TRAVEL NORTH - 6: TRACKING CLEVELAND'S* OLD INDUSTRIES, Alum, Iron and Jet

Distantly related to the other 'black stuff', jet can enhance your appearance

Jet jewellery came into fashion after the death of Prince Albert when Queen Victoria developed a morbid taste for permanently wearing mourning jewellery
Jet jewellery came into fashion after the death of Prince Albert when Queen Victoria developed a morbid taste for permanently wearing mourning jewellery | Source
Whitby jet ring W 24 ct gold by Jacqueline Cullen
Whitby jet ring W 24 ct gold by Jacqueline Cullen | Source
Abandoned, worked-out Kettleness jet working below the cliffs (north of Whitby, beyond Sandsend)
Abandoned, worked-out Kettleness jet working below the cliffs (north of Whitby, beyond Sandsend) | Source
Whitby 'Jetopolis' on the eastern side of town below the abbey. Seeing is believing, almost every shop along Church Street sells jet ornaments and jewellery
Whitby 'Jetopolis' on the eastern side of town below the abbey. Seeing is believing, almost every shop along Church Street sells jet ornaments and jewellery | Source

Working Mother Earth's Treasures

The route of the Cleveland Way from Helmsley Market Place to Filey by way of Saltburn and Whitby
The route of the Cleveland Way from Helmsley Market Place to Filey by way of Saltburn and Whitby
Whitby Jet brooch, the real - Whitby - McCoy allows intricate carving, whereas imported jet is often brittle and flakes
Whitby Jet brooch, the real - Whitby - McCoy allows intricate carving, whereas imported jet is often brittle and flakes
Unlikely trendsetter? Fashion went from the top down in those days. Thanks to Albert succumbing to pneumonia, Whitby saw an upturn in its fortunes
Unlikely trendsetter? Fashion went from the top down in those days. Thanks to Albert succumbing to pneumonia, Whitby saw an upturn in its fortunes
A late-19th Century Whitby jet workshop - once the fashion set by Queen Victoria set in their lifestyles rocketed in quality
A late-19th Century Whitby jet workshop - once the fashion set by Queen Victoria set in their lifestyles rocketed in quality
One of the Whitby Jet retailers below the abbey hill. Virtually the whole of Church Street is occupied by shopkeepers selling jet ornaments and jewellery
One of the Whitby Jet retailers below the abbey hill. Virtually the whole of Church Street is occupied by shopkeepers selling jet ornaments and jewellery
Rosedale ironstone - the East and West Rosedale mines were linked to Teesside via a line built in the late 19th Century via Ingleby Junction (Battersby) and Ingleby Incline
Rosedale ironstone - the East and West Rosedale mines were linked to Teesside via a line built in the late 19th Century via Ingleby Junction (Battersby) and Ingleby Incline
Underground - miners with their 'cranners', - mine wagons - full of ironstone
Underground - miners with their 'cranners', - mine wagons - full of ironstone
North Skelton's shaft mine closed as late as 1964. Most of the Cleveland ironstone workings were Drift mines, cut into hillsides with inclines leading to mine adits
North Skelton's shaft mine closed as late as 1964. Most of the Cleveland ironstone workings were Drift mines, cut into hillsides with inclines leading to mine adits
Roseberry Topping, once conical, was 'given this facelift' in the late 19th Century by extraction of alum shale and ironstone
Roseberry Topping, once conical, was 'given this facelift' in the late 19th Century by extraction of alum shale and ironstone
Skinningfrove Mine's surface buildings. Also a Drift working, set on a steep slope into the hillside behind. The adit or entrance double doors were operated by a lad of about ten with no light, and rats for company.
Skinningfrove Mine's surface buildings. Also a Drift working, set on a steep slope into the hillside behind. The adit or entrance double doors were operated by a lad of about ten with no light, and rats for company.

The oldest and probably most romantically linked industry around Cleveland has to be the extraction of jet.

Intricately carved jet ornaments have been found in round barrow burials. More recently, in the 1860s a jet chain guard was ordered for the Queen of Bavaria. Jet has been found by beachcombers along the shore from Whitby northward. Those who found this easily carved stone have been known as 'Klondykers' because really they were hoping to find the odd gold coin washed up from when the old sailing ships passed this way, or even some careless tourist's dropped pound coins.

