Skelton has the First Alum Works in Cleveland
and the First to be Successful in Britain.

Page 58 tells how North Skelton had the last working Ironstone Mine in Cleveland.
History reveals that Geology blessed [or cursed] this area.
361 years previously Skelton also had the first Alum works in Cleveland and the first to be profitable in Britain.

Major Robert Bell Turton of Kildale Hall, N Yorks in his 1937 work "The Alum Farm" showed by his lengthy research that:-
"There was a house at Spring Bank, near Mygrave [now Margrove Park] erected, but not completed for the manufacture of Alum.
On the 15th November 1603 and agreement was made between John Atherton and Katherine his wife of the one part and Mr Leycolt of the other, under which the Athertons were, at their own cost, to complete the house and furnish it with the necessary appliances, namely, four Furnaces and four pans of lead and iron for boiling Alum, Coolers of lead for congealing , and convenient Cisterns of lead for keeping and saving the "mothers" or strong liquors of alum and Copperas [green vitriol or Iron Sulphate].
They were also to set up a lead-finer with furnace, a balnium for trial of the earth for alum and copperas, pits, pipes, vessels for draining the earth and making liquors and all other necessary implements."

At this time Atherton and his wife, Katharine, owned just a one third part of the Skelton Estate.
In 1556 John Conyers of Skelton Castle had died leaving no male heir. The Estate was divided between his three daughters, Katharine, Elizabeth the wife of Thomas Darcy and Anne the wife of Anthony Kempe of Slindon, Sussex.
In 1577 Kempe sold his third to Robert Trotter and it was not until 1656 that the descendants of Trotter acquired "by purchase or exchange" the whole Skelton Estate.
So, at this time it is not clear exactly how the Estate was divided or exactly who lived at the Castle.
Where there is a Will there is a War, for it is said the 3 heiresses did not agree and allowed the building to fall into disrepair.
John Atherton of Atherton, Lancashire held land elsewhere and clearly owned through his wife the land where Springbank, Slapewath, Skelton was located.
John Atherton, it is recorded, was in rather impecunious circumstances, which was probably the reason for the venture in the first place. He acquired the capital from other investors.
Britain at this time was an Agricultural nation and Wool was its chief export.
Alum was used in the dyeing process as the setting agent and was also needed in the tanning of hides.
It was therefore a highly valued product, which up to this time had been imported at great expense.
Riches appeared to beckon those who could create a home industry.

Mr Leycolt who was contracted to manage the Alum scheme did not fulfil his obligations and everything had to be re-started by a John Bourchier, who took over in June 1604:-
"On the 10th November 1606 John Atherton and Katharine, his wife, demised for 21 years to John Bourchier 3 Closes called Springbank, otherwise Lodge Hagg, Wilson's Close and the Great Carr, all within the Manor of Skelton."
Leycolt was paid off, but in 1613 he took out a Law Suit against Atherton and Bourchier claiming that they were profiting by his "skill, invention and labour".
It is only through this Court Case that the above quoted facts came to be recorded.

Rock Hole, Springbank, Slapewath.
Alum working extended from here down to Alumworks Beck and more extensively on the other side of the valley.
See the 1894 Ordnance Survey Map below.
The Spawood Ironstone mines which were opened in the early 1870s cover part of the area.

R B Turton uses the facts of this case to refute the old story that Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough was the discoverer of Alum in Cleveland. The Chaloner family did make early experiments in Alum production in Wales. Legend says that Thomas Chaloner visited Italy where the Pope had a monopoly on Alum production. Chaloner "acquired" his Holiness's Alum processing secrets by smuggling two workers back to Guisborough, where the plant life had been observed, it is said, to be similar to that in the Alum producing area of Italy, thus indicating the presence of Alum.
The Pope with due Christian love and forgiveness responded by placing a Curse on Chaloner's head.
It is said that some species of vegetation, notably Holly, do thrive where Alum is present, but the claim to differentiate areas of land in this way has never been substantiated in modern times and the Atherton contract with Leycolt clearly shows that there existed in 1603 some form of testing the rocks for the presence of alum. Chaloner was given sole rights to produce Alum on his own land in 1606.

