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29 October 2014
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Cliffs at Whitby

Point 7 - Alum

What have a Pope, a line of rugged cliffs and pot of urine got to do with the price of cloth - or even the course of evolution? The dramatic cliff line at Whitby will reveal it all.

The year was 1595, during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the Tudor textile industry accounted for about 80% of Britain's exports.

In those days of early technical innovation, Britain lagged behind in the production of finished cloth. The mordant, or colour fixative that, in the finishing process, sustained fast colours, was an important element of trading success.

Britain had been purchasing the all important colour fixative from the continent. Italy, in particular, was a major producer and Pope Clement VIII, from his alum works on the outskirts of Rome, was securing excellent revenues.

But, the North East textile entrepreneur, Sir Thomas Chaloner, on visiting Rome, noticed that the discolouring of leaves on trees near the Pope's alum works resembled those near his own home in Belham Bank, near Guisborough.


He also realised the clay of both regions was similar too.

Sir Thomas was astute to the last. He returned from Rome with much Papal anger, with some key Italian workers, who knew all the processes of alum manufacture.

Horse and cart on beach
The ponies and carts left their mark

The Belman Bank works, around 1600, became direct competition to the holy Roman works.

The Pope issued his own curse, running to over a manuscript page, calling on all holy institutions from "God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost" down, to rain curses on all those who spirited such expertise away from Italy.

But Sir Thomas' competitive edge was effective. The Pope had been exporting alum to England at £52 for a ton. But the new supply for the British market was a mere £11 per ton.

But where does that pot of urine come in?

It's been estimated that 25m tons of shale and rock were hewn from the local cliff quarries. And to create the alum crystal from this shale, it took 10 tons of coal to fire the burning process for every one ton of alum.

Digging into history

The high carbon alum shale was excavated and assembled in huge mounds which were then set alight. After several months of slow burning, the stacks, or "clasps", were broken open and the white mineral within was the alum ready for rendering.

These former stacks are more noticeable in the Sandsend works, just a few miles up coast from Whitby.

Copious amounts of stale urine, brought in by ship from as far away as Newcastle and even London, were then used in the preparation process.

A large fossil
Fossils were not considered important

It was this urine, they say, that had been taken from public collection points or barrels, that gave birth to the saying, "take the p***".

Whitby became wealthy on the alum trade, and with this, men of means became patrons of newly established museums.

Their newly ignited interest in the origins of man and his surroundings came as a direct result of the alum excavations.

The alum workers came across thousands of fossilised remains. And it was these that gave birth, in turn, to revitalised thoughts of the natural world - changing from curiosity and wonder to investigation and analysis.

But eventually in the early 19th Century, the alum industry rapidly dried up after it was discovered that the same mordant qualities could be found in coal.

You can read more about alum, the cliffs and fossils by following the Open University link in the "see also's".

Now go back along the pier, and take the first right by the Lifeboat Museum, up the winding Khyber Pass. Stop when you reach the whalebone arch.

last updated: 29/09/06
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