Alum Works in the Project Area

Peter Appleton of the Skelton History Group has very kindly provided the following article.

There are four alum quarries situated within the boundary of the project area:

• Belman Bank
• Cass Rock
• Newgate Bank
• Spring Bank

The first three of these are to be found on the north-facing escarpment of the North York Moors National Park, to the south and south-east of Guisborough. The fourth is to be found just to the west of the hamlet of Slapewath, on the south-facing slope of the valley. The Cleveland Way National Trail passes close by all four sites.

Spring Bank
This works was also referred to as Slapewath. According to Malynes (1629), it was erected in about 1604 by John Atherton, with financial backing from John Bourchier of Hanging Grimston, near Thixendale. Atherton was the husband of Catherine Conyers, and through his marriage had come into possession of one third of the Skelton Castle estates. Young (1817) states that the quarry was worked for 15 to 20 years. There is evidence that it may have been working in 1672, when “…Sir John Hewley claimeth one third part of the yearly Rent of four hundred pounds reserved upon the Allom Worke of Slapewarth…” (Gloucestershire Archives, Ref.: D547a/L13/ii). Pickles (1975) indicates that it may have ceased working in 1698 or even before, and resumed in 1766 but gives no source citations in support of these dates. Certainly, by 1774 this works had been closed down. It does not appear in the list of active works supplied by George Dodds, the manager of Boulby alum works, to the owner of Boulby manor, Mrs Judith Baker (Palace Green Library, Ref.: BAK/1/133). Pickles (1975) shows the works operating as late as 1804 but, again, does not cite any sources for this date.

Belman Bank / Cass Rock / Newgate Bank
Individually and collectively, these works have often been called simply Guisborough alum works. This interchangeability of names creates great difficulty for the historian when trying to establish a definitive chronology for them. Young (1817) has this to say: “Belman Bank, near Guisborough, began, as has been noticed, about the year 1595, or soon after; and seems to have been wrought for 10 years or upwards, when owing to the exhaustion of the mine, or rather its becoming difficult of access, the work was transferred to another spot where it was carried on for 15 years, or more; after which that place also was abandoned for the same reason.” [The date of 1595 is now considered to be too early by some authors.]

So, there would appear to have been two distinct attempts at establishing a viable alum works at Guisborough. To my mind, the obvious interpretation is to regard Belman Bank as the site of the first attempt and Cass Rock as the site of the second. But where does Newgate Bank fit into the chronology?

In 1652, according to Turton (1938), William Toomes, who had inherited the interests of Sir Paul Pindar in the Yorkshire alum works, “…continued to carry on those at Guisborough and Skelton, of which Slape Wathe alone was in working order.” Does this indicate that the Guisborough works were laid down at that date? Is Turton equating Slapewath with Guisborough or with Skelton? Now you see the difficulties that can be caused by a multiplicity of names.

Watson (1854) states that “In 1768, one of the works at Guisborough was begun again, after having been laid down seventy years”. Quinn (2009) reports that, in 1772, the works were taken over by Ambrose Lynch Gilbert, on behalf of Sir George Colebrooke, whose creditors had them closed down in 1777. That date is confirmed by George Dodds in his Memorandum of works that are gone down since 1769 (Palace Green Library, Ref.: BAK/3/436).

The works were next leased to Messrs Jackson & Danby, merchants, of Guisborough in 1783 and continued to be run by them until 1794. Annual accounts for this period of operation have survived and are held by Kirby, Great Broughton & Ingleby Greenhow Local History Society. These show that the tonnage of alum produced from 11th August 1783 to 14th October 1794 totalled 3,941 tons, with a peak in production of 538 tons in 1786 and an average of 29.2 tons per month across the whole period. The costs of production in 1784 were £7295 (equivalent to £16.3 per ton for that year’s production). These fell steadily through the period of operation to just £2217 in 1792 (equivalent to £10.7 per ton for that year’s production). Whilst the cost savings achieved are noteworthy, they were probably not enough to keep the works viable in the long term.

In 1791, the alum producers formed a new cartel. This was their usual reaction to a slump in the market price of alum. They agreed to curtail production, and to sell at a common price, all in the hope of driving the price back up again. The usual consequence of each cartel was that at least one of the smaller producers was forced out of business. It looks as though, this time, it could well have been Guisborough’s neck that was going to be on the block! Young (1817) describes the works as being “…laid down about 13 years ago”.

Pybus & Rushton (1991) state that the works were re-started in 1852-53. Rudsdale (1932) states that the works finally closed in 1870, a date which is also quoted by Pybus & Rushton but, again, there is no source citation to support this very late date. In all these later references, there is no indication as to exactly where the works were located. Two further points on this last period of claimed operation need to be addressed. If the works were operational from 1852 to 1870, why were there no alum workers enumerated in or around Guisborough in the 1861 census? Why were there no mentions of the alum industry as occupations in the parish registers for those years?
There are several maps of the Guisborough estates of the Chaloner family in the archives at North Yorkshire County Record Office. One of these was produced by a survey in 1856. This shows clearly the presence of an alum quarry with all pertinent features, located to the south of the Slapewath quarry, on the opposite side of the valley. The alum house complex is located to the north of Little Waterfall Farm, as it is called on modern O.S. maps. Is this a plan of what was there or of what it was proposed to erect there? Taken in conjunction with the comments above about the absence of alum workers in both the census of 1861 and the Guisborough parish registers, it looks more like a plan of what was being proposed, rather than a plan of what existed. Either way, this is the best evidence we have for the location of the Newgate Bank works.

Glossary of terms:
Erected – Created from the beginning. Would entail preparing a quarry, a burning floor, steeping pits, and alum house complex and the necessary supplies of water.
Laid down – Ceased operation but capable of being brought back on stream relatively easily (today we might use the word mothballed)
Mine – Not a place where mineral ores are extracted from underground, as is the modern usage, but the alum shale itself
Wrought – actively worked

Published Sources:
Malynes, Gerard de, “Lex Mercatoria”; London: 1629
Pickles, Roger L., “A Brief History of the Alum Industry in North Yorkshire 1600-1875”; in The Cleveland Industrial Archaeologist Issue no.2, 1975
Quinn, K., “Boulby Alum: The Works Diary of George Dodds 1772-1788”; Cleveland Industrial Archaeology Society, 2009
Rudsdale, J., “A History of the Alum Trade”; Leeds University M.A. Thesis, 1932
Turton, Robert Bell, “The Alum Farm”; Whitby: Horne & Sons, 1938
Upton, Anthony F., “Sir Arthur Ingram”; London: Oxford University Press, 1961
Watson, W., “The Visitors’ Guide to the Guisborough Alum Works”; Stokesley: W.F.Pratt, 1854
Young, George, “A History of Whitby and Streoneshalh Abbey”; Whitby: Clark & Medd, 1817

Archive Sources:
Kirby, Great Broughton & Ingleby Greenhow Local History Society
North Yorkshire County Record Office, Northallerton
Palace Green Library, Durham

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