Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

North Riding

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IT is strange that, notwithstanding fashionable people have visited Scarborough these many years past, the place still retains the appearance of a primitive fishing town. Red tiles, the oldfashioned pier, composed of misshapen, oversized blocks of stone, and the manner in which the fishermen, bringing their baskets of fish from the boat on their shoulders, pitch them out at the head of the quay on the hot, dusty pavement, as if they were so much offal, are all indications worthy of bygone centuries. Yet the noble castle, from its extent of wall, the loftiness of its site, two hundred and seventy feet above the level of the sea, and its antique proportions, is truly magnificent. When, during a hasty walk round the environs, I had mounted the elevated cliff on which it rests frowning upon the waters, I found myself, instead of among crags and precipices, on a flat surface of pasture land, with upward of a score of horses grazing thereon, and containing an extent of seventeen acres.

The museum exhibits, in a circular building within small space, the most perfect arrangement of specimens that can be conceived. The fossil remains of former ages are here disposed in order, on a series of sloping shelves placed all round, beginning with the more recent formations, and proceeding, stratum after stratum, from the lower beds to the primitive rocks. Under the sloping shelves there are other horizontal ones, on which are a collection of shells in generic arrangement, intended to correspond with the fossils above. The diameter of this round chamber is only thirty-three feet: to render the coup-d'oeil more complete, a coloured section of the stratification of the coast is painted on the ceiling, the same being coloured and numbered with a view to facilitate reference.

In an adjoining apartment I saw some remains of those antediluvian monsters in which this eastern coast is so remarkably fertile; one, a perfect specimen of the plesiosaurus. This skeleton, as large as that of a horse, and imbedded in a solid block of limestone, is sufficient to strike the most skeptical with conviction, if not almost to incline the weak mind towards superstition. While the bones of the plesiosaurus, the ichthyosaurus, the megalosaurus, and the Sussex iguanodon, in modern times render such testimony to our senses of the former existence of creatures now unknown on the earth, we may wonder less at the fables and fictions of the olden day. Well might the poet create in fancy the serpent Python, engendered of the mud of the deluge, and laid prostrate by the shafts of Apollo; and still more rational are the imaginings of more recent date, such as the "Dragon of Wantley," the "Worme of the Somervilles,"and the entire host of Spenser's "Dracology."

Here was to be seen a collection of horns of the bison, and elephants' tusks from Holderness—as well as lions' and hyenas' bones from the Kirkdale cave. Also a large Roman urn, dug up a few years since in the neighbourhood of Knapton, containing ashes and calcined bones in appearance as fresh as if newly burned. To these may be added the coffin and skeleton of an ancient Briton, dug up in the neighbourhood, in July, 1834, the former of solid oak, hollowed out of a tree, after the fashion of a log canoe; the coffin lid also hollowed in the same manner; both apparently being parts of the same tree. The skeleton is singularly perfect, but black and shining as jet, as the exhibiter informed me, precisely in the same state in which it was found, otherwise than by the application of a colourless varnish.


THE head of the pier at Whitby is remarkable for its size and solidity, notwithstanding that the pier itself has partially sunk in the middle, owing to a vein of soft clay which intersects the foundation. Considerable cracks and fissures in the stonework are visible, which, though unseemly to the eye, are not otherwise detrimental. Towards the lighthouse, situated at the head of this main structure, a smaller pier stretches out from the opposite or southern bank of the Esk, at its mouth, and at right angles to the former; a breakwater, enclosing considerable harbour space, is thus formed, although the water is always shallow, and at neap tides the ground quite dry.

When speaking of the southern bank of the Esk, though the definition cannot be mistaken, it is worthy of remark that the cardinal points at this spot on the coast are singularly jumbled together according to appearances, so that when a stranger, as he imagines, looks towards the west, the weathercock informs him that his face is to the south; and so of the rest. It was, to me at least, an unexpected sight to see the sun, on a fine evening in the beginning of July, sink into the waves, while standing on Whitby Pier; but that I did see, as anybody may readily comprehend, by observing on the map the trending of this part of the coast to the westward'.

