Teachers’ Background Material (1)
A Brief History of Limestone Working in Llanymynech
A Village On The Welsh Marches
Llanymynech is a small settlement on the Marches, the border between England and Wales. Indeed the boundary between the two countries runs through the centre of the village. Over the centuries the boundary between the two countries has moved frequently and Llanymynech reflects both Welsh and English history. Llanymynech also lies on a geographical boundary between the plain of the rivers Severn and Vyrnwy and the Welsh Hills, with Limestone cliffs and quarries dominating the village.
Early Mines and Quarries
Mining probably first occurred during Celtic times when small deposits of metals, particularly copper, were extracted from surface pits scattered around an ancient Iron Age hill fort.
In 43 AD the Romans recognised the importance of Llanymynech. The hill fort was of strategic importance as a defence position against the Welsh tribes to the west. They also knew the value of the mineral deposits such as copper, lead, silver and zinc within the limestone rocks. They mined these using surface pits, trenches and eventually underground passages. Using metal tools they were able to explore deeper underground although the work was still relatively small in scale.
Limestone, Quicklime and Slaked Lime.
It was probably the Romans who first realised the value of the limestone itself. Limestone is made of calcium carbonate. When burnt at a high temperature in a simple kiln, limestone is converted into calcium oxide or quicklime, sometimes just called lime, which the Romans used as a fertiliser to reduce the acidity of the local farmland. Quicklime mixed with water is known as Slaked Lime. This could be mixed with sand and used as a mortar to hold bricks together in buildings
.Limestone Burning In The Eighteenth Century
Mining and quarrying continued on a small scale at Llanymynech for many centuries but the history of the limestone quarries only becomes clear during the 18th century. A map of Llanymynech Hill from 1753 shows three banks of lime kilns indicating that limestone was not only being quarried but was being burnt in kilns close to the quarries with the quicklime then transported elsewhere for use. A number of these draw kilns have now been restored and are open to view.
Quicklime is lighter to carry than limestone, but if it gets wet it becomes a very dangerous substance, reacting with the water to produce great heat, burning anything it touches. Transporting quicklime on horseback in baskets along the rutted and narrow lanes of the 18th century would have been a slow and hazardous task.
The quarrying of the limestone was also a dangerous occupation. Holes were drilled into the rock face and packed with explosive, initially gunpowder. When this was detonated, huge slabs of rock would be separated from the cliff and fall to the base of the rocks. There were many recorded injuries and fatalities caused by flying rocks or uncontrolled explosions.
The Industrial Revolution
The period between 1750 and 1850 is known as The Industrial Revolution. There were significant improvements in methods of transport across Britain, with the introduction of turnpike roads, canals and railways. Llanymynech benefited from the development of all three methods of transport and experienced its own Industrial Revolution.
The first turnpike road through Llanymynech was built in 1756, linking the village with Oswestry and Welshpool and a second in the 1770s linking with Shrewsbury. These roads were built to a high standard, enabling far faster communication although everyone using them had to pay a fee or toll for the privilege. As a result greater quantities of quicklime could be carried from Llanymynech for use as a fertiliser in the farms of the surrounding counties. However, even the turnpike roads were slow during the winter months and horses could only carry a very limited load.
The Montgomery Canal
The second transport revolution to affect Llanymynech came with the digging of the Montgomery Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal which reached the village in 1796. It was now possible to carry heavy loads on boats to Nantwich and Liverpool and later to Birmingham. Canal boats, towed by horses, were able to carry the heavy limestone itself, rather than the dangerous quicklime, so it now became more sensible to transport limestone to small kilns along the canal side where it could safely be converted into quicklime. As a result, the demand for limestone increased greatly and the quarries flourished.
However, the growth of the limestone quarrying during this period brought a new problem; how to transport the huge quantities of heavy limestone downhill from the quarries to the canal. The answer was to construct a network of railway tracks carrying small trucks. These tracks, known as tramways, carried trucks which were pushed by the quarrymen, pulled by horses or allowed to freewheel down the steep hill sides.