Making alum was a long and involved chemical process. How it was perfected is not known and probably the result of much trial and error.
When transport was by horse and cart and labour by pick and shovel it must

Major Robert Bell Turton.

have also posed a great logistical problem and required considerable investment and man management.
The rock had to be quarried and broken up before it was piled up in large mounds with alternating layers of brushwood. Many tons of rock were needed to produce one ton of Alum.
When the Crown was recommended to take over Alum production one of the benefits was stated to be giving work to "the idle and indigent poor"
Turton says that it also took over 500 cubic feet of wood for every ton of alum and that the Springbank area was not then so well wooded.
Wood was corded in "Skelton Park, Howl O'Hay and Rocke Bank".
It is recorded that at one point Sir Conyers Darcy, who must at that time have been in possession this area and Skelton Castle demanded a further rent of £14 per annum to allow any more wood to be taken.
These mounds were then fired and allowed to burn for many weeks, the combustion being slowed by covering the sides with moist earth to limit the oxygen supply. This "calcination" decomposed the alum bearing rock so that it would more easily release its chemicals in the next process.
Troughs built of stone, with deal floors were filled with water. Turton mentions that some of the stone was obtained from the ruins of Guisborough Priory.
Water at Springbank was easily obtained from the Alumwork Beck.
The calcined rock was repeatedly steeped in these troughs until the chemicals leached out and a certain specific gravity was reached.
This was tested for, it is said, in the early days by reaching the point of density where an egg would float.

The liquid was then transferred to pans made of lead on iron supports and boiled for 24 hours along with the "mothers" [see below].

The furnaces which heated the boiling pans required Coal to maintain sufficient heat.
Bourchier rented for £500 Mines at Harraton, Co Durham from where Coal was taken to Sunderland and shipped to the mouth of the Tees, which was then a wide estuary.
Regular haulage from there by horse and cart on roads that were earth tracks with stones hammered in must have added to the expense and management concerns.
After the boiling the contents of the pans were run off into leaden "settlers" and mixed with an alkali in the form of human urine to precipitate the alum.
People saved and sold their urine, the collection and transport of which must have been yet another involved business.
Turton remarks that Sir Thomas Chaloner was not above telling his maid to sell his water at one penny a firkin [about 8 gallons].
The Carrier of barrels of stale pee must be yet another of History's undesirable occupations.
After about 2 hours to allow the sediment to deposit the liquid was conveyed to "coolers" made of deal plank - several coolers to one settler.
The brew was stirred and then left for about 4 days to crystallise.
The surplus liquid, the "mothers" was drawn off and used to add to the boiling process.
The Alum which chiefly adhered to the sides of the coolers was put in draining bins.
It was then dissolved and boiled again, before being poured into "roaching" casks to crystallise once more and after 16 days was drained of the "mothers".
Clean Alum could now be broken off from the impure which was reprocessed.
The finished product then had to be transported to the coast for shipment.


Following the successful production at Slapewath other works soon opened, notably at Sandsend and Mulgrave on the coast, where the expense and difficulties of transport were eliminated.
The import of Alum was banned and in 1609 the Crown in the person of James I was advised to take control of Alum production:-
"Some good and loving subjects had to their great charge and no less commendation found sundry mines in the County of York for making Alum and which they had yielded into the King's hands. They could make sufficient Alum for the use of the Kingdom and for exportation."
For the next 70 years production was "farmed" out to middle men, who in turn contracted the work out to others.
In the later successful Ironstone industry in Cleveland the expertise, ownership and urge to make profits were all embodied in the Ironmasters like the Bells, Vaughan and Dorman etc.
This natural driving force was rarely present in the Alum industry, where good management and constant maintenance of plant was vital. This failing often led to poor returns, poor quality Alum and even worse exploitation of the workers.
Working conditions were terrible in that the burning heaps of shale gave off poisonous sulphorous fumes and the alum liquor was corrosive.
It was at these times that the workers were described as :-
"poor snakes, tattered and naked, ready to starve for want of food and clothes."
The middlemen profiteered while workers' wages of a few pence per day were often given in IOU's to be settled later in half rotten meat and corn.
In the days before modern Banking the regular provision of cash was a problem.

