Who on earth photographs a pile of shale, me.
Shale mining and quarrying shaped the North Yorkshire coast. Not for gas, but for alum. In the 16th-century alum was essential in the textile industry as a fixative for dyes. Initially imported from Italy where there was a Papal monopoly on the industry, the supply to Great Britain was cut off during the Reformation. Well, there’s a surprise.
Alum was extracted from quarried shales through a large scale and complicated process which took months to complete. The process involved extracting then burning huge piles of shale for 9 months, before transferring it to leaching pits to extract an aluminium sulphate liquor. This was sent along channels to the alum works where human urine was added.
The urine was collected in barrels places at convenient locations in the local towns and villages. Was the person collecting it was “taking the piss”?
What the alum producers wanted was the ammonia. It is suggested that the poor produced a better class of urine, purer because it was less likely to be tainted by alcohol, which they couldn’t afford.
It is said that the finished alum was more valuable than gold because these early works consistently struggled to make alum. There was no chemical knowledge to turn to. Everything was done by trial and error – with a predominance of errors! It was, after all, the era of alchemy rather than chemistry.
There are many sites along the Yorkshire Coast which bear evidence of the alum industry. This one is just north of Ravenscar. When you consider it has been unused for well over one hundred years, the alum industry left its legacy on the landscape.