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Kiln Tragedy

Over time there have been numerous perilous occupations on Dartmoor – miners, farm labourers, quarrymen, and not to mention lime burners. Dartmoor was and is a primary area for agriculture of which arable farming has been an important aspect. One of the most important conditions for ensuring agricultural crops will grow is the condition of the soil, especially the pH balance. If the soil is too acidic then it can be difficult if not impossible to maximize the yield of agricultural crops. The solution was/is to use agricultural lime in order to condition the soil by raising the pH levels. It is made from crushed limestone that contains natural nutrients to promote healthy plant growth. When lime is added to agricultural crops, it dissolves and releases a base that counteracts or neutralizes soil acidity. If you read any farm sale notices from the 1800s one of the selling points is the proximity to lime kilns or the easy access to lime. Clearly if you want to produce lime you needed to be located where limestone naturally occurs. On Dartmoor there were numerous lime quarries located on the northern, eastern and southern peripheries of the moor. One such quarry was at South Tawton which reports suggest that lime kilns were in existence there in 1789. Towards the end of its working life there were five kilns operating at the quarry, three of the early ones can be seen on the OS map below.

Lime burning generated toxic fumes along with acrid smoke, and quicklime was a volatile product capable of producing great heat if it came into contact with water, so kilns needed to be situated away from occupation areas. The other peril assocaited with a lime kiln was the fire itself which reached extreme temperatures and also produced large amount of smoke. Over the centuries there were many fatalities at these kilns, in some cases it would be the lime burners but also it was not unheard of for tramps and vagrants to lose their lives at a kiln. This happened when seeking a warm place to spend the night the unfortunate person would fall asleep on or near the kiln and be overcome by the fumes as they slept. But back to the lime burners, in 1841 the lime quarries at South Tawton were owned by a Mr. Watts. On the March of 1840, George Turner died as a result of severe burns whilst working at one of the kilns.  The result of his unfortunate demise was that at the coroner’s inquest Andrew Lang, a co-worker of Turner’s was indicted of manslaughter. The case was heard at the  Devon and Exeter Lent Assizes on the 19th of March 1841.

The first witness called was Andrew Yeo who stated that on March the 2nd 1840 himself, Turner and Lang along with some fellow workers were engaged in lighting the kilns. Turner was laying combustible materials in the form of furze and plies of wood for the fire. Yeo moved a short distance away from the kiln to fetch something when he heard screams and smoke coming from the kiln. He along with some fellow workers rushed back to the bottom of the kiln where they managed to drag Turner out. In Yeo’s words, “he was surrounded by flames and was much burnt.” At this point Turner was still alive and was carried back to his home in a cart. Yeo also stated that to the best of his knowledge there was no animosity between Turner and Lang.
The next witness was James Mallett, also a lime burner. He testified that he too was present at the time and heard Turner call out to someone below not to set light the the furze. he then heard the screams and went to help Yeo pull the man out. Mallett then went on to say that after extracting Turner he went to the bottom of the kiln but there was no sign of anyone who lit the fire adding that there was clearly no communication between Turner and that person when the fire was lit.

Turner’s wife, Betty then gave her evidence.  She said how vividly she remembered he husband being brought to the house with severe burns. He was immediately put to his bed where he remained until the following October when he died. During that time Lang visited the house to see her husband on several occasions. On the first visit she heard her husband say to lang; “Thomas, see what your foolish items has come to.” Lang replied, “It should be a warning to you not to do anything of the kind again.”  Betty Turner also stated that Lang had added that he only intended to smother Turner a little and not to hurt him and if he had not lit the straw Thomas Seward would have done so. Mrs Turner confirmed that on different occasions Lang had sent money to George Turner amounting to 34 shillings.

Next up was John Brewer who testified that he had met Lang in the road near the kilns just after the incident. Lang said to him that, “he regretted he should have set light to the straw, but after having done so it communicated so quickly to the furze that he could not put it out.” Lang also added that he did it as a “Lark“.

The Rev. Ponsford verified and read the deposition given him by the deceased. It affirmed that in Turner’s belief the act was not with the intent of causing him any harm and that he had been visited by Lang who also give him amounts of money.  John Battershill, surgeon deposed that the cause of death was from injuries received from being burnt.

The judge the summed up saying: “the act itself of the prisoner was NOT accidental; it was so far premediated that the prisoner intended to ‘smoke’ the deceased. If the jury thought the prisoner had done any act to annoy or to tease the deceased, and if they found that the result of that act was the death of the deceased, then it would be their duty to declare the prisoner guilty.” The jury retired and returned after about five minutes of deliberation and returned a verdict of “not guilty”. – The North Devon Journal, March 18th, 1841.

Was this really a case of a “prank” gone horribly wrong? Were Lang’s visits to the injured man and his donations of 34s. out of remorse or guilt? According to Turner’s wife’s evidence what did Lang mean by “It should be a warning to you not to do anything of the kind again?” A warning to do what again, what did he do to get warned about? Clearly the judge thought there was case to answer and that the verdict should have been guilty. 

Today the Criminal Prosecution Service define ‘manslaughter’ as – “Manslaughter can be committed in one of three ways: 1) Killing with the intent for murder but where a partial defence applies, namely loss of control, diminished responsibility or killing pursuant to a suicide pact. 2) Conduct that was grossly negligent given the risk of death, and did kill (“gross negligence manslaughter”); and 3) Conduct taking the form of an unlawful act involving a danger of some harm that resulted in death (“unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter”). The term “involuntary manslaughter” is commonly used to describe manslaughter falling within (2) and (3) while (1) is referred to as “voluntary manslaughter“.” The guideline sentences are – Gross negligence manslaughter – 12 years’ custody – Unlawful Act Manslaughter – 18 years’ custody.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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