Chalk pits and lime kilns on Malling Hill

Mill Road History > Chalk pits and lime kilns

Chalk and lime from the nearby pits were probably conveyed down Mill Road for just about as long as flour from the windmill. An almost continuous line of chalk pits lies along the South Downs escarpment from Washington in the west to Glynde in the east. Most of the smaller pits – including those on Malling Hill – were used principally by the farmers who owned them or leased adjoining land.[54] Although the soil on the Downs is alkaline, most arable farms in the district include areas requiring the application of lime.

Malling Hill, Lewes OS 6 inch map, 1873
OS 6 inch map (extract), 1873

The pits on Malling Hill were never developed on the much larger scale of those at Southerham, which benefitted from readier access to sea-going vessels on the lower Ouse and, from 1850, to the railway; or at Offham, where a quarter-mile cut and an incline plane connected the quarries to the navigable river.

The Malling Hill pits are on land which formed part of Stoneham Manor which, until the Reformation, formed part of the Archbishops of Canterbury’s Malling estates. In 1691, after a series of complicated transfers of title between members of the Polsted family, Stoneham Manor was divided into two main holdings, which became the Lower and Upper Stoneham farms. The 1691 agreement stated that the chalk pit (it doesn’t specify which) was to be held in common by both farms. By 1700 the farms had passed into the possession of the Spences (Lower Stoneham), soon to build Malling House and the Burrells (Upper Stoneham), later of Knepp Castle at Horsham.[55] New Pit and the chalk workings to the east formed part of Lower Stoneham Farm; the range of Bridgewick Pits were part of Upper Stoneham Farm.

It is difficult to provide a full chronology of how the pits operated and who worked them. It is likely that the various tenants of the Stoneham farms did so until the later 18th Century, probably largely to supply lime for their own fields. From the early 19th Century members of the Hillman family took a leading role in the local chalk and lime industries. They owned and operated the river barges that distributed the products. The brothers Robert and Charles Hillman advertised lime for sale in the local press in 1826, directing all orders to “the Malling Home Pit, Lewes”.[56] I am not sure to which pit this refers.

Lower Stoneham farm was sold at auction in 1842 following the death of Captain Henry H. Spence RN. The bulk of the farm land was bought by the merchant William Catt of Bishopstone for £17,724 7s 6d. New Pit (Lot 23) is described as the “very valuable chalk pit on the north-west side of Malling Down” with a stable and adjoining seven acres of land. Spence had let it to Thomas and Robert Hillman, nephews of the previous operators, for which they paid £120 annually plus £2 for the stable.[57] It is possible that these tenants bought Lot 23 in 1842, although I can find no explicit documentation to that effect. Whether as owners or tenants, they continued to run New Pit until their deaths in 1856 and 1884 respectively. Members of the Hillman family also worked the much larger Southerham pits and lime kilns, which they had leased from the Firle estate since at least 1811.[58]

The 1881 census notes that Robert Hillman lived at 104 High Street, describing him as a lime and coal merchant employing 60 labourers. He had five daughters and a son, who pre-deceased him. Other members of the extensive Hillman clan were the tenants at Lower Stoneham farm from 1855.

Certainly by 1914 the New Pit and its buildings had passed into the ownership of Robert Hillman and his descendants. In his will he had left his estate to his brother John (d. 1889), his nephew Aubrey (John’s son, d. 1906), Bernard Hussey Hunt, Andrews Nicholson (gentlemen) and their heirs upon trust. The Valuation Office survey of that year identifies these trustees as the site’s owners. It was occupied by E. Fiske on a quarterly tenancy of £5 a year. The pit was disused and the sheds boarded up. Its market value was put at £125.

In the same year the area covering the old chalk workings to the east of New Pit, a house, a cottage and land (all part of Lower Stoneham Farm) were owned by Alfred and Charles Sayer and occupied by Michael Stacey on a yearly tenancy from 1893 for £370 rent. The Valuation Office survey does not mention the chalk pit, which had clearly ceased to operate.

The Valuation Office survey lists the range of Bridgewick pits, part of Upper Stoneham farm, still in the ownership of Sir M. R. Burrell of Knepp Castle. In 1914 the farm was occupied by Robert Bannister on an annual tenancy of £450 and a market value of £11,300. The implication of the Valuation Office report is that some use was still being made of the pits at that time.

Main Bridgewick Pit, Lewes, 2020
The main Bridgewick Pit, 2020

There is now very little evidence of chalk and lime workings left on the ground. In the early 1970s one brick face remained of the four lime kilns at New Pit;[59] I have been unable to get access to the site to check if it is still visible. The Bridgewick pits are heavily overgrown and no traces are discernible.

[54] Margaret Holt, Limekilns in central Sussex, Sussex Industrial History vol. 2 1971

[55] East Sussex Record Office: AMS 5763/1-126

[56] Sussex Weekly Advertiser, April 1826

[57] East Sussex Record Office: AMS 1666

[58] East Sussex Record Office: SAS-G/49/18/1282

[59] Margaret Holt, Limekilns in central Sussex, Sussex Industrial History vol. 2 1971