Thursday, June 25, 2015

Whitby, Yorkshire, where legacy of the Jurassic Age has brought wealth and devastation.

Even at 187 feet (57 m), the towering face of Whitby’s East Cliff high is no match for the constant bombardment from the treacherous North Sea. The crumbling cliffs which characterise the rugged Yorkshire Coast have given rise to shipwrecks, tragic loss of life and even tales of vampires. But those rocks, which have showered down from the face of the cliff, have revealed secrets held for 176 million years.  

Robin Hood's Bay - a few miles south of Whitby
Ancient fossils fall regularly from the cliff face and fossilized footprints of dinosaurs have been found on the Whitby and nearby beaches. Stretching 35 miles (56 km) north and south from the mouth of the River Esk, this section of North Yorkshire’s forbidding coastline has been named the 'Dinosaur', 'Fossil ' or 'Jurassic Coast'.
Recognition of the town’s links to the Jurassic Era is seen in Whitby’s coat-of-arms. It features three fossilized ammonites. 

Whitby – or - Hwitebi (meaning “White Settlement” in the ancient Norse language) is located on an area that was once a swamp where “three-toed carnivorous Theropods and Britain’s oldest plant-eating Sauropod Dinosaurs” roamed and flourished.
“A dinosaur backbone, which dates back about 176 million years to the Middle Jurassic period, was found on a beach at Whitby after it fell out of a cliff face.”
Petrified bones of an ancient and almost complete crocodile have also been discovered together with many other fossilized specimens.

But in more recent years (17th to 20th centuries), it is two legacies of the Jurassic era that has helped Whitby prosper commercially. The most important is Alum – “a product that brought both wealth and devastation to the Whitby area”.
While alum has various uses, its prime use in Britain was as a dye-fixer (mordant) for wool. The woolen industry was one of England's primary industries – especially in Yorkshire.
From the late 15th century, alum had been imported into England from the Middle East and Papal States. The history of its usage dates back to 1500 BC when the Egyptians used the coagulant to reduce the cloudiness in water. 

Ruins of 12th Century Benedictine Monastery stand on the East Cliff
With the discovery of alum shale in the Whitby area in the early 1600s, an industry was founded to process the shale and extract the key ingredient, aluminium suphate. Urine was used in processing.
“This was an important contributor to the Industrial Revolution. One of the oldest historic sites for the production of alum from shale and human urine is the Peak Alum Works in Ravenscar, North Yorkshire.

“Unfortunately, however, by the 18th century, the landscape of north-east Yorkshire had been devastated by this process, which involved constructing 100 ft (30 m) stacks of burning shale and fuelling them with firewood continuously for months. The rest of the production process consisted of quarrying, extraction, steeping of shale ash with seaweed in urine, boiling, evaporating, crystallization, milling and loading into sacks for export. Quarrying ate into the cliffs of the area, the forests were felled for charcoal and the land polluted by sulphuric acid and ash.”

Jet shop and workshop on Church Street
Whitby’s second commodity, dating back to the age of the dinosaurs, is lignite, a black semi-precious stone that is polished to make pieces of jewellery. It is known as Jet.
Lignite is also found in shale. It was heavily quarried in the area in Roman and Victorian times, and led to the development of a thriving local industry that was at its height in the mid-1800s. Workshops were set up in Whitby to produce ornaments and mourning jewellery.  Local boys and women were employed in the workshops to hand-polish the stones. Black Jet jewellery was made popular by Queen Victoria on the death of her husband Prince Albert. (See my earlier post)

Today, Jet is still polished in the town but there is little demand and Whitby’s future economy will depend on a proposed wind farm (the world’s largest) to be constructed on the Dogger Bank in the North Sea.

Sources – (Ref: Wikipedia – Alum)

1 comment:

Richard Farrell said...

I had the famous fish and chips a couple of years ago in Whitby