Lime Kilns – A silent killer

Halfway House has one of the most densely populated sites of Lime Kilns that I know of.  Its location on the tidal Pill was crucial. Kilns were built to produce quicklime which had a variety of uses in agriculture and rural living in the 18th & 19th centuries. The operation of the kilns was a tough, physical task, but it could also be deadly as one young woman found to her cost at Halfway House.

What is a Lime Kiln?

A lime kiln is a structure used to break down limestone rock using heat, to create quicklime powder.  Or for the calcination of limestone (calcium carbonate) to produce calcium oxide. The chemical equation for this reaction is CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2.  The kilns sites we have remaining in the harbour are based on a similar design and probably date from the mid 18th century.   Each kiln is of a relatively uniform size 25-30 ton capacity.  The type we have can be described as “Draw Kilns”.  There are a number of single burning kilns, but at Half Way House double kilns are in evidence, ie two separate fire chambers, which assisted the burning process, as the heat from the first burn was retained by the brick and stone, which aided a more efficient burn in the next chamber.  There is also a triple nearby that I am aware of.

Why site them close to water?

The kilns are sited close to water, as the limestone which was burned, was generally ferried by the river.  The lime was quarried from Grannagh in South Kilkenny and from there it would journey around the harbour and along the rivers and tributaries on the Suir and Barrow.  The boats used to carry the stone were termed Lighters.  These had a three-man crew; one held the tiller and two pushed the flat bottomed craft along using poles or used large oars called sweeps.  The crew also loaded and unloaded the craft and were paid by the ton load, back-breaking work it must be said.

A lighter in operation in New Ross
A lighter in operation in New Ross. Photo courtesy of Myles Courtney.

As we saw previously, the Pill is tidal up to the Bridge and could also be dammed by the sluice gate on the old salt water mill.  Once above the sluice, the Lighters would have been able to navigate with their loads (30 tons was an average load from what I have read) beaching them as close to the kilns as possible.

Dating the kilns

One of the earliest maps I have of the area, the Richards & Scales map of 1764 shows the Salt Mill but very little else on the Pill or stream.  I can’t say that it is 100% accurate, but with such a large number of kilns, it is perhaps strange that they were omitted if they were then on the Pill.  I also reread the account of the visit of Arthur Young. A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom in 1776–78.  Young only mentions kilns in an offhand manner, and then to say the Waterford is producing slat in pans placed over the lime kilns.  What it suggests to me is that the kilns were commonplace, but frustratingly there is no clue of where these kilns are located. 

My hunch is that the kilns date from this era.  Young stayed with the Boltons at Ballycanvan during his stay, landlords of the area.  Cornelius Bolton Jnr showed him around the estate and Young is complimentary of their tenure seeing them as progressive landlords, open to scientific methods and productive land management.  The lands are mixed with cattle, dairy, and arable including barley, corn, and oats.  Cornelius would later go on to build a new house at Faithlegg (now the hotel) and use his influence as MP to draw further investment to the area.  What I can say for certain is that the kilns were shown on the first of our historic map series, and elsewhere in this account you will see an advert highlighting that the kilns were in operation (or at least some of them were) in 1824.

A very high tide at the Pill, gives an insight into how accessible the kilns etc were in previous times and when the pill was no doubt less silted and overgrown
Operation of the Kilns

A kiln to all intents and purposes is an oven.  The oven is within the overall structure and is called a chamber, basically egg shaped, with the top cut off.  The chamber was loaded with a charge initially – something flammable such as furze or very dry timber which would get the fire going.  Onto this, the layers of limestone were added (generally fist-sized to allow the fire and heat to rise, but not so big that it would not be heated through) with an extra layer of firing material to keep the chamber burning (three to five layers of stone to one layer of firing material).  The fuel could be more timber but coal or coal slack (Calum) was also used – another material transported by water. 

The fire was lit from the base through an eye or draw hole.  The draw holes also allowed more air in if required or could be blocked to slow the burning down.  Once lit the fire had to be monitored and controlled,  A burn could take two or three days and the lime had to cool before being drawn off.

The draw hole and distinctive arch will often catch even a casual observer’s eye.

The burnt lime was drawn out of the chamber and if required some stone could be broken up before being barrelled or loaded into carts to be delivered to farms or homes. 

Although there are several single kilns in the area the visible kilns at Halfway House are double Kilns.  Doubles were more efficient as the heat from one burn, stayed in the stone building,  A second chamber was thus already heated up which meant that the process was more efficient.  As one burned a second could be prepared.  There is also a triple kiln on the Pill, more efficient again.

Uses of Lime 

Although quick lime has a variety of uses, I think we can assume that the principal use of the kilns at Halfway House was as an agricultural fertiliser.  It was(is) used for acidic soils and can improve the root system of grass and plants.  It has a good benefit in milk production and also allows arable crops to absorb more nutrients. 

