Local History Group (1994) "OLD COMBMARTIN". Combe Martin, Rotapress.

GENUKI: Combmartin Yesterday, Devon.

GENUKI: Out of the world and into Combe Martin, Devon 2023.

Historic England online; Grade II Listed Buildings. 2023.

Historic England – Pre-industrial Lime Kilns – Introductions to Heritage Assets. 2023.

lmqvist, Ebbe (2003). "History of industrial gases". Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 72.

Johnson, D. (2018) "Lime Kilns History and Heritage". Amberley Publishing, Stroud.

J. M. W. Turner: A Lime Kiln at Combe Martin (1811). Tate: CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported). Non Derivative Work (ND). Non-profit.

Lime is a fertiliser (aglime.org.uk) 2023.

Lime burning in Hele Bay, Ilfracombe, north Devon (johnhmoore.co.uk) 2023.

LIMEKILN IN KILN FIELD APPROXIMATELY 100 METRES NORTH OF PARK LANE, Combe Martin - 1237379 | Historic England

MDE8267 - Post-medieval lime kiln and possible counting house above Wild Pear Beach - The Historic Environment Record for Exmoor National Park (exmoorher.co.uk)

North Devon Coast Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: "Trade and Settlement North Devon Walk: Combe Martin". Accessed Apr. 14, 2023.

www.researchgate.net/profile/Thomas-Cuff/publication/335233401_APPENDIX_B_-_Illumination_by_Incandescent_Metal_Oxides/links/5d5a27baa6fdccb7dc477b6b/APPENDIX-B-Illumination-by-Incandescent-Metal-Oxides.pdf.

Waterhouse, R. (2002) Lime Kilns (southdevonaonb.org.uk) 2023.