Cement Kilns

Blue Lias in cement manufacture

Although it is a Jurassic Limestone, this formation deserves to be treated separately, because of its unique chemistry and because of the large number of plants that have exploited its special properties. It lies at the base of the Jurassic, where often the junction with Triassic is conformable, and at many locations the bottom few layers identified as Lias are in fact in the Triassic, while the underlying "White Lias" stone is always Triassic. It consists of alternating bands of argillaceous limestone and calcareous clay or shale, typically each a few inches thick. Many quarries have over 50 layers. The limestone, typically separated by hand, has been used for centuries for the preparation of hydraulic limes, many of which had the qualities of natural cement. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, improved communications allowed Lias limes to be widely distributed. In particular, the canal systems allowed Warwickshire lime to be distributed throughout the industrial Midlands and to London. Because of this already-established trade, after Portland cement was invented, a number of Lias-based manufacturers claimed to make it, simply by burning the stone a little harder, and it is often difficult to tell when they started to make a “true” Portland product containing alite.

The Blue Lias has outcrops stretching across the middle of England from the Dorset coast to the Cleveland Hills in Yorkshire. It also forms much of the Vale of Glamorgan, and there is a small outlier in the Cheshire Basin. It occurs under the Irish Sea. Nearly everywhere it has the same curious characteristics: a repeated sequence of blue-grey argillaceous limestone and dark blue calcareous clay or shale, typically each 5-50 cm thick, often with several hundred such alternations through the thickness of the series. The blue colour of both rocks derives from pyrite, and both oxidise to orange-brown on exposure to air. The limestone component has been quarried for centuries. Prised out with a crow-bar, beds of convenient thickness were used for paving slabs, and it was burned for lime. The Blue Lias lime gained a country-wide reputation for its hydraulicity and was much used for stucco, and as an engineering cement in the pre-Portland period. When John Smeaton made his famous experiments on hydraulicity in connection with his Eddystone lighthouse project, the hydraulic limes he finally chose to use were both from the Blue Lias.

These were from Watchet, Somerset and Aberthaw, Glamorgan, on opposite sides of the Bristol Channel.

In view of the fact that Blue Lias lime already had wide use in the building industry, it is not unnatural that when Portland cement started to gain a good reputation in the 1860s, Blue Lias lime manufacturers tried to make it. Over-confidence in the excellence of their stone led them initially to try making it by burning the as-dug rock just as they did for lime, only a little hotter. However, the variability, both layer-to-layer and laterally, of the limestone was too great to make an acceptable product by this method.

Henry Reid (p 168) said “Before and during the year 1868, the author in common with most engineers looked upon “Portland cement" from Warwickshire and Somersetshire . . . with much suspicion, and generally characterized it as worthless and false. Its sale was limited and confined to small consumers, to whom its best recommendation was cheapness, and within so circumscribed a limit of intelligence the damage sustained was not of a very serious character.”

Operators extracted the identifiable layers individually, and became familiar with their chemical properties, and at each location, the seams were given identifying names. As an example, the worked limestone seams at Lyme Regis were named (top to bottom):

53Table Ledge
51Fish Bed
49Grey Ledge
47Glass Bottle
45Top Quick
41Best Bed
39Second Bed
35Second Quick
31Third Quick
29Top Tape
27Second Tape
25Top Copper
21Second Mongrel
17Third Tape
15Upper Skulls
13Iron Ledge
11Under Copper
9Under White Bed
7Lower Skulls
5Lower Venty
1Brick Ledge

Real Portland cement finally began to be made by fine-grinding and blending the limestone, making judicious use of the known high- and low-grade layers to adjust the mix. The earliest seems to have been Harbury (1864). It is interesting to note that cement plants grew only where there was a pre-existing lime industry, and in other parts of the outcrop where lime was not produced – because of alternative sources of lime – a cement industry never developed.

Plants using Blue Lias

Lias The plant names on this map are now clickable.
Aberthaw Aberthaw Lime Barhams Barnstone Barrow Bridgwater Down End Dunball Harbury Lyme Regis Newbold Penarth Pylle Rhoose Rugby Southam Spinx Stockton Wilkinson & Leng

Scale-up of output of the Lias plants meant that the traditional hand-picking of the stone was no longer economically viable. The initial solution to the problem was to dig or blast the rock en masse and then to roughly separate the harder limestone from the softer clay by means of a “rumbler” – a rotating cylinder of iron bars through which the mixture was rolled. The crumbled clay fell through the bars and the large chunks of limestone emerged at the end. With this method, chemical control now relied on blending material with known larger or smaller proportions of high-grade stone.

The separation of the components is seen in the picture to the right. The regular variations in the Lias are believed to be Milankovitch cyclothems, which means that they result from regular variations of climate on a global scale, so individual identifiable layers can be traced over long distances. On the other hand, the chemistry of the layers, and the relative amounts of limestone and shale, are very sensitive to local deposition conditions. Generally the richest lias has around 60% limestone by mass, whereas in some locations it may disappear altogether. The deposit shown contained about 35% limestone.

Generally, the separated limestone mixture was of marginal chemistry (i.e. around 75-80% CaCO3) with little scope for adjustment. As the requirement for higher calcium contents evolved during the 20th century, Lias plants mostly started bringing in high-grade limestone from elsewhere to “sweeten” the mix. This was sourced from the Rhaetic (below the Lias), the Inferior Oolite and Great Oolite (above it) or even from the very distant Chalk. Having arranged this, raw material preparation costs were reduced further by using the whole of the Blue Lias, un-separated. The evolution of mix design can be seen in the raw material usage data of the Stockton plant:

PeriodLias Stone %Lias Clay %Oolite %

Many plants remained small with static kilns, yet managed to hang on until the middle of the 20th century. The larger plants installed rotary kilns. All but one opted for use of the Wet Process although dry processing is easily effected. The exception was Southam, and the dry process kilns there were soon converted to wet process. After a long wait, Aberthaw converted to dry process from 1967, and two kilns were converted to semi-wet operation at Southam from 1978. Rugby was converted to a mixed dry and wet process precalciner in 2002. With the closure of Southam in 2000, the only remaining plants are Aberthaw and Rugby (the latter now predominantly using chalk as a raw material).

Links to plants


Picture: ©English Heritage - NMR Aerofilms Collection. Britain from Above reference number EPW039080.
Britain from Above features some of the oldest and most valuable images of the Aerofilms Collection, a unique and important archive of aerial photographs. You can download images, share memories, and add information. By the end of the project in 2014, 95,000 images taken between 1919 and 1953 will be available online.
Southam quarry in July 1932. The Lias was blasted and transferred by face shovel to a mobile screener. The coarse limestone was transferred to the plant by tramway, and the fine shale was mostly side-cast in the worked out part of the quarry by a system of conveyors.

Evolution of capacity (annual clinker tonnes) in plants using Blue Lias materials

Capacity by Kiln Type

© Dylan Moore 2011: commenced 10/01/2011: last edit 31/07/16.