Ask Greg: Whitby Jet

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As an archaeologist, what do you think is the most exciting thing about Whitby?

When asked to name three things they associate with Whitby, other than the abbey, most people might begin with Captain Cook, Dracula and jet (closely followed by kippers and possibly Easter). Since Cook, Dracula and the Synod of Whitby (when the formula for calculating the date of Easter was agreed) are archaeologically tricky, and since herring bones are hardly unique to the town, this piece will instead discuss the evidence for the 19th- and early 20th-century Whitby jet manufacturing industry. ‘Whitby Jet’ is, however, something of a misnomer, since in its heyday the raw material was mostly mined in the central and western parts of the North York Moors (or sometimes imported from Europe) and then brought to Whitby for working.

In the medieval period, there was a small industry in Whitby making rosary beads and items such as small crosses. Thereafter, the black stone (a form of fossilized monkey-puzzle tree) waned in popularity, although there was some revival of the industry in the early 19th century. However, it was the prolonged period of mourning of Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert that brought jet jewellery back into fashion, launching a boom that continued to the end of the century.     

How was jet worked during the Victorian period, and by whom? Where was this work carried out and what evidence is likely to remain in the ground? Jet brought from the mines was sold on by traders. Blocks of jet were split using chisels or saws and distributed to individual craftsmen. Being relatively soft, many pieces were hand-carved using a range of simple tools such as knives, chisels and even old screwdrivers, or else worked on a lathe. Buffing to achieve a fine finish was achieved using polishing wheels.  

Although there are records of numerous workshops and salesrooms, much of the jet-working happened in temporary sheds around the fringes of the town or as a home-based cottage industry, with the craftsmen paid on piece-rates. Typically, in the narrow, dark streets of the town, the workroom would have been in the attic, lit by a large dormer window. Many such buildings still exist around the town. A complete jet workshop discovered in a walled-up attic in Burns Yard is now displayed at the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre in Church Street. This demonstrates the somewhat homemade and improvised character of many of the tools used for jet-carving.

The 1871 census, at the time the industry was at its height, provides a useful guide to the distribution of workers’ homes (which often doubled as workshops) in Whitby. It shows that the industry was concentrated along Church Street and the yards above, and in several other streets where up to 40% of the households recorded at least one jet-worker. Elsewhere, areas such as the Fishburn Park Estate and even the West Cliff Estate (which was constructed more with the holiday trade in mind), still recorded jet-workers resident in 10–20% of houses. 

Different craftsmen specialised in different types of work, and there is potential in archaeology to discover where they were working. But, given the temporary or adapted status of many of the premises, the lack of a distinctive specialised tool-kit or heavy machinery, and no associated below-ground ‘features’, how do we identify this activity archaeologically? The answer is: with some difficulty! One approach that no-one seems to have tried, is getting into all those attics and tearing up the floorboards, but this might not be terribly popular with the current owners…. In any case, most of the finished items will have been dispatched to salesrooms, so what we are usually going to be looking for is the manufacturing waste: off-cuts, broken objects, unsuitable raw material and broken tools, often mixed-in with refuse from domestic households.

Evidence for the jet industry has been found by NAA in several investigations in Whitby. Manufacturing waste, which seems to have often been dumped on any rough land close to the workshop, has been found in several places on the East Headland, such as behind the short terrace of houses halfway up the Church Steps, and also behind the former jet-workers’ cottages in Aelfleda Terrace. Being thrown-away, it mainly occurs only in the topsoil horizon and has therefore doubtless been missed by excavations where soils have been stripped by machine.  

Most significantly, in recording a temporary access road in the Donkey Field in 2010-2011 (click here to find out more about this project), NAA identified two probable workshops at opposite ends of the field. Jet-working waste (and some finished items) and chisel- or knife-like iron objects likely to have been tools used in manufacturing were concentrated in the topsoil around the two structures (click here to find out more about some of these objects). The building near the top of the Church Steps appears distantly in the background of a number of Frank Sutcliffe’s famous photographs of Victorian Whitby. His well-known picture of a woman selling jewellery from a tray outside the abbey must have been taken in front of the building. The building at the opposite end of the field survived only as a shallow terrace in the hillslope with the remnants of a possible chalk floor (perhaps intended as a contrast to dropped jet objects) and must have been a lightly constructed shed; however, its function was revealed by the copious quantity of small jet-debris filling a small drain leading from it. It seems to have been a very short-lived structure (workshops were notorious for burning down!), but after much searching, we found it appearing, rather fuzzily, in the background of one of Sutcliffe’s photos taken from the other side of the harbour.

Given that the heyday of the jet-working industry occurred between the first two Ordnance Survey map editions, there is no cartographic representation of the two structures. How many more remain to be discovered around the town, hidden in backyards and peripheral locations such as the Donkey Field?        

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