[*Firstly, a very short history passage: In the second half of the 9th Century, when the sons of Ragnar 'Lothbrok' came to avenge their father's death at the hands of King Aelle of Bernicia his son Halvdan took the mantle of king of Jorvik (York). His realm stretched from the Humber to the Tees in the east (facing the North Sea) and from the Mersey to the Ribble in the west (facing the Irish Sea) and all the land between, across the Pennines. Those Danes who came with him and settled south of the Tees saw the steep escarpments between Osmotherley and Guisborough. They compared them to the cliffs overlooking the North Sea between Saltburn and Scarborough, and called the area 'Kliffelond' in old Norse, or Cliff Land in modern English. Over the centuries the name was corrupted to 'Cleveland'. A piece of territory in North America was named for one of George II's mistresses, to whom he gave the title Duchess of Cleveland. There is also an area of North Germany near the Dutch border called Cleve, around a city by the same name. Not being familiar with English regions he might have named her after the German city. The Hanoverians notwithstanding, Cleveland in North Yorkshire has the Danish connection, Cleveland Ohio? It's your guess].

In 1800 a Captain Tremlett talked the Whitby jet workers into using lathes to turn jet. Nevertheless the real turn-up for the industry came about after the death of Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert on December 14th, 1861. The queen made the wearing of jet ornaments a regal fashion, and around fourteen hundred men and boys were earning more than twice the national average wage by 1870, and for all the dust and black grime, they were in the peak of health.

The demand for jet ornament was high enough for mining operations to be started on a commercial scale all along the line of jet shales along the Cleveland escarpment. Jet miners' inns such as Jeator House near Osmotherley were also meeting centres for the miners and buyers. There were three inns in the small community of Chop Gate in Bilsdale. There was a cell near the post office where a signboard warned miners of the punishment due to them for riotous behaviour. The miners were rough, living in the caves they had extracted in the search for jet for weeks. Like the gold prospectors in California or Alaska they assembled 'in town' once monthly to gamble away their gains. There were games like 'Fives agin' t'Gable Wall' and quoits or horse shoes played on soft clay pitches.

Jet was worked in a simple manner. A narrow cave would be dug into the hillside and the shale was brought out in tubs or wheelbarrows. Fragments of jet were put aside and the rubble tipped below the cave-mouths, explaining long rows of waste heaps that stretch for miles along the hillsides of Bilsdale, Raisdale and Scugdale. The product was known to have curative and even magical properties. There are caves at Runswick Bay known as Hob Holes, the 'hobs' (hobgoblins) or fairies that haunted the holes were thought able to cure whooping cough. It is possible that when the jet miners were active the dust - if burnt with driftwood or seaweed - had some effect on ailing lungs.

Cleveland jet became famous far away. Marbodus of Rheims wrote in his Lapidarium around 1430 of its singular qualities and amazing powers:

'The female womb its piercing fumes relieve,

Nor falling sickness can this test deceive;

It cures the dropsy, loosened teeth are fixed,

Washed with the powedered stone in water mixed'


Compared with jet, alum working was a complicated and messy process and considerably altered the landscape along the coast and a number of crags overlooking the lower Tees valley. Alum shales were extracted in such geat quantities that the shape of the cliffs at Kettleness, Rockcliff, Sandsend, Roseberry Topping, Carlton Bank and Slapewath near Guisborough was left looking something more akin to moonscapes. From 17th Century lithographs, the landscapes have changed as, if not more, surely than any city in the north.

The smoke and stench of the alum workings was well known. Part of the process called for the boiling of seaweed in urine, the latter having been taken from the cities and towns in great quantities. Alum was in high demand for dyeing, tanning and even medicinal purposes. Its value was known in Mediaeval times, but the Italians knew the secret of how to make it. There is an old story that Thomas Challoner had a couple of workmen kidnapped from the vatican-owned works at Puteoli, and he was duly damned into eternity for his cheek. The truth is more workman-like. Experiment and exploration were the order of the day, with extensive litigation and sometimes sheer piracy. It is ikely a member of the Challoner clan recognised the shale near Guisborough and alum making was a Stuart monopoly, determined to by-step asking Parliament for cash. After the Civil War that ended in the execution of Charles I they lost that monopoly and the industry spread along the coast northward from Whitby.

Ironstone has been mined and worked in Cleveland from before the Romans came, and the Rievaulx estate produced great quantities of iron yearly until the Duke of Buckingham was dispossessed by Parliament during the same Civil War that blew away the Stuart alum monopoly. The topmost seam of ironstone is found in the ellerbeck beds of the Middle Jurassic, worked in mediaeval days at Botton Head near the upper reaches of the Cleveland Way, and the stone was smelted in riverside bloomeries below Baysdale Abbey. Romano-Britons around Hood Grange below Whitestone Cliff (above Thirsk) and the monks of Rievaulx used this lower quality stone. The Pecten and Main seams found in the Liassic rocks were developed after years of experiment along the coast where these layers are laid bare. From the mid-18th Century ironstone had been collected on the shore and shipped to Tyneside. There are still remains of wooden jetties below the cliffs between Saltburn and Sandsend. Several amateur historians have argued that they exist and published papers of local archaeological societies refer to these structures.

