Long queues of unemployed men waited outside the post office to receive their 17/- per week benefit from Bill Wilkinson, the Postmaster.
This sight particularly grieved Reverend Norman A. Walton, Alston’s vicar. In his everyday dealings with local charities and discussions with local people, he felt more and more that something positive had to be done. As a Christian minister he took this to heart and wondered what he himself could give. He was sometimes so distracted by the problem that at home he would stop in mid meal to fret over it.
Reverend Walton had a knowledgeable interest in geology and wondered if any use could be made of that. He knew that lime from Shap was being sent to Scotland for steel making and agricultural use and he thought there might be a market there for Alston’s lime. He instigated experiments, possibly at Shap, to discover the purity of the lime and it was found to be 78%. The lime of Shap was 72%, so Alston could supply something for which there was a demand.
Reverend Walton next looked at the old lime quarries and works at the top of North Lonnen. The old limekilns had not been used since the First World War and were in a very poor state of repair. The lime in those days had been used for the manufacture of calcite bricks and the stone used for ballast chippings, both of which had been transported via the 2ft gauge inclined plane, which was rope worked down to the standard gauge railway at the bottom of the hill.
The adjacent Newshield limestone quarries were nicknamed the ‘Linger’ quarry because of the proximity to the ‘Linger and Die’ coal drift, itself so called because for many years it had limped along from being in a state of production, to abandonment, and back again. This site, together with the nearby Blagill Colliery, abandoned by the Alston and Nentforce Limestone Company in 1906, was the base chosen for the proposed operations.
Reverend Walton wanted the proposed limeworks to be a community concern, so he asked for people to come forward to be members of a committee, to become company members and to subscribe funds to get the enterprise started. However, few citizens of Alston Moor answered the call. Joe Gladstone contributed £80 or £90, the Collins brothers, garage proprietors, put down £20 or £30, but by far the greatest contributions came from Reverend Walton himself and Mrs. Walton, who gave £200 or £300 each. In spite of the lack of numbers, a committee was formed and the company was incorporated on 23rd September 1937, to become ‘Walton’s Alston Lime and Coal Company Limited’: “Walton’s” because they were by far the major parties, and also to distinguish this company from the Alston Limestone Company. The share capital of the company was £3,000, divided into 3,000 shares of £1 each. The first directors were Reverend Norman Annan Walton, his wife Frances Elizabeth, and Joseph Gladstone.
Operations began in autumn 1937. Office space was obtained in the Market Place, near to the present library and a clerk was hired. At one time this position was filled by Winnie Blackstock. A small workforce was employed with Bill Robson, known as ‘Tashy Bill’, as foreman. The first job was to rebuild and repair the kilns and raise their height by 7ft or 8ft, in order to increase capacity. The kilns were lined with firebricks that were dipped in a slurry of fireclay rather than bonded with mortar to maintain strength in such hot conditions. About twelve men were to be employed at the quarry itself. It was a basic, manual industry, requiring no particular skills, so that anyone who wanted to work could be employed.
Safety at the top of the kiln ovens was considered and stone pillars were built where none had been before, with iron pipe railings between them. In the concrete caps of the pillars the initials of the directors were written. At the opening ceremony, Mrs. Walton lit the first kiln eye. It is possible that she was so enthusiastic that she lit all of the eyes. However, the first lime to be drawn from the kiln was for some reason no good and had to be thrown away.
Scotland is rich in most minerals but it has no limestone and, when he visited the Glasgow Exhibition of 1938, Reverend Walton met agricultural representatives who told him that they would indeed be interested in buying Alston’s lime. As for industrial use, the purer the lime, the greater was the demand for it.
The Scottish contracts started, with a lot of lime going by road to Scotland. Robin Walton, Reverend Norman’s son, remembers that the firm of transporters was ‘Wordies’ who were also agricultural merchants who had a fleet of eight-wheeler AEC’s, which was quite something in the 1930s. These lorries were too big for the weighbridge at the station, and they transported the lime from the eye of the kiln direct to the customers in Scotland. A lot of lime was also sold to arable farmers in County Durham and to local farmers, who had previously burnt their own before the war.
An accountant from Haltwhistle was appointed and the company agents, Clark Taylor, also from Haltwhistle, helped tremendously to sell the lime, bringing customers to Alston. Later on they probably invested money in the company.
The effect on Alston was that the dole queue shrank as around two-dozen men went back to work.
OPERATION OF THE LIME KILNS
The limestone was only quarried at Newshield. Coatleyhill quarry had already been worked out, so it was used as a storage yard. The stone was broken manually into manageable blocks, then brought by rail to the lime kilns, in trains of up to nine tubs, or however many were ready at the time. They were hauled by a six or eight ton Barclay 0-4-0 well tank steam locomotive, bought second-hand after it had worked on the construction of Burnhope Reservoir in Weardale. The V-shaped skips that it hauled took three men to tip their contents on arrival at the top of the kilns.
After the war, so the story goes, one frosty night someone forgot to drain the locomotive boiler and the pipes froze and burst. It would have been too expensive to repair, so the engine’s duties were taken over by a Ford tractor until the limeworks closed in the 1950’s. This was the first tractor on Alston Moor and while it was no doubt very practical, Robin Walton, who as a little boy rode on the steam engine, remembers that it was the locomotive that made a visit to the limeworks worthwhile.