There was an inquisition into the above failings in London and at Stokesley, N Yorks on the 7th January 1625.
The accusations of selling "foul" alum and colouring it with cochineal to make it appear like more expensive foreign alum were dealt with, but the most serious charge was the ill treatment of the workmen.
Several men gave evidence. Ralphe Rochite, alias Launde, who was a Carrier of Coals from Coatham to the mines said that in 1622 he had been sued for his rent. He asked the Alum Mine agents, John Turner and Richard Wynne for his back pay, which amounted to 20 marks [�13 6s 8d]. He was forced to accept 16 bushels of rye, which he could only re-sell at a lower price. The previous year it was peas, which he had to try and sell in Guisborough market.
Ralph Clarke of Danby, N Yorks, a Urine Carrier, could not get paid in cash and had to accept 14 bushels of malt, "Guisborough measure hard and sharp at 5 shillings each".
George Fairweather had sold the agents a mare and had to accept the same bushels of malt.
Francis Porritt of Guisborough, a pitman, said that on average he earned £8 per year, but had only been able to get £2 in any of the last 4 years and had to take the rest in hard pennyworths of corn and cheese.
He did not dare press for a ticket on the strength of which he could have bought victuals lest he should be discharged.
He was forced to sell the clothes wherein he and his wife did lie, the clothes off their backs and their pewter dishes at under-values.
Another workman declared that sometimes for days they were without bread in the house and his children were fain to follow the plough and gather roots for their sustenance.
And so it went on.
Major Turton could not discover what action, if any, was taken against those responsible for this exploitation.

The Alum works continued to be managed by the lessees of the Crown. In 1652 at Guisborough and Skelton, where only Slapewath was in working order, this was William Toomes, a rich man before he meddled with Alum, Major Turton states.
He is recorded by indictments at the local Quarter Sessions for carrying away oak trees, presumably for calcining, digging up the Highway at Combe Bank and casting Alum waste, "slam" into the Alumwork Beck.
John Atherton, his wife Katharine, their son John of Skelton, their Grand-daughter, Anne had all died and there was a dispute as to who owned Slapewath.
On the 4th June 1655 Toomes made a second attempt at suicide and succeeded in hanging himself.
In those days Suicide was a crime and verdicts of insanity not considered. The goods of those who took their own lives were forfeited to the State.
The inquiry disclosed that Slapewath was then furnished with among other things:-
"20 boiling pans of iron, valued at £30 or £40 each, 28 Settlers. 2 Roaching pans. 125 chalders of Coal. 64 tons, 9 cwts of Kelp [used instead of Urine]. 12 Pits furnished with pumps and troughs. 82 Coolers. 4 "mother" cisterns and pumps. 1 Washing cistern with troughs to convey the washings to the pans. a lead pipe, 100 yards long with a one and half inch bore."
After this the works at Slapewath lay idle.

More Alum works were opened in the Cleveland area at Easington, Boulby, Marske, Great Ayton etc - in addition to those already operating on the coast at Sandsend and Mulgrave.
The lure was the production of Alum at £9 per ton and selling it at the peak of the market at £26.
Edward Trotter, who was now in possesson of Skelton Castle and the Estate opened a quarry at Rock Hole in Hagg Wood to the East of Skelton. [see map below].

It is thought that the Alum bearing rock went through the calcining process at Hagg and was then carted to a processing house at Saltburn to be near the shipped-in Coal, Seaweed etc.
Saltburn was then part of the Skelton Estate and comprised only the Farm and Corn Mill at Cat Nab and the few cottages by the Ship Inn near the sea.
On the 3rd May 1679 the Crown informed the Lessees of all Alum works that it had no further interest.
The Alum trade continued under private enterprise - for another two hundred years in some locations.
Slapewath must have been brought back into production, as there is a record of a 21 year lease to the Crown made in 1665 and people were compensated when the Crown withdrew.
Techniques in the following years were improved and the cost of production was reduced, but the inherent problems and the vagaries of the market always made it a risky venture that seems to have had a stop-start History.
There is evidence though that some of the landed gentry made good returns.
One of Laurence Sterne's letters, dated 4th September 1764, to Hall-Stevenson of Skelton Castle remarks:-
"If you can get to Scarborough, do - a man who makes six tons of alum a week may do anything"
Zachary Moore, one of the "Demoniaks" at the supposed orgies at Skelton Castle in Hall-Stevenson's time is said to have gone through a family fortune, acquired by the ownership of the Alum works at Hummersea, near Loftus.
Major R B Turton's book covers only the years when Crown took charge and "farmed" out the business to others.
After that period came to an end, such detailed records seem hard to find.

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