Cement Kilns

Phantom Rotary Kiln at Lyme Regis

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In late 2015, I came aware of the bizarre suggestion that the ramshackle little Lyme Regis plant had installed a rotary kiln. It's a measure of the failure of this website that since then, virtually no new information has been received. The installation remains a ghostly spectre, although at least one item of information seems to make its existence incontrovertible. There currently exists no plan showing it, no picture showing it in action, and no reference to it in the usual industry histories, technical literature and plant reference lists.

The one source that prevents me from dismissing the whole story is a notice of sale that appeared in The Times on 23/5/1925:


Plant & Machinery at the works of the Lyme Regis Cement Company, Dorset:

  • A GEC 300 kW alternator, 3 phase, 350 volts, 50 periods with surface condensing plant.
  • A Ferranti 250 kVA oil cooled transformer 350/2500 volts.
  • Three Stirling water tube boilers, 160 lb pressure, with feed water heaters and Weir feed pumps. (The tubes belonging to these boilers are at the Stirling Boiler Co's works, Motherwell).
  • Ten 3-phase, 350 volts, 50 periods motors from 9 to 60 HP (Note 1).
  • Morris 1 ton overhead hand traveller 23ft 8in span steel gantry 67 ft long.
  • Two tube mills, about 5 ft diameter, 26 ft long (Note 2).
  • Rotary cement kiln, 6 ft diameter, 94 ft long (Note 3).
  • Aerial ropeway by Bullivant, 500 yards long, with steel standards 60 ft high (see article).
  • Pooley 15-ton weighbridge.
  • Oil cabinets and other effects.

So the plant had a rotary kiln. Questions that arise are:

  • When was it installed?
  • Where did it come from?
  • How was it financed?
  • Did it ever run?

John Lamb Spoor took over the plant around 1906. He gave the townsfolk to believe that this would be a new beginning for the plant, which up to then had been mediocre and probably loss-making. However, Spoor did not relocate to Lyme, and remained at his home in the Medway area. It's natural to assume that Spoor arranged for the kiln to be installed. A new kiln of this size would have cost around £1500, at a time when the plant was making at most 5000 tons a year, with a profit (if any) of a few shillings a ton, so it's hard to see how a new kiln could be funded from revenue. There is no indication of any external funding being obtained, so one must assume that the kiln was obtained cheaply and was perhaps second hand.

A paper published by Lyme Regis Museum (Richard Bull, The Cement Industry in Lyme Regis & Charmouth, 2016, available here) gives a great deal of local information and includes several photographs of what may be the kiln. A picture of part of the kiln being towed away raises questions since the tyres seem to belong to a dryer and the diameter is too small. A picture of the kiln apparently being broken up is similarly suspect, and the real kiln is apparently to be seen, still on its rollers, in the background.

It is remarkable that in a place as frequently photographed as Lyme Regis, no pictures of the functioning kiln survive. There is one Aerofilms photograph (EPW013476) predating the removal of the kiln, taken in June 1925, giving a tantalising blurred view of what might be the kiln, located parallel to the quay-side.

A further object, in bits, is on the edge of the quay. Richard Bull also found a postcard image of the plant, apparently taken from the Cobb, giving a similar view.

The pictures and the sale data all post-date the closure of the plant in 1914. Searches for direct information before closure have drawn a blank. However, there are newspaper references to the plant, which begin in 1912. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette followed the story for over a year. On 17/5/1912, they reported a complaint that access to the Monmouth Beach foreshore had been prevented by the erection of a barrier. This would have prevented the casual photographer from viewing the plant at low tide. On Tuesday 9/7/1912, complaints had begun. At a Council meeting:

The Town Clerk read a petition, and also two letters, from inhabitants of the Cobb complaining of the nuisance caused by the dense black smoke which came from the Cement Works. On the previous day (Sunday) three chimneys were going all the day, and it was impossible to open windows of dwelling-houses without having everything in the house covered with "blacks". The Surveyor was instructed to serve the Company with notice to abate the nuisance within 14 days.

This seems to be typical of the conditions of a kiln light-up. One of the features that make this installation seem so improbable is the lack of any prescience that the plant might become a pollution problem. Situated at beach level, to the southwest of the town, prevailing winds would inevitably drop all its dust over the sea-front of this famous resort. Three chimneys are mentioned: the power house and the kiln, and the third might be the coal dryer/mill.

A month later (Friday 16/8/1912), the paper reports another Council meeting:

Complaints having been again received as to the nuisance arising from the smoke from a chimney at the cement works, Mr Matthew moved, at this week's meeting of the Town Council, that that body take legal proceedings against the Company, as they had not abated the nuisance. Mr Long thought they should give the Company notice of the Council's intention to take such proceedings unless the nuisance were abated, and this course was eventually adopted.

It's now "a chimney". "Pro" and "anti" factions seem to be emerging. After another month (Tuesday 10/9/1912), the paper reports another Council meeting:

The Town Clerk read a letter from Mr B. D. Kilburn, of Barnstaple House, complaining that the smoke nuisance from the Cement Works still continued. The Sanitary Inspector said he had, in accordance with instructions, watched the works of the Company, and on three occasions lately dense black smoke had been emitted, the last occasion being on Friday, when it continued for 20 minutes. Mr F Mathew moved that proceedings be taken at once, remarking that the smoke was a very serious menace to the town as a holiday resort. Mr H Long said he had been given to understand that if the Council insisted upon the smoke being abated, and proceedings taken as suggested by Mr Mathew, the works would be closed down. He therefore thought that the Council should try some other method. It was eventually agreed that the Manager should be asked to meet the Council in Committee.

