Information Sheet No. 2:
Butser Lime Works: Mr Chitty’s Story (June 2001)
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We, my wife, daughter Ann and son-in-law Douglas, were having our usual after meal reminiscence one day when the subject of lime burning came up. Ann and Douglas mentioned how the chalk pits at Amberley had become overgrown and derelict and how the site there now belongs to a museum. Whilst talking, a little idea developed in my mind and I said that I had never seen any documents about our local limeworks at Butser Hill. My idea was to record my memories of lime burning there. Another reason for wanting to describe this process is that my father was a lime burner by trade, also becoming sole charge of the works known as Butser Hill Lime Works.
Before I begin to unfold my memories, I ought to clarify who I am and where we lived. I myself am George Chitty (better known as ‘Sonner’ in those days) the eldest son of Mr and Mrs George Chitty. My mother and father first lived in one of a pair of cottages along the Petersfield Road just outside of Buriton where I was born. From there we moved to Butser Hill, Lime Kiln Cottage. The Sewards of Weston ,who owned the lime works, had the cottage built for my father, as you might say ‘to be on the job’. The cottage was situated on a rise a short distance from, and overlooking, the works. It also had a beautiful view of the hangers of Froxfield. For me it was phenomenal; that could be another story! I was five years old when we moved to Butser (about 1920/21) and so I grew up with lime burning although I was never introduced to the trade.
I will endeavour to give a summary of the lime burning activities.
The day started with the men arriving at 7.00am. I must mention that these workers had a distance of two or three miles to travel, some even further, with only push bikes or even “Shank’s pony” for one or two. I well remember Alf Butt who would walk from the other side of Petersfield and arrive at 6.30am to start at 7.00am. Then, after a day’s hard graft, he would have to walk back home; no travelling time in those days. Of course, I’m going back to the 1920s and early 30s. In those years the men had to work and work hard to uphold a job and in all weathers. The number of men employed at the kilns was between 15 and 20.
First of all I’ll describe the workings at the chalk pits. There were two kinds of chalk, referred to as white and grey. Grey was mainly used for the building trade such as mortar and plaster, also for agricultural purposes. The white was more for plaster mouldings and whitewashes. The grey came from the lower pit and the white from the higher regions. The chalk face was about 50-80ft. This is where the workman had to keep a vigilant ear and eye open at all times; a small trickle of chalk falling was a sure sign of an avalanche. If this did not happen, then dynamite would have to be used. Both produced some quite large boulders. These then would be taken apart with iron wedges, tongs and sledge-hammers, then with pickaxes to the required size, not forgetting the brute force of manpower. The explosives were stored in a small concealed dug-out with a thick brick wall and a very solid iron door. My father kept the keys at home.
The hewing of chalk was particularly crucial : if it was too small it would burn too hard and if it was too large it would leave a core of unburned chalk. Six to nine inches roughly would be the size. The most important were the pieces that formed the archway to the fire chamber which was about 24 inches in length. By the way, warning when blasting was by word of mouth relayed along the way: “Take Cover”. You really did have to run. I remember sheltering under the lean-to of the kilns about 300 yards away when a shower of chalk came over. I expect Dick put a little extra powder in that day.
After the chalk was, shall we say, dressed it had to be conveyed to the kilns. This was by means of a light rail track and metal trolleys. Dick Bridle was the man to carry out this task. The trolley piled high with chalk would be given a little push by a couple of other work mates to start it rolling, then Dick would take over, hopping up onto the lower rail. From here on the journey from the pit to the kilns was all down hill. This is where Dick had to use all his wit, skill and strength to slow the thing down. With a full load, a gathering speed of 30-40 mph could be obtained. The braking system was really a Heath-Robertson affair. The brake was a small bough of a tree (oak or ash) whittled to shape. The action was to place the timber under the middle bar of the trolley and over the top of the wheel, then press down with all your might. There were only a few occasions when Dick had to jump for safety. Perhaps when the brake handle broke or the vehicle came off the rails. When down and unloaded, he then had to push it all the way back : 10-15 times a day.
The trolleys were a playground to us boys, of course - but only when the coast was clear. They usually ended either coming off the rails or being overturned. Although Dick knew that we were the culprits he never did complain to my Dad.
