A Special correspondent of a contemporary having recently paid a visit to the Yorkshire Jet Holes in the neighbourhood of Whitby gives, in the following article, some particulars which will be perused with interest by many of our readers :–
This is not a learned essay on that bituminous mineral which takes its name from the small town anciently called Gages, on the river Lycia, from the banks of which it was originally obtained ; no wading through the modulations which transformed the word " gagates " into " jet " ; not a scientific disquisition as to the various forms of " black amber" found all over the world ; but just the plain story of a visit to the " Holes " in the rugged cliffs of our Yorkshire coast, whence comes our now neglected Whitby jet.
While enjoying 'dolce far niente' near the picturesque little fishing village of Staithes, some six or eight miles north of Whitby, I struck up an acquaintance with a Cleveland ironstone miner "out of work," a rough, honest Yorkshireman as one could wish to meet. In course of conversation, David–that was his name–told me how the mining trade was in a state of complete stagnation, and such of the miners as had not left the district were obliged to try their luck at the jet holes.
My curiosity was aroused. I soon learnt that the owners of the cliff land gave free permission to anyone who cared to dig for jet, claiming as a recompense one third of all the diggers might be fortunate enough to find. Also, I heard that the oft-disputed factor of luck held undoubted sway over the labours of these men ; some having worked, day after day, for months, making great caverns in the cliff, some 20 or 30 yards deep, without one ounce of jet as their reward. Others had struck a vein which yielded Â£200 to Â£300 worth in a week.
Very little persuasion was needed to induce my friend to take me round to some of these jet holes. He merely warned me that I should find the journey "a goodish bit tougher than I bargained for." He was right. My costume was hardly suitable for clambering along the side of jagged cliffs. Missing my fickle foothold meant certain death, for which I was not prepared. For half an hour, midway between the sea level and the summit of the cliffs, with eighty feet of perpendicular rock above and beneath us, we crept along, clinging to any projecting point and stepping from ledge to ledge, while the sea birds flew away in flocks, angrily and noisily resenting our approach. At length, within the bowels of the earth, we heard the regular heavy thud of a pick-axe, and having with difficulty rounded a promontory, we saw an opening in the cliff, about 7ft. in diameter, which crowned a sloping mass of shale. This shale had been displaced by the excavation, and formed a huge semi-cone with its base far below in the sea.
" So this is a veritable jet hole," said I. " Well, it's a hole," replied David, " but as for jet, I've never heeard o' none bein' fund, thof Owd Abram's worked at it nigh on a year." In response to David's " Hillo ! " " Owd Abram " appeared, pick in hand, and, after the usual introductory ceremony, I was conducted over the " hole." More than 30 yards into the solid rock had this old mole penetrated, not to mention numerous shoots from the main stem ; and beyond keeping to the blue shale, his only guides as to direction were fancy, presentment, or caprice. Luck was the only science on which this unfortunate digger depended. Day after day he had toiled with pick and spade ; occasionally doing a little blasting, sometimes having his progress impeded by huge masses of hard stone–" doggers " in the vernacular. Some of these weighed as much as 30 tons, and must be broken up before they can be removed ; and as yet his industry had not been rewarded by one single ounce of jet. When we left " Owd Abram's " claim he was drilling, previous to blasting up a portion of his flooring at the extreme limit of his cutting. " Happen I'll drop across it this time," said he, cheerily. Truly " hope springs eternal." It is needed in the rugged breasts of unsuccessful jet-diggers.
Only a few yards further along the face of the cliff we encountered Robert Bagshaw–" Lucky Baggs," he is called who was sitting in the sun like a great sandy rabbit at the entrance to his hole. This man had struck a big seam only a little time before our visit, and now had a coal-cellar, a pig-stye, and half his cottage kitchen filled with huge lumps of jet awaiting a travelling purchaser. We wished to see some in the rock, just as it was found, but were informed that none was now visible. " If we cared to wait," said " Lucky Baggs," till he was through with his " bit of baccy," he was going to blast a "dogger " down, and he might drop across some then. We did wait. We witnessed the process of blasting, and we did see some jet in its natural bed, for this favourite of fortune actually dropped across another vein, the magnitude of which of course we did not stop to ascertain. What we saw looked like an irregular layer, varying from one to six inches in thickness, of such a shape and form as to leave no doubt that it had once been the wood of some tree or plant. The diggers, however insist that jet is fossilised blood. Their probable reason for this is the ruddy appearance it presents when roughly cut or filed. Having seen the dark and the bright sides of jet hunting, and armed with some fragments generously bestowed by " Lucky Baggs," we made our way back to " Owd Abram's " claim, there secretly dropping a piece or two of jet in the hope that their discovery might cheer his old heart and stimulate him to further and, happily, more successful exertions.
Whitby jet is now sold at a miserably low price, about one fifth of its value a few years ago. This, it is said, is because it is not now fashionable. Now, ye who talk loudly about encouraging our native productions, again affect jet jewellery, and so raise the price of this peculiar form of coal. By so doing you will indirectly lighten the lives, brighten the homes, and feed the starving families of many honest toiling Cleveland miners who, in these direful days of trade depression strive to dig an existence from the hard and rugged cliffs of the Yorkshire coast.
Source: The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith - 1st July 1890