The Company re-opened Blagill mine that had been closed since about 1906, and a man called Watson, with his family - a wife, two sons, and a daughter - moved to Alston from Haydon Bridge in order to run the mine, which employed about five or six men. This anthracite coal was broken up manually for the kiln and taken by lorry to the lime works, then tipped or shovelled directly into the ovens. Tragically, after a fall, Mr. Watson later had to have a leg amputated and he died shortly afterwards.
There were two kilns at the limeworks, a smaller one with one drawing arch and four eyes for drawing out the burnt lime, and a larger oven with two arches with three eyes. The larger oven had a 200-ton capacity that produced 30 tons of quicklime per day, although on occasions this could be increased to 60 tons in a day. 35 cwt of limestone was mixed with 7 cwt of anthracite to produce 1 ton of quicklime. Burning was continual, it involved filling the oval hole at the top of the kiln with alternate layers of manually broken limestone of about 9” cubes and 6 or 12 tons of the anthracite coal, which burns hotter than ordinary coal and with no flames, both factors making it very good for burning lime. However, it did clinker, but nevertheless it was local and cheap. At some time coal from all over was used, including coal from the local Ayle pit, and there was an experiment with sea coal, which was cheaper, but found to be no good.
The kiln was lit at the eye and left to burn and while burning the heat was too intense to permit anyone to approach near. The mixture burned with a blue flame and the fumes given off were lethal, one whiff was enough to set one choking. The fire was dead at the eye of the oven, but burned about ten feet above, and could be heard burning below the surface by anyone brave enough to venture near the top.
After three days the lime was ready to dig out. The mouth of each kiln was big enough for two men to shovel side by side and left hand shovelling was a skill in itself, throwing the lime over the shoulder into the waiting tub or lorry. The lime was in soft lumps, clot lime, swollen with the heat and easy to break, but there were some cores or ‘gowks’ left, which were put onto the slag heaps, or else kibbled (crushed). Some of the lime was bagged for transport.
Shovelling the lime must count as being one of the worst tasks imaginable. Although the men were well covered with work clothes, any exposed skin became covered with lime dust. When an 18-ton lorry had to be filled using only shovels, it was all day of a job, and there was plenty of sweat, which turned the dust on the skin to slaked lime. The men’s wrists in particular were continually raw, and red, sore, bleary eyes were another continual irritation. Masks were not much protection from the blowing dust and rain must have made conditions purgatory. Yet in spite of this, the lungs and eyes were not affected in the long term.
Some of the men involved in the 1950s, as well as Bill Robson, were; Billy Renwick and Joe Bowman, who were regular lorry drivers, Jacky Davison, who was a filler, and Willy Potts, who was a lime burner. At times one of the lorry drivers was Tony Alderson.
In the earlier lime burning operation, before Walton’s, the inclined plane was in action to lead the lime and stone away. This was worked by gravity, eight or nine empty tubs were hauled up by two or three fulls going down, they passed each other at a loop at the halfway point, their progress being controlled by a brake drum out in the open at the top of the incline. At the bottom the tubs (square ones for this operation) ran through a shed, which is still standing, round a loop of track on a high level wharf, part of which is also still in existence, and tipped down a chute to the waiting standard gauge trucks below. This operation was not continued by Walton’s and with the onset of the Second World War the standard gauge sidings were used as a refuge for storing locomotives.
For the lime led away by road the area around the ovens was always a mess. The shovellers often overshot or undershot in their haste, and a track had to be cleared through the lime for the lorries to leave the site. Empty lorries arrived at the site via Clarghyll cross roads and departed in low gear down North Lonnen. Sometimes lorry drivers would drive up the lonnen, “hammering” up the hill before having to change down gear, which was a tricky problem with early gearboxes. Another problem for lorry drivers was if their load of lime became wet with rain, it would bubble and expand with heat. One can imagine the consequences.
If there were no lorries or railway trucks waiting for lime, the kilns could still be cleared, for the lime could be stored in hoppers, possibly filled by an overhead ropeway. Any shale waste could have gone by aerial flight down the field. Robin Walton remembers that in 1937 or 1938 an outside firm was contracted to erect such a storage hopper. His father was an engineer as well as a clergyman and wanted to give practical advice and help on the hopper’s siting and erection in what was, to all intents and purposes, his limeworks. However, in his clergyman’s garb and covered with lime dust, the foreman of the workmen took his advice to be interference.
Although the number of unemployed had been radically reduced and the wages would have been the proper rate for the job, Reverend Walton would have made sure of this, the working relationships deteriorated. This was said to be due to intrusion by activists stirring up agitation and creating a demand for unionism. Reverend Walton resented this, being a Christian, doing his best for the men and having used his own money to set the scheme up for the benefit of the Alston Moor community. All his own input was voluntary, including working at the office two or three hours each day, and all that he got out of the enterprise was his money back when the accounts went into profit, at which point he resigned.
THE END OF THE ENTERPRISE
After the war the limeworks did not thrive. Even with assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture they “went back”. Reverend Walton retired at the end of the war at the age of 77 and the works closed in the early 1950s when the quarry became exhausted.
The quarry face can be seen right next to the back road to Blagill where they could be worked no longer. The railway trackbed can still be seen plainly, as well as the Coatley Hill quarry face, but bear in mind that both are on private land, with no rights of way. The quarry became a landfill site used until the 1990s. The limekilns were demolished and the site was levelled leaving no trace of this enterprising local industry.
(With thanks to the late Robin Walton for providing most of the information. And for the drawing.)