Now we come to the kiln side of the works. There were two kinds of kiln. The first two were known as the draw kilns, the others were just kilns of which there nine in a two, a three and a four. Firstly, I will endeavour to portray the draw kilns. There were a pair of these built into a fairly high bank so as to give two working areas - one up and one down, top for filling and bottom for drawing out. The size of the kiln was about six to eight feet in diameter and roughly fifteen feet in depth, built in brick. Naturally, the fire chamber would be special fire bricks. At the base was a draught passage, then above were the firebars where the fire was laid. The aperture size of the fire hole was about three square feet. Above the fire was another set of bars, their purpose was to retain the lime from falling through. The whole of this bottom area was covered in with a lean-to shed.
We now go to the top by the way of a zig-zag climb. Working at the top was just a matter of filling with chalk and coke: layer of chalk, then layer of coke. Once the fire was lit and the coke started to burn, there was no need for the bottom fire. It would keep slowly burning day after day providing what was taken out was replaced.
Now comes the extraction of the lime but I’m a little vague about this operation. My Uncle Albert was the man in charge of the draw kilns. I know he would pull or twist the retaining bars to let a few pieces of chalk to fall through onto the lower bars. He would then take out each piece and examine it to see if it was all lime or half chalk. The difference being that if lime, it would be light in weight and would have a china-like ‘ting’ to it. Any piece that was not quite burnt through, was not altogether wasted. With his little hammer he would tap all around. The lime would fall off and leave an egg shaped core of chalk. There he had two wheel barrows, one for chalk the other for lime. The lime was stored and the chalk wheeled to the tip. Just envisage each piece of chalk that came out of the pits man-handled three or four times. When enough lime was stored, the majority would be ground to a fine power for agricultural purposes.
When grinding was required, the traction engine was borrowed from the farm. This was the only mechanical element on the works other than the workers bicycles and the estate’s lorry. To me the lorry was a huge monster but I expect it was only about two to three tons. It was used to transport the lime to out-lying farms and also to haul the coal and coke from Buriton siding. All the coal came straight from the Welsh mines. I well remember those occasions. Us kids had two to three miles to go to school and on our way back, we had to pass the siding, so we knew when Reg, the driver, was hauling coal. We would run in there to see if our luck was in. What joy if he was. I expect Dad arranged the timing with Reg.
Another memory of the lorry days was when Reg had to deliver lime and Father said I could go with him. The most memorable was the journey to Selborne. When we came to Stairs Hill, which was steep and winding, I was allowed to sit in front of Reg and steer. With a load up I expect the speed was only about two miles per hour with virtually no traffic. I couldn’t get indoors quick enough to tell my mother and sisters that I drove the lorry.
I think that covers more or less the workings of the draw kilns. We now come to the main part of the works, the other kilns. The method of burning was quite different from the draw kiln.
There were nine of them in blocks of two, three and four. They were rectangular in shape, about 12 ft by 3 ft and roughly 10 ft deep. Placing of the chalk was a skilful job: the two sides were built up to about 2 ft, then the bridging pieces added. This now formed a tunnel roughly 2 ft square by 12 long. This then was the fire hole. From then it was a matter of filling with chalk with a small amount of coke. The back entrance where the lime was extracted had to be blocked off. This was with pieces of chalk infilled with ground lime to make it airtight. Two, three or more kilns would be filled at the same time, depending on the run of sales. When the kiln was filled almost to the top, a thin layer of small chalk was spread over the top, then a layer of loose bricks. This was to keep the heat in.
When filled, the kilns were all ready to be fired. Firstly, the fire had to be laid. This was with dried hop vine from the farm and bunce (known as faggots in other parts). Then small knobs of coal, then coke was added. When the fire got well alight and burning, more chalk was added. Then it was gradually pushed along so that there was a fire the whole length of the kiln. Once established it would have to be stoked every 20-30 minutes with coke. The reason for the coke was to dry the chalk. Dad was always an early riser on Mondays (4.00am) to light the fires and to get them well burning so that they were all ready for when the other workmen arrived. The stoking with the coke took all of that day, being well banked up for overnight burning and up to midday of the next. Of course, the draught had to be considered as well. This was a tunnel about 2 ft wide by 3 ft high, the whole length of the fire. The entrance was bricked up with a weak mix of pug so that a few bricks would be dislodged for more or less draught.
The weather, which is where the draught originates, was a predominant factor for burning. Wind was most important. Blowing from the south round to the north-west would be most favourable but when blowing from north to south-east it was very uncomfortable. Father was not a happy man on those days. The wind from this direction would blow the thick sooty smoke down under the lean-to where the stoking took place and where the men rested afterwards. Father was a good weather forecaster - such as farmers and fishermen had to be. There were no such forecasts as of today.