Some local workmen began shovelling any heavy red stone into the barrows and complaints of the quality of 'sea iron' grew frequent. In 1827 Mr Bewick arrived to investigate and in his findings he wrote that the rich seams of ironstone could be mined also among the inland hillsides and dales. The Tyneside ironmasters were urged to take advantage of his discoveries but two decades past before Cleveland's Ironstone Klondyke began in earnest. Bewick became manager of one of the earlier mines at Grosmont, inland from Whitby, and John Vaughhan bought ironstone from him, to be shipped from Whitby for smelting at Witton Park in County Durham. Influenced by Bewick's writing of a great ironfield, Vaughan began quarrying near the foot of the Eston escarpment (see the Hub TRAVEL NORTH - 4: 'Walk The Moor') and had six smelting furnaces erected at Grangetown in 1852. Nothing remains, but note many of the roads around Teesside have a dark reddish colour. The slag heaps that stood for years around Cleveland have been largely used as roadstone.

Potash is the latest contribution to Cleveland's 'Klondyke', although not as widespread as the ironstone. Boulby Mine near Staithes remains the main source, although prospecting is still going on over the moors for more outlets. Palaeolothic remains have been found at the base of the shaft, and experts from far and wide have inspected the remains. It is as much a geological museum as it is a mine!

Map of North Yorkshire showing jet extraction along the coast and inland from Whitby
Map of North Yorkshire showing jet extraction along the coast and inland from Whitby | Source

Take pleasure in turning over the pages to discover old and new jet jewellery and ornament - these days jet jewellery is not necessarily for mourning wear as it was in Queen Victoria's day. Take a walk along Church Street, Whitby - below the abbey - and look in the jet shops that line the street for jet jewellery and ornament.

Changing the landscape - alum extraction and processing took place mainly along the coast for easier access

Site of Sandsend Alum works - there are traces of workings along the coastal stretch of the Cleveland Way. At low tide Whitby 'Cats' would rest in stone ruts for unloading industrial supplies and loading the processed alum
Site of Sandsend Alum works - there are traces of workings along the coastal stretch of the Cleveland Way. At low tide Whitby 'Cats' would rest in stone ruts for unloading industrial supplies and loading the processed alum

Subterranean and topographical layout of the area

Cleveland, North Yorkshire & South Durham geological strata
Cleveland, North Yorkshire & South Durham geological strata | Source
North Yorkshire and Cleveland physical map
North Yorkshire and Cleveland physical map

Industries reliant on the riches of the sub-strata...

...Are always prone to boom-and-bust. Except for jet they're precariously won, dangerous to extract. Alum processing was a messy process, including its extraction. It was also smelly and relied on animal and human waste products. Ironstone was dangerous to win, even by quarrying, although many of Cleveland's centres of ironstone extraction were subterranean. In different areas water that leaked into the mines mixed with the mineral content of the ground and produced a green mist at around shoulder-height. Potash was found deep down in the earth, not far from the coast at Staithes after prospecting across the North Yorkshire Moors region. Other areas are being prospected now. Fracking is also being considered on the moors for oil-production. That will be another difficult way of winning the earth's treasures.. .

For an in-depth overview and history of one area of ironstone extraction, see the Hub-page in the TRAVEL NORTH series, 4: 'Walking The Moor - In The Footsteps Of Eston Miners', about the mines that were opened from 1850 at Eston to the south of Middlesbrough. It was likened to the Klondike or boom-time of gold discovery in California, and the old area of Eston where many of the miners originally dwelt was called 'California'. Extraction data, and a geological summary by John Vaughan's assistant John Marley are included, as well as links to historical groups. There are also links to Friends of Eston Hills - of which I am a member, having been raised in the area - and Pancrack TV, a film company founded by Craig Hornby, who produced a 2 hour historical program titled 'A CENTURY IN STONE'. There is also information on conducted walks, led by Craig, which take place in May and September. I'd recommend going on one of these tours.

Cleveland, North Yorkshire ironstone workings, linked by the 'iron road' to Teesside's burgeoning iron - later steel - works between Grangetown and Middlesbroug

Cleveland's ironstone workings from the west at Swainby near Northallerton to the coast between Saltburn and Staithes, south east to Eskdale
Cleveland's ironstone workings from the west at Swainby near Northallerton to the coast between Saltburn and Staithes, south east to Eskdale | Source
The site of Rosedale West Mines calcining kilns - the ore was 'roasted' to reduce the weight of the stone and therefore also the cost of forwarding by rail to the works on Teesside via the Ingleby Incline
The site of Rosedale West Mines calcining kilns - the ore was 'roasted' to reduce the weight of the stone and therefore also the cost of forwarding by rail to the works on Teesside via the Ingleby Incline | Source

At its height in the late 19th Century ironstone extraction was carried out at over eighty sites across Cleveland...

