A brief history of Jet
Jet alongside flint is one of the oldest worked materials in the British isles. We have found jewellery dating right back to Neolithic Man, who held this black material in such high regard it was often included in burials. This jewellery far from being crude, is beautifully crafted and polished. It took the forms of rings, beads, pendants and even rough Jet to name but a few examples found. It is widely accepted that there was a substantial Jet industry in Neolithic times!
Through the Bronze Age and Iron Age, Jet was widely used, again with examples being found in grave goods giving us an indication of the importance they gave to Jet. With the Romans came Jet working on a large scale with exquisite designs being carved and huge amounts of Jet being transported to nearby York to be worked. For further reading on Roman Jet I would recommend this book – Roman Jet in the Yorkshire Museum by Lindsay Allason-Jones.
Jet continued to be popular throughout Saxon and medieval times, however it is not until around the 1800’s that it really began to assume commercial importance.
This was a gradual process, and in the year 1851 a number of exhibits created out of Whitby Jet were sent to the great exhibition in London. This of course resulted in a huge increase in the popularity of Whitby Jet! (by the 1850’s Whitby was already considered the capital of The Jet trade).
Between 1850 – 1870 the Jet trade changed forever, Jeators (jet workers) sprang up all over Whitby. At its hight the Jet trade employed around 1800 men in Whitby and generated around £90,000 (huge sums) as a result Jet shops sprang up along with classes on how to design and work Jet even exhibitions and competitions were held!
Mining the Jet
Obviously with this sudden huge demand for Jet, mining now began in ernest! Up until this time most Jet objects were worked from sea washed Jet picked up along the coast. However there is evidence that the Jet rock was mined in the Neolithic times.
The process of mining the Jet was called “dressing” and was extremely dangerous! It consisted of clearing away and pulling down the cliff sides until jet-ends were seen (seams) they were then excavated out until the seam ended. You can imagine the dangers involved in pulling cliffs down and then digging deep holes into them!! This form of mining proved too dangerous and a new way was devised to mine the Jet. They would excavate a six foot high by four foot wide hole into the side of the outcrop and would go around 5 metres in. These excavations/holes were named “drifts”. Once the drift had been made, side excavations were carried out in the search for Jet seams.
The Jet rock has been worked from Robin Hoods Bay to Saltburn, today only the mines that are at sea level survive the others having collapsed or been covered by cliff falls.