A network of tramways was constructed to carry limestone from the Llanymynech quarries down to the canal. They passed under the turnpike road, (now the A483), through two tunnels which can still be clearly seen today.
Horses or ponies were mainly used to move trucks along level ground but the easiest way to send loads down hill was to use the force of gravity. Full trucks, ran down a steep track called an inclined plane. During the 18th Century there were two main inclined planes, one operated from the English Quarry and one from the Welsh Quarry which was operated by a separate company. Each truck was attached to a cable which passed around a winding drum at the top of the incline and was attached at the other end to an empty truck at the bottom of the hill. As the full truck descended the hill, its weight pulled the empty truck back up. When the load had been emptied this power saving method could then be operated in reverse. The speed of the trucks was regulated by a man operating a braking mechanism on the winding drum. A brake drum house has been restored above the “English” inclined plane.
Approaching the canal, the tramways passed a Tally Hut where the quantities of limestone being carried could be weighed and recorded. The quarrymen were paid piece rate; that means they were paid according to the weight of limestone they produced, not for the hours they worked.
In 1845 a plan was suggested to build a railway carrying steam locomotives from Shrewsbury to Chester with a branch line linking to the Llanymynech Quarries. The scheme was developed by two local businessmen David Davies and Thomas Savin who were keen to build railways across the country. The scheme was initially delayed by the need to build bridges and cross marshy, unstable ground so the first railway line linking Llanymynech to Oswestry was not completed until 1859 although further lines extending to Newtown and the Welsh coast soon followed.
Thomas Savin & Company
Thomas Savin realised the potential of using the railway to transport quicklime. The railways were faster than the canals and could carry far greater loads. Above all, it was now possible to carry quicklime, which is far lighter than limestone, quite safely in covered goods wagons. In 1858 Thomas Savin bought up the lease on the English and Welsh Quarries and the limestone industry of Llanymynech reached its most productive period with limestone being quarried on a massive scale.
Draw Kilns and the Hoffmann Kiln
The market for quicklime, both as a fertiliser and in new industrial processes was huge. Although there were already large kilns near the quarry, to cope with this increased demand, Savin built additional huge kilns, still visible today, near the canal, to burn the limestone and convert it into quicklime.
However, by far the most impressive kiln was the Hoffmann Kiln, built in 1899. This was in effect an oval shaped brick structure divided into chambers. The internal chamber walls were built of the limestone to be burnt and coal was supplied through flues in the roof. A draught was provided by the impressive chimney that was originally 37.5 metres in height. However, this was soon extended to 42.5 metres, either to increase the draught to the kiln or to reduce problems of smoke pollution after complaints from people living nearby.
The kiln worked continuously; as one section was fired to convert limestone into quicklime, another section was cooling, another was being unloaded and yet another being rebuilt. The kiln was fed by a network of tramways providing limestone and coal then transporting the finished quicklime to the waiting railway trucks.
The Decline of the Llanymynech Limestone Industry
Although the Hoffmann Kiln was very efficient it also required greater manpower as the kiln could not be allowed to go out, so it proved costly to operate. It was only in use for 15 years and closed in 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. Demand for quicklime began to fall as new chemical fertilisers were developed and modern cement took over from the use of lime mortar as a building material.
The quarry continued to produce limestone for another thirty years, although on a far smaller scale, and production finally ceased in the 1930s. During subsequent years the historical remains of this once great industry, which had dominated life in the community, were gradually overgrown by vegetation with tracks and stones often removed for use elsewhere.
The Heritage Lottery Project
With the recent upsurge in interest in our industrial past, £900,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding became available in 2006 to fund the restoration of this significant historical site. This has enabled the restoration of the magnificent Hoffmann Kiln together with examples of the draw kilns, several buildings and the varied means of transport. The stable block that once housed the working ponies has been converted into an education area and interpretation boards have been installed to enable visitors to understand the industrial remains they encounter when touring the site