Iron ore seams broadly spanned the hilly areas between the Vale of Mowbray near Northallerton and the coast between Saltburn and Whitby, down to the valley of the Murk Esk north of Goathland and north to the Eston escarpment south of the Tees. Early bloom furnaces have been located, scattered across this area near the vestiges of slag deposits.

Over the century and a half ending in 1964, when the extraction of ore ceased at North Skelton near the coast at Skinningrove, over six distinguishable seams were worked. Of these only the Main Seam saw intensive exploitation on a truly industrial scale. This was an area centred on Guisborough and Eston. Following the first subterranean extraction of ore at Grosmont near Whitby in 1837 three mining districts were developed, a) Murk Esk Valley centred on Grosmont, b) Rosedale and c) Cleveland.

Geographically the area was coursed by deep dales divided by high moorland, further divided geologically into seams of workable ores. The narrow Pecten and Avicula seams were distributed around the southern edge of the area delineated by Grosmont, Top Seam level around Rosedale and Main Seam between Swainby in the west (close to Northallerton) and Grinkle (near Port Mulgrave on the coast). Limited, local working of minor seams could be found scattered within these main areas but the scope of extraction was determined by thickness of seams and quality of ores available. along the coast all the commercial seams but one uppermost Ellerbeck formation emerge on the steep and sheer cliffs.

Small scale extraction was begun in the early 19th Century, sent via the coast to Tyneside ironworks, until demand outstripped production. Inland exploration for workable seams and production of better quality ores was aided by the spread of railway systems across Cleveland, with the Stockton & Darlington Railway competing for traffic against the Cleveland Railway and the North Yorkshire & Cleveland Railway. Expansion of railway networks grew with increased extraction of ore, although by 1863 the North Eastern Railway (NER) had absorbed the network almost across the whole North East. In turn the NER grew to be the richest railway company in the north of England on its mineral and industrial connections.

Potash mining at Boulby near the coast at Staithes

Boulby Potash Mine seen from Staithes - bridge abutment on right shows course of Whitby-Middlesbrough railway, lifted beyond Loftus and reinstated to Boulby on old alignment.
Boulby Potash Mine seen from Staithes - bridge abutment on right shows course of Whitby-Middlesbrough railway, lifted beyond Loftus and reinstated to Boulby on old alignment. | Source

The view above was taken from the road that leads down to the fishing village of Staithes, served until the late 1950s by the Whitby, Redcar & Middlesbrough Union Railway. The line was lifted beyond Saltburn in the 1960s, but had to be reinstated as far as Boulby before the mine was opened in 1973 (building of the mine began 1969). Until recently the mine produced 55% of the total UK market's needs. However, jobs have been put one ice since November, 2015 however, when the company (Boulby Potash Limited, a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals since 2002) announced cuts 'vital to secure its future'. Employment in the area is hard enough to come by, so along with steel closures at nearby Redcar and elsewhere on Teesside the employment scene looks dismal. Plant closures will have had a knock-on effect.



The grand, sometimes stark beauty of the Yorkshire coast reveals old industries like alum and ironstone quarrying, jet extraction and so on. The contrasts between the Tees Bay in the north and Holderness in the east couldn't be more marked, with some of the highest cliffs on that side of Britain. There are also the low crumbling clay cliffs between Redcar and Saltburn, here and there between and largely towards the mouth of the Humber at Spurn Head where the sea has made inroads. Where once caravan parks and homes sprawled along the low cliffs at the edge of the East Riding are now broken roads that lead nowhere, the remains of foundations and crumbling walls around jagged cracks that reach inland like long, spindly fingers. .

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Comments 4 comments

ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 4 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Love Whitby and the whole area. It can be cool and foggy but that adds to the atmosphere


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hullo Ethel, It certainly is atmospheric - nobody's ever complained about the lack of atmosphere around there, just the sun doesn't show his face enough. We'd knock the pants off Torremolinos and Fuerteventura if we had the sunshine they get! Have a look along from Sandsend north up Lythe Bank to Runswick, Staithes and Skinningrove (the 'Shining Grove', a place of worship in pagan times). And then there's Port Mulgrave. Not much of a resort as such, but it's a centre of water sports.


oceansnsunsets profile image

oceansnsunsets 9 months ago from The Midwest, USA

I found your article when researching jet. Thank you for sharing, very interesting indeed!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 9 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello there, how's things in the 'Great Divide'?

Glad you found this page useful. There are other pages that cover mineral extraction in this rich region in the 'TRAVEL NORTH' series you might find handy, especially one titled 'WALKING THE MOOR' about ironstone extraction and associated social issues. There's a link on that page to a site named 'Pancrack TV' where you can buy a dvd on the subject.

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