Whitby and the surrounding coastline are subjected to the effects of the severe North Easterly gales, which are such a feature of our winter weather. The town nestles in a natural geological fault where the river Esk joins the sea and there have been many occasions when 'the haven under the hill' has provided much needed protection for passing mariners. These strong onshore winds pushing a high tide often produced mountainous seas, which relentlessly pounded the cliffs revealing quantities of seam Jet or depositing pieces of sea washed jet along the beaches. In land the gradual weathering of the shale banks also provided quantities of raw Jet. This process of natural erosion was doubtless the primary source of Jet for the Bronze age craftsmen and the Roman and Viking workers: it is ironic that this has come full circle as this is the only way Jet is found today.
John Bower published a work of reference in 1873 that stated that the first Jet workshop in Whitby was opened in 1808 and that by 1850 there were fifty. Clearly, the rapid development of this new industry demanded a greater volume and more reliable provision of Jet than would have been available by 'beachcombing'. The more observant and innovative of the 'collectors' would now be encouraged to dig into the cliffs using the Top Jet Dogger as guideline. It seems that mining in earnest started in 1851 were a rare draft lease dated at this time allows the miner "to make all necessary desses drifts tunnels and other works as shall be found necessary" (for) searching for getting and removing the Jet and Fossils. This draft lease related to the cliffs near Gnipe Howe Farm, 1.2 km northeast of High Hawsker. It seems that mining in this fashion was a very hit and miss affair with the miners negotiating a percentage of their finds as payment for these rights. Even at the height of the demand for Jet jewellery the miners wages remained very low at approximately £1.25p per week for a six-day week (Bower 1873).
The many dangers these men experienced is a testament to their courage and fortitude or may be seen as an illustration of the social situation in mid Victorian Whitby. They invariably had large families to support, employment was hard to come by and life was expendable. The guiding top dogger also provided a 'roof' to the holes dug out of the cliffs but these cliffs are notoriously unstable and there is documented evidence of many having been crushed to death by falling rocks. Explosives were rarely used as this damaged the Jet but occasionally small charges were used and this practise also caused fatalities. Men were often lowered down the cliffs on makeshift rope harnesses resulting in further fatal accidents. They even deliberately brought the ceiling of their mines down so as to search through the shale debris! The increasing demand for the raw material and the ever-present dangers eventually prompted the mining inland. Here the sloping hillsides as opposed to the vertical sea cliffs and the long years of weathering which had softened the shales, presented a more attractive proposition.
In the inland situations the miners worked with pick and shovel to dig tunnels or 'drifts' into the softened hillside. Eventually the advancing drifts reached a point were the shale had once more become hard and difficult to work. This point was termed the mine 'face' and here the excavation ceased. A parallel drift was then dug along side the original. These two tunnels would eventually by joined by digging a series of tunnels at right angles between the two adjacent tunnels. This created a 'warren' like series of tunnels supported by square pillars some 4.5 m by 2.7 m. This process was developed over several acres of hillside and contributed to the instability of the hillside and left scars of waste shale that had been barrowed out of the mines and deposited outside to fall untidily down the slopes. Many of these spoil heaps can still be seen today as ugly scars on the North Yorkshire hills around Rosedale and Bilsdale. The actual drifts would measure about 1.8 m high by 0.9-1.2 m wide and were driven into the base of the shale. The miner working the tunnel who left himself the minimum of space in which to work would have governed the height of the drift. After an initial working of these tunnels a systematic reworking of the roof took place. The ceiling of the various headings was carefully hewn down! The shale from this work was not barrowed out but gradually formed a new floor and in this manner the miners were able to work up through the rest of the shale deposits. It does not require much imagination to recreate the conditions, dark, damp, cramped and with the ever present danger of collapse.
To heap insult on the many injuries, in 1870, large quantities of Spanish Jet were imported. The demand for Whitby Jet jewellery had now reached an international market. The need for the raw material had outstripped the availability and the miners could not accommodate this buoyant market. One of the reasons for the rapid decline of the industry was attributed to the use of this inferior material. The Spanish jet was not of the same durability as the hard Whitby Jet and very soon lost its lustre and was very susceptible to hairline cracks. In any event, the local miners could not compete with the cheaper foreign imports. There continued to be chance findings in the ironstone mines working the Top Seam mainly at Port Mulgrave and this Jet found a ready market. One such miner, Mr Thomas Seymour, was offered �700.00 for such a deposit, a huge amount of money in the late 1850's. (C.Parkin - On Jet Mining. N.Eng.Inst.Min.Mech.Engrs. 1882).
Of course the value of Jet varied enormously according to the purity. It is after all one of the two organic fossils that the world prizes and is subject to natural inclusions. In Amber these can often be seen to enhance to beauty of the piece (especially the visible inclusions of insects) but with Whitby Jet that deep lustrous shine and intense blackness would be marred by the slightest of natural flaws. In 1873 Bower gives the value of hard Jet as from 4 shillings to 1 guinea (21 shillings) per pound weight and later in 1882 Parkin valued it at between £300.00 and £1300.00 per ton. At the same time the Spanish Jet sold for £60.00 to £140.00.
Amongst the most often asked questions I receive are "Is it easy to find?" and "Is there much left?" Clearly it never was and Whitby Jet has exacted a high price far and above its intrinsic value. The answer to the second question is that because of the geological make up of the vast part of the North Yorkshire moors there is probably a great deal deep below these undulating hills. However, for the most part it is beyond economical reach and we must all wait for the seas and the tides to give up its harvest. Many of the local fishermen when prevented from going to sea by inclement weather will often search diligently for small seams or pieces of sea washed Jet. Their local knowledge of the tides and the coastline assist them in their searching. All have their favourite spots and the speculative and secretive nature of their prospecting means that they keep this information very close to their chest! For myself, I have spent many enjoyable hours along the beaches doing this very thing but the major part of my working day is spent at the Jet works turning this elusive fossil into beautiful jewellery.
At Great Broughton there is a pub called the Jet Miners Arms, a particular favourite of my father-in-law's and over beer, cheese, and steak and ale pie we often ponder the poem that is inscribed there. A traveller who had stopped for rest and refreshment allegedly wrote it. After several pints of good ale and as a result of hearing about the lamentable decline of the Jet industry and the ensuing hardship it was causing, wrote this poem. It is a fitting conclusion to this part of our site and on a personal note; I have always found the last four lines full of optimism.
Ah! Black as jet, but long ago
In dignity and lace,
The ladies wore around their necks
A flash of ebon grace.
But oh! To-day Great Broughton mourns
Still waves the merry corn,
The beer flows at Jet Miners' Inn,
But jet's no longer worn.
Still, fashions change, mayhap some day
Again the craft will thrive,
And Yorkshire jet will ring the earth,
Black, flashing and alive.