Site Records

SiteName: Beddingham Experimental Shaft Kiln

East Sussex

Sub Brit site visit Autumn 1991

[Source: Text by Ron Martin, Photos by Nick Catford]

In the summer of 1989 Blue Circle Industries PLC invited the Sussex Industrial Archaeology Society to survey the kiln situated at their landfill site at Beddingham in East Sussex. It was their intention to demolish the kiln as there was a danger of explosive gases accumulating in the underground voids. The only access at that time was from the top by descending some 45 metres to levels 1 and 2. An accurate survey of the top level (5) and a rough survey of the lower levels was undertaken in December 1989 and January 1990, the work to the lower levels being carried out under considerable difficulties due to bad air which limited the time available on site; it was anticipated that no further investigation would be possible. In December 1990, the outer end of a tunnel at level 2 was exposed and easier access obtained. Furthermore a level 0 was discovered below level 1 together with another tunnel; a new survey of all lower levels was then completed. At this time members of Subterranea Britannica joined the SIAS team to make a photographic survey.

Level 5
Surveyed and drawn by Ron Martin

Portland cement was patented by Joseph Aspdin in 1824 being manufactured from a mixture of chalk and clay fired at a temperature of 1400C. The use of Portland cement increased dramatically during the last part of the nineteenth century. As it was mostly made in intermittent kilns by the turn of the century an acute shortage had arisen. Continuous rotary kilns had been invented by that time, the first being patented in 1877. After various unsuccessful attempts had been made in this country they were being developed abroad making the large scale production of cement more economic. Rotary kilns were expensive both to construct and to maintain and the system of mixing the chalk and clay as a wet slurry meant that there was considerable wastage of fuel in the evaporation of the moisture before calcination could take place. In spite of this, there were 68 rotary kilns in production in England and Wales in 1914 out of a total of 617 kilns and by 1927 the first 300ft. rotary kiln had been built.1

Various individuals in the 1920's proposed methods of making cement by cheaper methods. Vertical shaft kilns with few moving parts were suggested and Sir Percy Girouard designed one that was patented in 1926.2

Sir Percy's design envisaged a vertical shaft constructed near the face of a quarry with the shaft narrowing towards the bottom where pulverised fuel would be supplied through nozzles. The powdered material for making the cement would be showered down from the top of the kiln and meet the upward flow of hot gases and the particles would be thoroughly burnt before passing into the lower cooling chamber where they would be removed and ground. This design of kiln used the 'flotation' process of firing with waste heat being recycled and used in the process. It is not known whether a kiln was built to this specification.

Dr. Geoffrey Martin, an eminent chemist and the author of many standard reference books on industrial chemistry, improved on the design of Girouard's Flotation Kiln and patented his own design in 1927.3 This endeavoured to balance the up flowing hot gases with the descending raw materials and employed a cyclonic action with the upper part of the kiln widened toward the top. Pulverised dry raw material was discharged into the kiln at the downward part of the gas movement. Exit gases were drawn off on the same side as the entry of the raw material. The cross sectional areas of the respective parts of the kiln and the velocities of the gases were carefully calculated to achieve maximum calcination of the raw materials. The fuel in the form of powdered coal was injected into the sides of the kiln at the bottom with a cooling zone beneath this. The advantage of the flotation kiln as anticipated by Dr. Martin, was that the materials being in suspension were capable of being thoroughly intermixed without all the disadvantages of wet mixing. As compared with other shaft kilns the pre-heating zone and calcining zones were filled not with large blocks of material that impede the passage of hot gases, but with small particles in suspension. This would allow large volumes of gases to pass at any given time and hence enabled a large output of clinker to be produced.

The kiln is located in this quarry face. The arrow indicates where later quarrying revealed Level 2
Photo by Nick Catford

In 1928 Dr. Martin built a large-scale experimental underground flotation kiln within a quarry face at Asheham in the parish of Beddingham near Lewes.4 All the tunnels and other excavations were carried out by hand and the equipment was manhandled into position.

Coal pulverising plant and raw material dryers beside Asham House in 1928

This kiln was substantially similar to that shown in Dr. Martin's Patent. The main differences being that the plan shape which in the Patent was rectangular is now oval and the upper part of the kiln previously parallel sided now enlarges towards the top and the raw material is now discharged down a pipe rather than through the side of the kiln. Experiments were carried out for three months, concluding in December 1929. Reg Duplock, who worked in the kiln, described how pulverised coal was conveyed by means of skips for 150 yards along a tunnel and into the burning chamber.5 Dr. Martin, writing in 1932, described the results as being "most promising and it is hoped,

after making certain alterations, to remedy technical defects which revealed themselves in the trial, to proceed to manufacture clinker by this new process in the near future".6 It is not known if any further trials were carried out.

It is presumed that the kiln was abandoned for the experimental manufacture of cement after December 1929 but it seems probable that subsequently attempts were made to burn lime on the site.

On the other side of the road, the Rodmell Works was established by Cement Industries Ltd. as a cement works with a rotary kiln; building starting in 1932. An important figure A.Y. Gowan, an American who became interested in reorganising the British cement industry at this time had visited Asheham.7 He set up the Alpha Cement Co. Ltd. in 1933 and bought out Cement Industries Ltd. By this time the success of rotary kilns was established and any desire on the part of Alpha to continue research into the shaft kiln would have been futile.

Photo:Barrel vaults covering the top of the kiln
Photo by Nick Catford

The kiln is built on a spur of the Downs which extended westward into the Ouse valley and has now been substantially excavated as Pit No.3. It comprises a shaft, oval in plan 15.3 m X 6.0m at the top level (5), reducing in size in a series of steps to a rectangle with semi-circular ends, 3.9 m X 1.9 m at level 3. The walls of this upper part of the kiln are one-and-a-half bricks thick and are supported on reinforced concrete ring beams spanning between concrete counterfort walls built between the kiln and the surrounding chalk. The top of the kiln is covered by four three-ring brick barrel vaults of varying spans, although the vault at the north end has now collapsed. In the crown of each of the barrel vaults there are circular steel plates with apertures in the middle.

Further information and pictures about this site continues here

[Source: Text by Ron Martin, Photos by Nick Catford]

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