After the drying of the chalk with the coke, which was midday of the second day, a small amount of coal was added. Then, from there on, only coal was used with full draught. Stoking with the coal was undertaken about every 20 minutes depending on the strength and direction of the wind. This carried on all through that night and up to late afternoon, then gradually eased off.
This stage was most critical. I can see my father now opening the fire door, looking in, then saying “a little more coal at the back” or perhaps middle or front. He then would take a trip up to the top of the kiln looking down into the burning chalk - at this stage almost lime. The reason for these trips to the top was to make sure that the chalk had burned right through. This was determined by the glow of the fire or rather lime. If the whole was a white glow, then that was the finish, but if there were one or two patches of dark areas, then it was a question of another shovel of coal here and there or perhaps more draught by leaving the door open. This procedure would carry on perhaps up until one or two o’clock in the morning. Dad would never leave until satisfied.
These slow burning areas were usually caused by uneven stoking or a clinker that should have been removed. One other word about the stoking: the coal had to be laid very evenly and never had to touch the archway as this would cause a collapse and the whole kiln would have to be emptied and re-laid. This, as I remember, did happen on one occasion when Father was training a new stoker. Frank was the man involved - turned out first class.
These men did work hard and long hours and no compensation for overnight working. Just a couple of hours to go home, have a wash and brush up. Maybe just time for a quick nap, then back to the works perhaps until midnight.
I remember when there were only two kilns burning and Frank was on his own stoking. Dad would ask me quietly: “You wouldn’t mind spending the night with Frank?” which I did. He knew that Frank had a few little naps by the state of the fires the next morning: a few extra clinkers. I know that I used to drop off but that probably helped to keep Frank awake because he never knew when I might wake up.
After the kilns had finished burning and cooled down, it was a matter of extracting the lime. Some times, when there was a surge on, the overnight workers would take the back entrance down to let it cool down more quickly. This was a rare sight to see, the inside of a gleaming white hot oven of chalk.
The extracting was most laborious and hazardous. The majority of the lime was man-handled. It was placed in a bushel basket then carried to the waiting lorries. It was always sold by the bushel, rather than by weight, presumably because it was very light. Whilst this was going on the men had to endure the heat and dust and there was plenty of this. Also the sweat meant that when lime came in contact with moisture it would burn, so they had to keep their shirts on. I suppose their faces and hands got hardened to it.
The haulage of the lime in the early 20s was mainly horse drawn vehicles but this was soon taken over by the modern motorised vehicles. There were as many as 10 to 15 lorries waiting to be loaded. One haulage contractor would park a couple of lorries on Sundays to be first in the queue for the start on Mondays. This was a very busy enterprise in the years before and after the general strike, the period of the so-called Gerry builders. They used just enough lime to hold the sand together.
Now the white chalk didn’t need so long burning as it was of a softer texture. As I mentioned earlier, it came from the higher regions: the foot, or rather I would say heel, of Wardown.
This chalk was transported by horse and cart, a journey of about a third of a mile. “Chalky Lane”, an apt name, holds so many memories. It meandered round in a lazy horseshoe shape with tall stately beech and ash trees with their arms spread out reaching for light and sun on one side, then looking down into the valley and across to the distant hills on the other. But there, I must not wander.
The man who did the carting was Jimmy Ratly. Most of the white lime was ground to a very fine powder. The grinding shed was not the best of places to work in. The men coming out of there looked whiter than snowmen.
For me it was the traction engine with its tall chimney, its big flywheel and its long wide webbing belt crossed over in the middle going round and round that fascinated me. The biggest thrill of all was when the engine driver, Mr Ewards, invited me up in the engine to add a few knobs of coal to the fire. The most exciting thing of all was to activate the lever to blow the whistle.
Jimmy and his horse and cart had two other functions. One was to cart the coke to the top of the kilns, the other was to cart all unwanted residue from the kilns to the tip. It was on one of these occasions that Jimmy almost had a fatal accident. Whilst backing his horse to the edge of the tip, he went a little too far and over went the cart and horse, a drop of about 60ft or more. Luckily, both landed in an upright position. I cannot recollect of any serious accidents in all of the 40 years or more that we were at Butser.
Most of the men, if not all, were content with my father in his role as foreman. Never to my knowledge had he to intervene in any argument or to give a telling-off for slacking and never did I hear of a sacking. The one thing that he could not tolerate was bad time-keeping, especially start time. He must have emphasised this point at the start of employment. Most arrived 15 or so minutes before time. No doubt there were a few occasions when someone had a breakdown with their push bike or was upset at home.
