Limekilns: A Note on Castleisland Industry in the Nineteenth Century

A recent donation to the archives of Castleisland District Heritage recalls the fifty-year history of Pensher Fire Brick Works in Durham.  The donation, a firebrick from one of the limekilns of local man, Davy O’Connor of Ballymacadam, is stamped ‘NOBLE.’  He believes the bricks may have come from Cork but as yet, no firebrick manufacturer by that name has been identified.


Latent History: Aspects of the kilns on land at Ballymacadam, images courtesy Davy O’Connor. The practice of burning lime died out in the 1950s.  On the left, fire bricks arriving in Tralee by ‘coal steamer’ in 1907 and, far right, the Kenny farmhouse at Ballymacadam


Seamus Fleming, who responded on social media to the appeal of Castleisland District Heritage for information, suggested the brickmaker might have been Thomas Noble (1792-1861) of Durham who manufactured firebricks from 1826-1876, his company styled Pensher Fire Bricks Works.[1]


The following information is taken from ‘Old Bricks – History at your Feet’ by Dave Sallery and David Kitching:


Thomas Noble began manufacturing bricks at South Hylton on Wearside in 1826.  In 1835 he moved his production to Whitefield Pit, Penshaw where it remained until 1876.  During this time his two sons, Robert and Thomas Robinson Noble joined the business.  The 1851 census indicates that they were employing 17 men.[2]


Thomas Noble was the son of George Noble and Elizabeth Robinson.  He married Susannah, daughter of Robert Bell on 3 April 1823 at Jarrow, Co Durham.  They had at least nine children, including George, who in 1855 patented an invention ‘by which it is proposed to do away with manual labour in the manufacture of fire-bricks made from ground clay.’[3]


George died, aged 29, on 28 November 1860.  His father died the following year at Hendon Bath Hotel on 22 November 1861.  His wife predeceased him on 25 June 1860 aged 66.


The business carried on in the names of Thomas Noble’s two sons, Thomas Robinson Noble and Robert Bell Noble.[4]  Both men had families but died young, Robert Bell Noble on 11 July 1873 aged 39 and his brother Thomas Robinson Noble on 22 July 1876 aged 36, with no one to carry the business forward.[5]


Limekilns in Kerry


If the NOBLE brick now in the archive of Castleisland District Heritage belongs to Thomas Noble’s company, the Kerry limekilns on the land of Davy O’Connor can be dated to this period, and the importation of the building material confined to suggestion.


Lime burning, a practice which carries its own history, died out in the 1950s.  However, limekilns were once a familiar and often ornate feature of the Kerry landscape.  Some of them, such as Davy O’Connor’s kiln, were built with material from Norman castles – in this case Ballymacadam.


They were kept burning around-the-clock during the week, and the industrial kilns were kept going constantly.  Johnnie Roche, Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage, recalls how their rising smoke after dark often gave the passer-by an eerie feeling.


Here, John recalls the process of burning lime:


In the space of one lifetime – my lifetime, in the immortal words of J B Yeats, All is Changed – Changed Utterly! – this, no more so than in the farming world, while the basics remain the same, crop production, meat, milk and vegetables as the principles. But there the similarity ends.


I come from an era when a sizeable portion of the hay and corn crops were still mown with the scythe, cows were milked by hand, sitting on a three-legged stool, with a bucket between the knees.  Root crops were ‘thinned’ by people on their knees in the garden all day long for weeks, pulling budding weeds and reducing a row of turnips, mangolds etc., to a single plant every six inches.  Electricity for farms was still in the dream world and life on farms was a continuous physical drudgery that never ended.  At that time about one third of the Irish Republic’s population was allied to farming and the best argument in its favour was that most were fairly well fed.


One of the toughest activities was the burning of lime for fertilizer.  Most of today’s population never heard of a lime kiln, and that’s not much loss to them.  Still to know what it was is no load.  The purpose was to burn pure limestone into a powder, and it was a very intense and specialised activity, with no room for error.


The structure itself was a round hole about ten to fifteen feet high on a straight rock face, fronted by a well-built stone wall with an arch at the bottom to allow the end product – burned lime – to be extracted.  Photographs of some of the few remaining kilns demonstrate that very well.  The round hole was about two-and-a-half feet in diameter, as the most efficient.  Where the rock face wasn’t available in non-limestone land it was backed up by stone and earth, with the circumference of the hole built with stone and mortar and attached to the front wall.  The farmer considering burning limestone would need to save at least twice the usual amount of dry turf during summer.  A wet summer wasn’t a year to consider burning lime.


Next step was to ‘quarry’ a huge amount of limestone and break it into small stones and where there wasn’t limestone, draw it to the site. This usually brought them to mid-winter, though they were keen to have the job done before spring.


Now for the serious part!


The job of actually burning the stone required the services of at least two very experienced men as from the time the first match was lit a man was required to stay by the kiln constantly.  First was a layer of very dry turf to ensure that the fire didn’t quench until the job was complete, possibly two months or more later.  On top of the burning turf was put a layer of broken stone, then another layer of turf followed by more stone, and so on until the hole was filled to the top.  If the fire died out it would be a disaster, as the job of extracting the turf and stone to relight it was unthinkable.


Regardless of weather conditions the men on this job couldn’t leave their positions until the last layer of stone came out as white lime at the bottom of the hole, which was usually fronted by a well-constructed arch.  As the white lime was extracted from the bottom on front, it was shovelled onto a heap to be drawn with horse and cart to its final destination. Most of it was spread on the land as the original fertilizer, with some mixed with water to ‘whitewash’ farmhouses and buildings.


While I remember the sight of white smoke wafting up towards the sky on calm days, I wasn’t ever close to a kiln in operation.  Though we had what was described as a ‘fine kiln’ on the farm, it was redundant in my youth.  However, I heard men describe the scene as one approached a working kiln as an ‘eerie sight.’  The glow, the heat waves and the white smoke all ascending into a dark sky in complete silence, gave the feeling of watching a thousand ghosts mingling with the night sky.  The man on duty would be replaced about midnight, with the night watchman on duty until morning.


The burning of limestone to make white lime for fertilizer, mortar, whitewash and many other uses is just one of the multitude of hardship tasks and skills that survived centuries of use, but one-by-one became history in the last eighty to one hundred years.


Ni bheig a leithead ann aris!  We won’t see their like around again!



[1] Otherwise Penshaw Fire Bricks Works.  In 1856, Mr Thomas Noble of the Pensher Fire Brick Works donated £2 and 2s to the Tudhoe Ironworks Mechanics’ Institution.

[2] Researched by Arthur Brickman, ‘Info from John Noble.’  See ‘Old Bricks – History at your Feet’ by Dave Sallery and David Kitching

[3] Richmond & Ripon Chronicle, 13 October 1855.  Joseph Temperley of the Derwent Iron Company, Consett, married Anne, daughter of Thomas Noble, in 1848.   See genealogy of Thomas Noble at this link

[4] Thomas Robinson Noble married Ann Margaret, eldest daughter of Henry Coxon at Jesmond Church, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on 16 October 1867.  Robert Bell Noble married Ann Bailey Coxon, daughter of Joseph Coxon and Elizabeth Shaw at Usworth Parish Church on 17 August 1859.

[5] Annie Ainslie Noble, daughter of Thomas Robinson Noble, married Robert Hood Haggie junior of Glasgow at St Michael’s Church, Sunderland, on 25 February 1896.  The Haggie Family Papers (NRO 5418) are held in the National Archives, UK.