Voice of the Moors

The magazine of the North Yorkshire Moors Association


Issue 72

Spring-Summer 2003

Steeped in History

John Farquhar review "The Alum Industry of North East Yorkshire"


"Steeped in History: the Alum Industry of North-East Yorkshire" was published by the North York Moors National Park Authority last year, and provides an authoritative review of the industry which has left such significant marks on the landscape of our moors.

Those of you who have read that excellent book "The Floating Egg" by Roger Osborne ' will remember his account of how Sir Thomas Chaloner, out riding to hounds, found rocks which reminded him of those he had seen being mined for alum production in Germany. Like many good tales this is not strictly true - the pioneer was probably a different Thomas Chaloner at nearby Slapewath, according to Roger Pickles, who provides a very full account of the history of the industry.

Alum was necessary to "fix" the dyes (all vegetable dyes in those days) in cloth, and for centuries it had all come from the area around Tolfa in Italy which was part of the Pope's dominions. After the Reformation in England this supply was cut off, and a search began to find a local source - Queen Elizabeth granted one Cornelius de Vos a monopoly but he had no success. Chaloner, however, is said to have persuaded two Italians from Tolfa to come to England - even so it took some years before his site at Belman Bank near Guisborough began to produce alum.

As a detailed chapter by Alf Rout describes,this is because it was not easy to get the alum salt out of the shale. First it had to be burned for as long as six months; then leached with water. This produced a solution of aluminium and iron sulphates, and alum is a "double" sulphate containing potassium or ammonium as well as aluminium. So potassium, obtained in those days by burning masses of seaweed; or ammonium, derived from urine, had to be added. Finally the alum had to be induced to crystallise out of the solution without becoming contaminated with the iron sulphate which was also dissolved in it. This was done by heating the solution to drive off some of the water and concentrate the salts. When the concentration was just right, alum crystals alone would form as the solution cooled. How did the workers know when this point was reached? When an egg would float to the top of the tank hence the title of Osborne's book.

Chaloner's success triggered off a search for more exposures of the alum shales - and the obvious place to look was along the cliffs. So the industry rapidly developed all along the coast from Saltburn and Loftus south to Ravenscar. At its peak in 1768 over 4000 tons was produced, and when one considers that it takes 12 tons of shale to produce a ton of alum, and that at least three times as much other rock had to be dug to get at the shale band, one realises that over 100,000 tons of rock had to be shifted every year with pickaxe and shovel and wheelbarrow. The scars are still visible two hundred years later.

One such scar is the large quarry on Stoupe Brow which you pass if you go down to the shore at Stoupe Beck in Robin Hood's Bay. The history of this enterprise is revealed in the legal documents connected with the adjacent farmland. Land sold by one John Conyers to Thomas Wardell in 1756 includes "...one-third part of a close called the Intack" - i.e. the intake into the moor to form the quarry. The document goes on to say that "... whereas George Dent of Stow Brow ...being owner or proprietor of two undivided third parts of the close called the Intack and of the Allom Rock or Allom Mine parcel of the said close ...did some time before April 1753 set up and run an Allom Work ....and hath severed and taken great quantities of the said Allom Mine ....without the consent of John Conyers and without any payment ...."

Thomas Wardell takes over this claim: he has purchased the land "on behalf of Constantine Phipps and several others proprietors of or interested in divers alum works in the county of York". The land was leased to one George Dodds of Boulby Allumworks and Peter Merry of Lythe. Constantine Phipps is Captain the Honourable Constantine Phipps, a noted polar explorer, who sailed north in 1773 in command of an expedition of which Midshipman Horatio Nelson was a member. They reached a "farthest North" up the west coast of Spitzbergen. Phipps is related to the Marquis of Normanby, of Mulgrave Castle and Lythe, a major player in the industry with three works on his estates. The Conyers family were involved with the Boulby works, which probably explains George Dodds' involvement at Stoupe Brow.

Documents relating to adjacent land reveal that in 1778 it belonged to Isaac Mallinson of Gray's Inn and was bought by John Cooke around 1800: the description of the land includes "..and also 16 cottages ...and all and singular the Allum Works pitts ponds receptors Allum Rock or Allum Mines and all other quarries of Stone Ore Mines and Minerals of what kind soever...situate in or upon ...the Great Intack..." So now it seems that the two sections of the "Intack" have been joined up.

In 1823 John Cooke transferred the land and the alum quarry and works to Sunderland Cooke, but by now the industry was in trouble. Developments in the chemical industry meant that ample supplies of sulphuric acid were available, and alum could be manufactured more cheaply in a chemical works. In 1826 Sunderland Cooke had to raise £5000 by mortgaging the land to Miss Anne Cooke, presumably a relative, and by 1828 he was bankrupt, and had to assign to his creditors "...household goods and furniture, plate, linen. china, horses, cows, cattle, hay, corn and farming stock, instruments and implements of husbandry and also the stock of materials, coals, sulphur, salt, saltpetre, muriate, sulphuric acid, alum manufactured and in the process of manufacture ...." He had been trying to develop a new way of extracting the alum - hence the range of chemicals - and seems to have been running the Peak Alum Works at Ravenscar as well, which was also owned by members of the Cooke family, and put up for sale in 1862.

I don't know what happened to Sunderland Cooke (with such an unusual name he ought to be easy to trace). but when the land is next described we find "Waste land 5 acres..." and "Land covered with ling and rubbish 4 acres" - the quarry and the spoil through which the Scarborough-Whitby railway line would presently run. The foundations of the tanks and some of the stone-lined channels can still be seen in a field near the cliff edge, but one must go to the Peak Works below Ravenscar to get a better idea of the old process. The National Trust have done a great deal of excavation and interpretation here, which is described by Gary Marshall in his contribution to the book. There are also accounts of the works at Carlton, which the National Park has been stabilising, and the Boulby works.

' Roger Osborne: The Floating Egg Jonathan Cape London (1998)


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