Evidently the Company's PR position was to tell the town that it was doing it a favour by gracing it with their cement plant. Several more reports along the same lines were published, until on Saturday 19/7/1913, the paper reported:

For some time past complaints have been made to the Lyme Regis Town Council against the Lyme Regis Cement Works, it being alleged by certain householders residing in the west end of the town that a nuisance was caused by the emission of black smoke, fumes and dust from the works. The matter was first brought to the attention of the Council some twelve months ago, complaint then being made as to the smoke nuisance. As a result of the representations made to the Company, they undertook to erect a new chimney, which work was completed about March last. The Company also put in certain smoke-abating appliances, and used smokeless coal (Note 4). Of late, however, frequent complaints have been made to the Council by the same householders, and at an adjourned meeting of the local authority (Note 5) it was decided to take counsel's opinion as to whether the Council would be justified in taking proceedings against the Company to have the nuisance abated, and also as to whether the Council would be entitled to recover expenses incurred in repairing the roads stated to be damaged by the Company's steam lorries.

The case was submitted to Mr A Macmorran, K.C., and he stated that from the description given in his instructions, there could not be any doubt in his opinion, that the work carried on occasioned a serious nuisance, and, moreover, a public nuisance. The only satisfactory remedy was by applying for an injunction in the name of the Attorney General. He also considered the Council could recover on the question of extraordinary traffic.

The Council, as the result of their deliberations, decided to take a postcard poll of the town as to whether proceedings should be taken against the Company, and this will be done in the course of the next few days (Note 6).

Large posters were placarded about in various parts of the town yesterday containing a protest from the workmen employed by the Company, and in the afternoon a procession was formed at the Company's works and marched round the town, headed by the men's own band. In front was also carried a banner, on which was inscribed: "375 men, women, and children (Note 7) depend on the works' success. Give us work, and not take our bread away" (Note 8). The proceedings passed off most orderly, there being no disturbance of any kind.

It is understood that if the case goes against the Company they will remove their works to another town (Note 9).

The salient point here is that the company built a new stack, six months or so after the problem began. This would be the 120 ft masonry stack that remained after the plant closed. Before WWI, small kilns were commonly provided with short stacks, often of rivetted mild steel, and one would imagine that this was the case here. Since the town of Lyme Regis rises sharply up a 500 ft hill above the plant, a taller stack could only move emissions further into the town centre. The "smoke-abating appliance" was probably a "wet-bottom" duct - the pictures show there was room for this. While reducing dust emissions by perhaps as much as 50%, black smoke events would have been little affected.

No proceedings followed, but with the start of WWI, the plant's boat was requisitioned, and closure followed before the end of the year. The firm went into receivership in 1915. In October 1919 there was a report that the plant was being prepared for a re-start, but this evidently didn't happen. The sale of much of the equipment occurred in 1925, as described above. Then finally, in 1936, the remaining buildings and the two masonry stacks were demolished. Several newspapers reported on the occasion, and the most significant account (although not the longest) was in the Western Times, Friday 14/8/1936:

Visitors to Lyme Regis enjoyed a spectacular thrill on Tuesday in the demolition, by the Royal Engineers (Note 10), of two chimneys at the cement works, which have been acquired by the Town Council for the purposes of development. The two chimneys were approximately 120 feet high and one of them, built by Germans, had never been used.

They fell majestically, full length, without any untoward incident and to the accompaniment of the cheers of a large crowd on the Cobb.

The cement works have not been used since the war. The property extends for 26 acres from the Cobb to the borough boundary at a point known as Devonshire Edge on the Devon-Dorset border, and includes the foreshore.

All accounts are agreed that the plant did not operate after the war. Here it is also said that one chimney had not been used, and that it had been built by Germans. The report of July 1913 implies that the new chimney was in use. The accounts here were of course gleaned from locals with 20-year-old memories, but the chimney built in March 1913 probably got little use before the rotary kiln was abandoned.

Is the kiln German? If so, it's metric.

- o - O - o -


Note 1. Subsequent adverts listed the motors. There were also several smaller ones.

Note 2. The two largest motors were 50 and 60 HP, and mills of this size would draw that power if loaded (as they then were) with flint media. One was probably for raw and one for finish grinding.

Note 3. The length of the kiln, whether metric or imperial, is non-standard, suggesting that it has been modified by lengthening.

Note 4. The use of "smokeless" coal, while raising manufacturing costs, would have had no effect upon kiln emissions.

Note 5. This was reported 13/6/1913.

Note 6. The result was 49 for, 857 against.

Note 7. The employed workforce numbered about 110.

Note 8. It said "Give us work. Why take our bread away".

Note 9. This, of course, was an empty threat. The Company was undoubtedly on its knees, short of cash and in debt, and an enforcement notice would have been an immediate death sentence.

Note 10. The Town Council were at pains to establish that the demolition would cost them nothing.

Original content © Dylan Moore 2016: commenced 14/06/2016: last edit 17/02/2017.

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