Today a vibrant cement industry is a marker of a developing nation’s dynamism, and world production is dominated by China and India. Meanwhile, the transition from a “cheap-energy” economy to today’s high energy costs and concerns about CO2 emissions have caused a massive decline in the industry in the USA, Western Europe, Japan and Russia. The industry first arose in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the progress of cement manufacturing technology in Britain and Ireland exemplifies the factors that encouraged or suppressed innovation.
The purpose of this site is to describe the historical geography of the Portland cement industry in Britain and Ireland, from 1895.
Its historical aspect addresses the progress of innovation, particularly in the field of pyroprocessing that is unique to the industry. Its geographical aspect stresses the way in which the industry’s development is controlled by its geographically-variable natural raw materials: it also addresses the topic in terms of industrial archaeology.
The website is educational and entirely non-commercial, and contains no advertising. No statement should be interpreted as an endorsement of any organisation, company or individual.
How History is lost
A while back, I contacted an old colleague, in order to get detailed information about some cement plants that he had known well. "It's a pity you didn't contact me a few weeks ago", he said. "I've been having a de-clutter, and threw lots of old files and notebooks out." In a contracting industry, old cement plants are closing down all the time. Not unnaturally, those who had been the guardians of the plant's history, lovingly conserving old photographs, ancient plans and ledgers, now find themselves made redundant. They come in to work on their last day, and say "You know what? - I don't care any more! Let's take it all up the quarry, throw some diesel over it, and strike a match."
In my career, I have seen this more times than I care to recall. Don't imagine that such acts of destruction are about "preserving commercial confidentiality" - the details of how a steam engine was coupled to a row of flat-stone mills has nothing at all to do with a modern business. Even twenty-year-old material has mostly ceased to be of any commercial sensitivity. It has a lot more to do with the "Attila the Hun" syndrome: "If I can't have it, no-one's going to have it!"
Sometimes historical material is preserved, but it is placed in the hands of a proprietorial individual or institution who jealously hide it from public view. This, of course, is no more useful than the quarry bonfire. I'm fairly proprietorial myself: I have a huge library of cement industry historical material, and it's MINE! But before I myself decide to "de-clutter", I am trying to make as much as possible available to everybody. I was prompted to draw together all the information I had by this and by a dissatisfaction with the accuracy and technical validity of the existing historical sources. In formalising my own data, I filled gaps and extended its scope by what was, I hoped, a relatively disciplined programme of historical research.
The hope was that the project could be used as a clearing house for historical information on the industry, using the convenient connectivity of a website rather than the restricted circulation of a printed book. Since "nature abhors a vacuum", it was expected that the obvious lacunae in detail would be rapidly filled by public contribution. However, during the period 2008-2015 the content has been refined mainly by gradual acquisition and refinement of information already in circulation. A huge amount of information remains in private hands and there is every indication that it will stay there until it falls victim to time. The current project will continue until the rate of acquisition of new data is insufficient to justify the expense of maintaining the website.
Scope of the Project
The project aims to describe all sites making Portland cement clinker in the period beginning 1895. Outside its scope (although they may be touched upon) are:
Criticism might be aimed at the accounts (particularly of individual plants) given here because where hard information is lacking (or at any rate, I have failed to find it), I have given accounts which are to some extent conjectural. Historical discipline would require that I should simply say "not known" under these circumstances. However, the objective of the project is to give a quantitative account of the entire industry. At the heart of the project is a set of databases (invisible to the website) that completely describe the period of study, and from which can be derived general statements about progress and innovation. These databases, in order to be quantitative, have to have non-zero entries for every entity in the industry believed to be active. This requires that for each plant and each kiln, a "narrative" has to be established. This may involve over-confident interpolation and extrapolation from isolated snippets of data, or even more wild surmises (but hopefully based on informed guesswork) where data is entirely lacking. Where the informed reader encounters glaring (or tiny) errors in these accounts, I can only apologise and urge them to contact me and suggest corrections, which I will be delighted to receive and incorporate.
Why start in 1895? The starting date of 1895 is chosen because the successful use of rotary kilns in Britain started shortly after that date, so the development of that technology is completely covered. Because “Portland cement as we know it” dates from the 1840s, an earlier start date is desirable, but reliable records from the pre-rotary period are extremely patchy and constitutionally inaccurate, and the objective of this work is to list all operations in order to produce a quantitative account.
There are now (2015) only fifteen operational cement plants – with seventeen operating kilns – in Britain and Ireland. This site discusses 179 plants that have operated since 1895 and attempts to describe their 340 (or so) rotary kilns while at least mentioning over a thousand static kilns. The resulting body of information makes it possible to derive a reasonably accurate account of the rate and nature of technical change throughout the period.
Privacy and Confidentiality
The information presented here is sourced from the public domain, published material, and from the expert application of personal experience. Great care has been taken to ensure that commercially sensitive information is not given. In particular, data concerning the output of plants is presented only in terms of typical capacity, readily available in the public domain, and "actual" production is not stated, except in very general historic terms in order to compare the relative importance of plants. Plants currently in operation are described only in outline in the public version of the website.
These have been few. Occasional snippets of information received continue to be promptly added. Those familiar with the site will know where to look for additions, and the sitemap is a convenient way to check the site's current scope. I've recently obtained copies of Geoffrey Martin's 1925 and 1932 works on kiln technology, and have been occupied with reviewing them.
My warmest thanks go to the following individuals from whom I have received much help and encouragement in the preparation of this work.
My thanks are also due to the staff of the many libraries and archives that I have consulted, listed in Sources.
© Dylan Moore 2010: commenced 25/12/2010: last edit 29/01/17.