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David Pybus

Research Postgraduate (PhD)

Research Postgraduate (PhD) in the Department of Geography


The alum industry worked at several locations in a discrete area (now called the North York Moors) between c1604 to c1871 supplying a national need, mainly through London merchants. The industry consumed large quantities of coal, wood, urine, kelp and potash, which was mainly shipped and then carted to the inland refineries that eventually re-located to the seashore. Although in need of revision, it will be appropriate to utilise and summarise the pre-existing published and unpublished works (Rudsdale, Singer, Turton, Pybus & Rushton) regarding the national and regional political situations pertaining to the key individuals involved in the management of the works over this period. Research and analysis of primary records of the alum industry, particularly the coastal works of Loftus (North Yorkshire Record Offices), Boulby (Baker-Baker papers), Kettleness, Sandsend (Mulgrave estate papers) and Saltwick (Percy Burnett papers in Whitby Museum), will allow a determination of the magnitude of relationships between the raw materials, labour, technology and capital inputs to produce and support other industries, populations and landed estates. Coupled with other analyses of adjoining estate rentals for long periods, it may be possible to determine any differences between the living conditions and wealth of ‘mineralised’ estate workers and their ‘agrarian’ counterparts. Further analysis of an early 17th C paybook will show how the labour of the works was organised and how the quarry and refinery were run; with the 5 early quarries (Newgate & Belman Banks & Slapewath at Guisborough and the Mulgrave and Sandsend works near Lythe), examined in detail. Scant details scattered through the paybook and the suspected use and analysis of the writer’s specific terminology will allow a more complete impression of the operation of the works to be gleaned. Although the alum industry was unable to benefit by direct application of the technological changes and advances in the late 17th and the 18th centuries (e.g. steam engines, power driven pumps, etc), these improvements in other areas of the country led to reductions in the delivered costs of raw materials that allowed the alum industry to retain its profitability and thus to sustain it until the direct technological change that actually caused its demise. In order to demonstrate this it will be necessary to chart transport and raw material costs with time and to relate these to national and regional changes and developments. The relationship between the affairs of state and estate affairs will be examined as will the impact of mineral exploitation on the landscape, both directly through the removal of large volumes of landscape, indirectly through any consequent landscape changes (coastal recession and landslides), but also indirectly through the creation of enough wealth to allow the aristocratic fashions for romanticising the landscape. It may be possible to suggest that the employment of previously agrarian labourers in the alum works meant that the attention paid to their ‘strips’ was much reduced and may have been contributory to the reasons underpinning the parliamentary enclosure of the township fields, may also be contributory to the growth of furze and whins on the open fields (latterly used as a fuel in the alum process) and may be contributory to the ease of passage of the enclosure act. This work will be of considerable interest within the historical and archaeological community where researches into the alum industry have concentrated upon either the political or the simple technical aspects of the industry and have not taken this holistic approach. Nearest to this approach was the Rudsdale thesis of 1932 that was heavily “borrowed” by Singer in 1948. Turton produced a preliminary work with his Alum Farm in 193X but the subject is very complex and his work still leaves difficulties in understanding and comprehension. Recent work by the Cleveland Industrial Archaeological Society and the North York Moors National Park volume “Steeped in History” have attempted to produce more definitive work, but have fallen short of the ideal by virtue of the subjective and ‘less than academic’ quality of their varied contributors.