The strange story of why human urine was transported to quarries in Yorkshire

The cliffs along Yorkshire's coast bear the scars of an industry which relied upon large quantities of human urine.

The headland at Saltwick Nab, near Whitby, has been damaged by alum quarrying
The headland at Saltwick Nab, near Whitby, has been damaged by alum quarrying

Andrew Vine explores the history of the alum quarries - which saw urine collected from all over the country to mine the mineral used in textile dyeing.

Between Saltburn and Ravenscar the cliffs bear the scars of a strange, malodorous industry with human urine at its heart – the legacy of 250 years of quarrying alum, used in dyeing textiles.

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Not only did it leave the cliffs with vast grey, barren areas, it also bequeathed one of Britain’s most common hoots of derision - “he’s taking the p***”. At Boulby, Kettleness and Loftus, there are sections that resemble the surface of the moon, and at Saltwick Nab, just south of Whitby, the headland looks as if a giant has chomped lumps out of it.

Gangs of men with picks and shovels wreaked this damage between 1600 and the early 1870s, digging shale bearing alum, which bonded colours to cloth, preventing them from washing out.

Extracting alum from the rock created scenes that might have come from a medieval artist’s depiction of hell, with 60ft pyres smouldering for nine months at a stretch.

The trade reeked not just of smoke, but of stale urine, which was the readiest source of the ammonia needed for the complex chemical process. Bizarrely, human waste became a valuable commodity and barrels to collect it were left in every village for miles around with residents encouraged to support the industry, which was a major employer, by passing water for the common good.

Despite their best efforts, they just couldn’t produce enough, so a public toilet was opened in Hull, neither for convenience nor hygiene, but as a collection point. There still wasn’t enough.

And so buckets appeared on street corners in the poorest areas of London and Newcastle. The alum trade was a pioneer of reverse snobbery, being of the opinion 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. They dutifully gave of their best and it was collected weekly in barrels for shipping to Yorkshire.

The industry went into decline in the 1850s as new dyes were developed.

The clifftop path tells the story of the alum industry, but so do its remains. The Peak Alum Works, at Ravenscar, are the most complete, a production line laid out like any modern industrial complex. But there is another legacy of this strange and stinking industry, that jeer of derision heard daily around the country, originally aimed at the workmen who had the lousy job of collecting barrels from street corners for shipment to the Yorkshire coast.

There is superstition as well as mankind’s damage to be found as the coast path runs along the beach at Runswick Bay, where the caves are known as Hob Holes because folklore believed they were home to hobgoblins who could cure whooping cough.