Travelling along the coast road from South Shields to Whitburn or vice versa it’s impossible to miss the huge brick construction built out from the hillside opposite Souter Lighthouse, but what exactly is it?
Well in a town once rich in industry and shipbuilding it’s not surprising that this monstrous structure is yet another relic of our industrial heritage. Not a town to miss an opportunity a number of square kilns were built in the 1870’s to take advantage of a bleak but perfect location. Limestone had been quarried at Marsden for hundreds of years being used in many notable buildings in the area including Whitburn Windmill in 1796, so with a constant supply of limestone and the nearby Whitburn Colliery providing coal for fuel, these large ovens couldn’t fail to be profitable, it was geographically perfect.
Layers of limestone and coal were poured into the top of the ovens heating and breaking down the stone to produce quicklime which was used in agriculture to neutralise soil. It was also an important element of the steel and chemical industry and was used to make cement and concrete. The whole process was almost a continuous operation with as much coal and limestone being poured in the top as quicklime was extracted at the bottom. The process was greatly assisted by the railway which transported the coal from the colliery to the kilns, then once the quicklime had cooled it was loaded on to the train and transported to the Mill Dam ready for shipment. The train was extremely noisy from carrying the stone and was given the nickname the ‘Marsden Rattler’ most however will associate the name as a pub along the sea front. In 1895 business was so good that two additional kilns were built. These were circular in construction with iron bands around them for reinforcement.
For the workers days were long and labour intensive. The conditions were harsh and extremely dangerous, with overpowering fumes proving sometimes fatal. Workers at the bottom of the kiln extracting the quicklime, often suffered chemical burns after handling it and it is said their faces would burn for days after. The man in charge of the kilns went by the nickname of ‘Old Smokey’, he was bow legged as a result of falling in the kilns and breaking both his legs. In those days there was no compensation culture, it would be doubtful if he even received sick pay, he was probably just glad to still have a job when he had recovered.
With a sizeable workforce between these industries, a village was built to the North of Souter Lighthouse to accommodate them and their families. The village was built in 1874 housing 700 people in 135 houses, with its own school, chapel, church, co-op store, post office and miners institute the village was pretty self-sufficient. Sadly, this village almost disappeared without a trace following the closure of Whitburn Colliery in 1968. The village was considered in danger being so close to the cliff edge and the decision was made to demolish the entire village.
There is speculation as to why and when the limekilns ceased operation. Most make reference to its closure coinciding with the colliery but another and far more logical suggestion is that it was closed as a precaution during the Second World War as the glow from the kilns would have made us an easy target for enemy aircraft during the national blackout. When the war ended much had changed in those 6 years, maintenance work was required for the kilns to be operational again and also quicklime was rapidly being replaced by crushed limestone. It is likely that the quarry thought it too costly to maintain and re-open the limekilns.
To see these kilns in full operation must have been a truly remarkable sight and it has been said that looking into the kilns was like looking into the jaws of hell. Well now sadly all that remains is a mysterious eye catching ruin on the coast road. The Lime Kilns are one of three sites in South Tyneside scheduled as an Ancient monument, the other two being St Pauls Monastery and Arbeia Roman Fort. Let’s hope these kilns are preserved and maintained as it’s all we have left of this remarkable industry.