That said, lime had a variety of other uses in the past, and growing up the use of limewash on buildings gave Irish dwelling houses, outbuildings, and walls their traditional white appearance.  Lime has been used in buildings since the time of the Egyptians, and lime mortar and lime plastering were used up to relatively modern times in the building trade.  Indeed it still is used in traditional building renovations and enhancements and apparently is making a comeback for example in eco-building and sustainable construction, along with the advent of new materials such as hempcrete walling

I remember my grandmother’s brother Paddy Moran using lime to clean a well on the strand close to Moran’s Poles.  Whenever it got tainted by saltwater Paddy would clean it out (usually it happened on high tides and leaves, seaweed, etc would get into it) and then put lime atop the water which was left until it had settled into the bottom and the water was crystal clear again. 

My grandmother used it as a way of neutralising the smell when she emptied the dry toilet in the dung heap.  I also heard of it being spread of corpses after mass burials – for example as a way of controlling plague.  Although I was surprised to read, that the quicklime doesn’t actually help in the decaying process, rather it neutralises the smell, which is obviously a plus when you consider the smell of rotting and decomposing bodies!

Dangers associated with the kilns

Now speaking of bodies, Lime Kilns were decidedly dangerous to be around.  While burning, the structures emitted noxious fumes which were prone to overcoming the inattentive. Another issue was that the sides of the chamber were of necessity smooth, in order that the burned lime would drop down to the base.  If you were unfortunate to fall in, there was no way to extricate yourself. 

A casual look at the local newspapers of the early 19th Century reveals a catalogue of countrywide accidents associated with them.  For example in May 1824 a stranger was found dead beside a burning kiln at Carlow, having been drawn to the heat at night.  While asleep he inhaled the fumes and was suffocated.  Three children were burnt to a cinder when they fell into a kiln in Kilgarvan Co Kerry in September 1829.  Earlier that year two Tipperary farmers (a father and son) died in a kiln after they tried to rescue a pig that had fallen in.  The father tried and became overcome, his son leaped into his aid.  The incidents were so common it was chilling.  Tramps tried to heat themselves at night, others tried to cook potatoes beside them, while for others it was just an attempt to dry themselves or find shelter.  And unfortunately, the kilns at Jack Meades proved fatal too.

this is the first of three short videos depicting the working of a kiln – highlights the back-breaking nature, the challenges and the dangers very clearly

The Waterford Mail of Saturday 10 April 1830; page 4 had this account: “Wednesday evening, an inquest was held at Halfway-house (midway between this city and Passage) Mr. Sherin, coroner.  The body of Catherine Colbert which was found on the preceding morning in a lime kiln, a verdict returned of ‘ died by suffocation’ It supposed that she was intoxicated on Monday and had fallen into a small river adjoining and that she went on the kiln for the purpose of drying her clothes (her petticoat being found on the top of the kiln) and by some accident fell in, and the kiln being only partly filled and partially lighted, she was suffocated by the noxious steam. No marks of violence were found on the body”  A very sad account, and I have not heard of the surname in the area.

Kilns caused death in other ways too.  The Waterford Mail of 1825 for example related that at the Carlow Azzies Michael Forrester was found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution after he had thrown John Carey into a burning lime kiln.

Perhaps not surprisingly people were cautious about the location of kilns.  For example at the Waterford City Sessions in July 1828 a case was taken by several inhabitants of William Street and surrounding neighbourhoods against a newly erected lime kiln worked by Nicholas Devereux.  They argued that it should be removed because it was within 100 feet of the centre of the road, contrary to the express words of and act governing such buildings (71st section of the 31st Geo. HI. chap. 71) The court found that their case was just, but judgement was held over.  I don’t know their exact concerns but the court later ruled that the act was not a deterrent to these particular lime kilns.

And of course, for others, the kilns were a positive as this ad for the Halfway House area highlights.

An advert for land, using the location of the Kilns as a positive selling point.
Source: Waterford Mail – Saturday 20 November 1824; page 1

We will conclude our online tour of Halfway House this coming Friday. It will showcase my favorite heritage building in the area; the commercial Ice House.

I have set up a dedicated page for Water Heritage Day this year. I will gather all the elements of the Halfway House story there and any links etc to the day. I also have a link to this event on the Heritage Week website which includes a link for a walk on Water Heritage Day on Sunday 22nd. Booking through eventbrite is essential.

This year’s event is again supported by the Local Authorities Waters Programme.

9 Replies to “Lime Kilns – A silent killer”

    1. I was aware of the reputation of these kilns, but from the UK mostly Kev. I was very surprised at the dangers associated with it in Ireland, and I never read of a murder associated with one prior to this.

  1. Great work as always Andrew, I learned recently the expression step into the limelight came from theatres using lime on its walls to brighten the stage before electricity.

  2. Martin
    17/ 10 / 20 21

    Were the lighters that travelled up the Barrow and Nore with limestone from Kilmacow , the same size boats as those used in Waterford Port area. How far up these rivers did they travel beyond New Ross

    1. Hi Martin,
      I think it all depends on the ability of the craft to navigate such waterways. For example the large boats that travelled to Carrick, had to half their load of 40ton to continue on to Clonmel due to the depth of the water. Another factor would be various impediments. EG on the Campile Pill there is a bridge, so a smaller sized boat would be required to get under this. There seems to have been various sizes in the craft and I would imagine there was local distinctions based on the local need. The Lighters certainly went above New Ross, perhaps to the tidal limits…but the canal companies did travel from Dublin and beyond

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