This genuine Victorian jet workshop was discovered quite by accident in the attic section of a derelict property in Burns Yard in the centre of Whitby. A local builder had purchased the property and during the course of renovation work he knocked a wall down and found this workshop that had been completely sealed up in the building. Naturally, this was of personal interest to myself and my father-in-law, Mr Alec MacKenzie, and we feel privileged to be the custodians of this unique and historic piece of history. It has been carefully removed and set up at our business premises The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, 123b Church Street, Whitby, YO22 4DE so that our customers old and new may view the only remaining example of Whitby Jet's 19th century cultural heritage.
The workshop was first registered in 1867 in White's industrial directory of North Yorkshire. It was one of approximately two hundred similar workshops producing a variety of ornately carved jewellery and decorative items. At this time some fourteen hundred men worked in Jet related businesses when the population of Whitby was just in excess of four thousand. It was obviously a huge industry for Victorian Whitby and my own personal research has revealed that in 1875 a turnover of just above a £100,000.00 was achieved. Inquiries at the bank of England disclosed that the purchasing power of the pound in 1875 was £33.93p; with an equivalent turnover of over three million pounds it was clearly a major economic force for this small North Yorkshire harbour town. We had often marvelled at the quality and standard of work the Whitby men achieved but with no education act until 1871 many could not read or write and there is little documented evidence of the processes involved. As professional lapidaries we could of course conjecture but now there was an actual workshop that could provide some insight into the working practices of these talented men that could be based upon primary source evidence.
When the raw material was purchased from the Jet merchants in town it was the foreman's responsibility to examine it for flaws. These are in the form of natural inclusions. As an organic fossil Jet sometimes contained small pieces of calcite, known as spar, or pyrites, these are difficult to spot in the pieces whilst they are being worked on and only reveal themselves when you have invested the piece with some hours work and are finally polishing it. This is still a feature today and is very character building! Notice the chisels that the foreman used to 'chop' the Jet out with. These were given extra weight by being wrapped with lead to facilitate the removal of the sedimentary layer before the Jet was cut into manageable pieces. These were then sent to the grindstone.
The grindstone was the most dangerous wheel in the workshop. It was fashioned from a solid piece of sandstone. The worker operated these wheels from a single foot pedal. This drove a large wooden wheel which was well balanced and the momentum was relatively easy to maintain. Surrounding the wheel was a strong hide belt, which in turn drove the grindstone. Speeds of up 800 rpm could be attained but alas they were unstable. The use of water on the sandstone cooled the wheel but introduced rapid and constant changes in temperature. The natural qualities of the sandstone meant that they were susceptible to fine cracking causing them to shatter unpredictably and at high speed. In 1883 an eighteen year old jet worker, William Locker was killed instantly when such a wheel exploded and a large fragment pierced his lung.
The master carver's bench (see below) was probably the most disappointing area for me. The master carver was highly skilled and the apprenticeship was almost double that of the other skilled areas. He was responsible for the exquisite cameo carvings often seen on Victorian pieces. They were fiercely proud of their tools although many of them were fashioned from very mundane items. I have seen an example of a hand-carving tool once owned by a master, Edward Greenbury, and this consisted of a honed steel hacksaw blade in an old cartridge case bound with string! Perhaps one explanation is that the carvers carried their tools with them in the same way chefs generally have a case containing their personal knives. Clearly, a master carvers bench would not have had such a disarray of superfluous items but this is how it was found and I have been reluctant to change it for cosmetic purposes.
The stove or bogey was used to heat the special glue used called Ockamatutt. I have been unable to discover the source of this strange sounding title but it was a mixture of shellac, Collins glue (animal derivative) and lamp black. On the right there is an example of the pans used to melt the lead. The molten lead would flow around a central boss and produce a cast wheel that could then be honed and balanced for the intricate facet work and 'pineapple' pattern so characteristic of the Victorian jewellery.
