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, meaning the industry employed a third of the population. With employment figures so high it was obviously a huge industry for Victorian Whitby and with an equivalent turnover of over three million pounds today it was also a major economic force.
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 so unfortunately there is little documented evidence of the processes involved. The discovery of the workshop has provided an unparalleled insight into the working practices of these talented men that could be based upon primary source evidence.
THE STAGES INVOLVED
The workshop functioned like a production line with different men doing a different stage of the process.
THE FOREMAN'S BENCH
When the raw material was purchased from the Jet merchants in town it was the foreman's responsibility to examine it for flaws. As a natural organic fossil Jet sometimes contains flaws, 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. The foreman used chisels 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 used to roughly grind the pieces of jet into the desired shape. It was made from a pice of the finest sandstone, and driven by the jet worker's foot-powered treadle. 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 900 revolutions per minute could be attained but unfortunately this was unstable. The use of water on the sandstone cooled the wheel but introduced rapid and constant changes in temperature. The fluctuating changes in temperature and the natural qualities of the sandstone meant that the wheels were susceptible to fine cracks that causing them to shatter unpredictably and at high speed. There was a spate of accidents during a single week in 1883; William Locker, a jet worker aged eighteen, was killed when the wheel shattered and a pointed piece of grindstone pierced his lung.
THE SAWDUST BOX
The roughly ground pieces of jet were placed in the sawdust box to dry. Sawdust, like blotting paper, absorbed surplus moisture and also stopped the pieces from knocking together. Once pieces were dry the master carver could begin work on them. Many processes involved moisture, and each time the jet was placed in this box before further work was carried out
THE MASTER CARVER'S BENCH
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., for example a hand-carving tool once owned by a master, Edward Greenbury, consisted of a honed steel hacksaw blade in an old cartridge case bound with string. Other tools that the master carvers used were thin pointed needle like tools and fine chisels and files.
THE WORKSHOP BOGEY
The solid fuel workshop stove also known as the "bogey" was used to keep glue hot and ready for the crafts men to use. The glue, called Ockamututt, was a mixture of animal glue (made from the collagen in animal bones such as horses) and shellac (the excretion of the Lac beetle) mixed with lamp black (the soot from oil lamps known). This glue was black and sticky and began to dry as soon as it cooled. The stove was also used to melt lead in moulds to make the milling wheels. The molten lead would flow around a central boss in the mould and produce a cast wheel that could then be transferred and sharpened for use.
THE MILLING WHEELS
These two lead wheels were sharpened to a 'v' shaped point with a file while they rotated to create milling wheels. Carborundum powder paste was applied to the wheels to help the grinding process. The hard paste sunk into into the surface of the wheel providing a face to cut and grind on at the same time. With the edge of the wheel the craftsmen created the cut and groove patterns found on much of fine Victorian jet jewellery. The side of the wheel was used to cut the facets on beads for faceted necklaces and bracelets. This type of wheel was used so often that there were two found in our Victorian workshop.
THE ROUGE WHEEL
The rouge wheel was used for one of the stages of polishing. It is made from layers of Chamois leather clamped between two wooden disks. A red polishing cream made of jewellers rouge (ferric oxide powder), paraffin, linseed oil and lamp black was applied to the wheel. The jet pieces were pushed against this wheel when it was rotating to polish it. This polish gave the pieces a deep rich glow. Jet workers were nicknamed "the Whitby red devils" because of the red spray from the polish, the gingery jet dust they were covered in and their blood stained bandages from cuts sustained during work.
THE WALRUS HIDE WHEEL
During the Victorian era Whitby was a well known whaling town and walrus hide was readily available. This type of leather is extremely hard and durable. This wheel was turned at high speeds and used with a mixture of boiled linseed oil and lamp black to polish the flat areas of the jewellery.
THE LINISHING WHEEL
This wheel was made from thin leather with a soft backing of woollen cloth. It was used with a watery mixture of Derbyshire rotten stone (a type of siliceous limestone), which acted as a scouring cream. Pieces of jet with a curved or rounded shape were dipped into the paste and then polished on the soft leather wheel.
THE PIG BRISTLE BRUSH
The last stage in the process this small brush made from pig bristles was used to clean the surplus grinding pastes and polishing mixtures from the jewellery.