Father's employers, the Sewards, never badgered him in any way. He had two bosses - brothers, Captain Percy and Charles. Dad took most of his orders from the Captain. The Captain visited the works once a week to bring the money for the wages and to take back the money that the customers paid when collecting their lime.
Charles’ visits were sort of casual. I well remember when Dad had these visitations. He would say to Mother “Had Charles up today. Usual thing: ‘Yes Walter, I know. Yes Walter, I know’”. Then father would say “I think that’s all he do know”. I suppose really it was just a saying of his. I never heard of any conflict between Dad and his bosses. Most of the correspondence was by the private telephone which was situated in the so-called office. This office was partitioned off under the lean-to. It had a small window and a built-in writing desk with the telephone hanging cabinet fixed to the side of the partition. Floor space was just room enough for one. The whole of the inside was decorated with a thick layer of sooty dust. It would have been an absolute impossibility to keep it clean, with the amount of sooty smoke and ash dust flying around. The telephone encased in all its glory was a vintage even in those days. The ear-piece was a separate item which was hung on the side of the cupboard. The phone itself was a rectangular box with the mouthpiece protruding in the front. There was a handle on the side to wind for connections. On the top were two bells to give warning of in-coming calls which rarely happened. To complete the apparatus were two large glass jars which were for the batteries for the electric supply for the phone. The lines or wires stretched across the fields on hop poles to Weston where Captain Seward lived and then on to the outskirts of Petersfield where Charles resided and farmed.
There were a few breakdowns in communications notably after the gale force winds or frost after rain. When this did happen, father would ask if we would walk across the fields to locate the fault so that he could tell Uncle Charlie (who did the repairs) the exact spot. This request was never refused. With my friend Colin, it was sheer delight to ramble over the fields, hills and dells. The hedgerows were so crammed with interest. We were never paid for our exertion. It never entered our heads that we should be. Even if we had been, there were no shops in which to spend. Father in some ways was, I would say, a little mystified with the phone. I well remember standing by the doorway of the office when it was time for him to phone - precisely nine o’clock. Although I had not uttered a word I was told to keep quiet.
He would then lift off the earpiece in a ‘shall I or shan’t I’ movement. Then, in the same manner, with the earpiece firmly pressed to his ear he would start to wind the handle for connection. This was one complete turn then pause. This was repeated three times for Weston and four to the Borough, Petersfield. When connected, with me still as silent as a mouse, he would lift his finger to me for more silence. I’m sure that once this ordeal was over it was a great relief to him.
Before leaving the office, there is just a few words about Dad’s book-keeping and the money side. His ledgers were small notebooks. One for orders taken from the nine o’clock phone call and one for entry of money taken for sales of the lime. Another for names of people that were owing. I have no memory of the cost of a bushel of lime. Ordering of the coal and coke was passed on to his bosses. Handling of the money was more or less a joint affair between mother and father. The takings for each day were brought home, then Dad would take the cash back with him the next day and leave mother with the notes. As the limeworks was adjacent to the main London-Portsmouth Road, it was very vulnerable to burglary. We used to get a lot of tramps in those days but on the whole most were regulars. All they wanted was a night’s doss, which Dad never allowed, and at the house was hot water and any old boots or shoes. Mother usually filled their billy can with fresh tea, then with a “Thank You Missus” they went contented on their way.
Father never had a safe in which to keep the money so this is where the joint effort came in. For safe-keeping of the notes, Mother would place them up inside the leg of her bloomers. At times she would talk around with as much as £500 or more - a lot of money in those days. Friday evenings was the day of reckoning. Dad would commandeer the kitchen table. Then, with all the notes and cash spread out in their respective order, he would have a count-up to see if it tallied with his little notebook. With my sisters, we were allowed to sort out the silver from the copper, then neatly place them in their counted piles. Any spare would be shared between us which was never more than a penny or tuppence. I suppose letting us mingle with the money would give us an insight as to the value later in life, but for me it was the open air with the green hills and the wildlife that I valued most.
I remember standing outside of Dad’s office on pay-days : just before knock-off time, 12 noon on Saturdays. He would pay each man his wages in notes and cash in his hand. I was rewarded with a penny or a halfpenny for the little chores I did for them. Here again I can never remember where it went. I expect my sisters benefited by it.
I have never been back to the limeworks but passing by as I often do, you can still see parts of the works still intact. Lime burning ceased with the passing of the Sewards but for me the black sooty smoke is still bellowing out and fading out with the wind.
This account has kindly been provided by Mr George Chitty, now of Clanfield, Hants.
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