The picture below shows the milling wheels which were also operated at high speed. They were first balanced and set true and filed to a fine edge. A piece of glass with a 'V' shaped cut was then placed against the edge and this gave the wheel an even finer edge. A paste was mixed of fine carborundum powder and this was applied to the wheel. When a piece of Jet was placed against the wheel the soft lead held the abrasive paste and an edge that could cut and facet was created. Many collectors will be aware of fine cuts and facets obtained in this manner but it came at some cost. Although there was a high degree of hand/eye coordination necessary, accidents were common and many Jet workers were distinguished by the many cuts to their fingers and hands.
The next area used two interchangeable wheels. The Pig bristle, which was a brush, composed of coarse bristles and was used to clean the jewellery items and remove any abrasive residue that would inevitably mar the surface of the piece when it was being polished. The rag mop was used in similar fashion. The latter was composed of a spindle bar around which was tightly wrapped strips of cotton and wool very like the calico wheels we use today. The workshop apprentice would have operated this area. It was not highly skilled work and served to introduce the young man to the treadle action he would need to master and also gave him a feel for holding a piece against a rapidly revolving wheel.
Polishing of the pieces began in earnest with wheels which were referred to as 'boards', the first was composed from a thin layer of fine leather with a backing of several layers of soft fabric. This gave the board a concave surface, which was suitable for the curved surface of much of the jewellery. This board was used in conjunction with Derbyshire rotten stone. This is a siliceous limestone found in the dried up riverbeds of Derbyshire in the Midlands. It was ground very finely and mixed with water to make a paste the consistency of single cream. The Jet was dipped into this mixture and applied to the rotating board. Lapidaries apply many polishing abrasives such as tin oxide and cerium oxide in a similar way today.
Much of the Victorian Jet jewellery was characterised by facet work and flat or geometric surfaces and to polish this type of surface the board had to be more resistant. Whilst sharks skin was sometimes used walrus hide was the far more frequently used leather. Whitby at one time was well known whaling town and this would have been a readily available by product from the many fishing trips carried out in the far Northern waters. The town's folk are justly proud of the cultural heritage left in the wake of world-renowned mariners like Scoresby and Captain James Cook. The board was used with a lubricant of linseed oil and lamp black which brought a deep velvety shine to the jewellery without losing any of the sharpness previously introduced by the lead wheel.
Several layers of chamois leather were clamped between two wooden discs. This was the final stage of polishing and the medium used was a mixture of jeweller's rouge (ferric oxide), linseed oil, and paraffin (kerosene). Later lamp black was added to this mixture so that the slight red hue from the rouge did not interfere with deep lustrous black. This board was responsible for an interesting piece of folklore. As mentioned earlier the craftsmen often sustained frequent cuts and abrasions to their hands, which were dressed with absorbent lint. They were also unavoidably covered in a fine patina of bright red polish. This plus the blood soaked bandages on their hands presented a readily distinguishable vision of scarlet and gave rise to the nickname of the Red Devils of Whitby.
This brings me to the end of the tour of the 1867 workshop I hope you found it informative. I am sure that as my research progresses more of its secrets will be revealed. For example I noted the gas fittings (above) attached to each workstation. Early sources of light would have been from oil lamps and gas was not introduced into Whitby until the latter end of the century. This workshop has at one time done very well and was able to take advantage of the latest but expensive innovations in lighting technology! Upon closer inspection the foreman's coat (above) is a velvet collared Crombie. Whilst it now tattered and torn it was once an expensive item of clothing for a workingman in late Victorian Whitby. Collective revelations like this indicate the buoyancy of the trade. Unfortunately the popularity of Whitby Jet declined for many reasons both social and economic and from the dizzy heights of its 1875 trade figures it dropped like a stone. For me there is poignancy in the photograph below. This workshop was at one time obviously involved in the better end of the jewellery market and the two facet wheels attest to the fact that it produced the highly skilled cut and facet work of the popular parures of the time. Pictured below is a cork stand with the long Victorian hatpins waiting to be fitted with a small Whitby Jet carved handle. By comparison this is very down market work and illustrates the decline in the nature of the business now available. Never the less this workshop is a fascinating insight into the lives and working practices of our antecedents and a remarkable piece of Whitby's cultural heritage.
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