A mile up the river a wooden bridge has been thrown across for the purpose of the railroad now under progress towards Pickering, of which latter about seven miles are already completed; this bridge is a fine specimen of strength and simplicity, in length a little more than a hundred yards. A new stone bridge has been also recently completed in the centre of the town; a horizontal swing drawbridge, forty-six feet from pier to pier; the entire length of the swinging platform (as I hastily paced it) ninety-six feet, that is, forty-eight feet each limb. Although the Esk runs itself nearly dry at every tide, there is a considerable depth 'of water at flood; immediately above the bridge is a spacious bay, where, at a comparatively small expense, docks might be made to a very considerable extent; in fact, the piers of the bridge appear to have been constructed with an ultimate view thereto, and calculated to support gates of adequate dimensions.

During the last summer I happened to see the workmen engaged in constructing the starlings; meanwhile they were protected by a temporary dock, from which the water was pumped out by a steam engine. I observed the mode here adopted to lay in their places, with the utmost precision, huge blocks of stone, three tons weight and upward, the surface of each being a different figure, and all neatly jointed and riveted together.

By a contrivance called "a travelling crane," a couple of men were enabled to lift these large stones out of the lighter alongside, and lower them down to the masons at work below.

To effect the above purpose two large beams were, in the first place, raised longitudinally outside, and several feet above, the starling under operation; on their upper surface was laid a line of iron rails. Two transverse beams, lashed together, were placed on the top of the others upon castors, so that the latter were easily moved backward and forward along the railway. Upon the transverse beams the crane was placed, which crane moved also in a similar manner by castors, and on a railway. Thus, to move the crane across the starling, it was merely trundled along the transverse beams; to move it in a line lengthwise, the transverse beams, crane, and all, were trundled along the longitudinal ones; creating thereby an operation in the highest degree perfect: for not only did these two horizontal motions, at right angles to each other, command every possible point on the surface, but with equal nicety the perpendicular adjustment was regulated by the crane, by which the appended weight was raised and lowered. By aid of multiplying wheels and a brake, the action was so extremely delicate, that every single stone might literally be said to be placed as gently on its bed as a sleeping infant in its cradle.

Few spots in England afford more bold and romantic scenery than the heights about Whitby. On either bank of the Esk, all the overhanging mountainous acclivities are thickly studded with houses rising one above another as if built on each other's tops; and the bluff headlands at the mouth of the harbour, diverging towards the sea, afford in either direction along their summit a delightful walk for several miles. The ancient ruins of the abbey, and the venerable old church, form other striking features in the landscape.

Leading to the church a broad flight of one hundred and ninety-four stone steps has of late years been built, contiguous to which the ancient zigzag paved road still remains undisturbed. These steps may be seen every Sunday covered from top to bottom with old and young —parents at the decline of life, children at is commencement—both together surmounting the arduous ascent, and wending their way to the sacred edifice; thus piously dedicating the first fruits and withering remains of mortal strength to their Christian duties. I was forcibly reminded, on such an occasion, of Bunyan's beautiful allegory of "The Hill of Difficulty."

Early one morning at high water, the sea within the pier was swarming with a shoal of sprats, whose line of march I distinctly traced not only from the clearness of the water, but by the ripple caused on the surface by their vast numbers: I could plainly see them as they glided along in a dense busy mass, of length apparently unlimited, breadth thirty or forty feet, and depth seven or eight feet. As they continued to swim round and round in the harbour for nearly an hour, the water absolutely tingled under the myriads of the passing throng; hundreds of which together would, at times, in case of a sudden flurry, leap out of the water, and descend again in a glittering shower; the course of the main body, at a distance, being marked by the sparkling of the sun's rays, here and there reflected, like so many little diamonds, from their silver scales. Not a net was put in requisition on the occasion, though at least a wagon load might have been easily taken. In the first place, the fishermen were not provided with nets with meshes small enough; in the next, they were busy with their herring fishery. The draughts of herring this year have been unusually great—so much so, that large cargoes have been frequently sold to the French fishermen (who bring their own salt, and cure them on the spot) at eight shillings a thousand. The boats employed in the trade on our own coast are still increasing, and further preparations are making for an augmentation by the erection of "curing houses" upon the ground adjoining the pier.


I walked along the edge of the cliffs to Lord Mulgrave's alum works, to the northward, close to the sea, about three miles distant, where the vast extent of the excavations, and the enormous magnitude of the heaps of alum rock (or shale, as it is called) then in a state of smouldering combustion, produced a magnificent effect, such as I had not anticipated. The scale of operations may be partly imagined by those who have chanced to see the chalk and lime works on the Thames, at Northfleet: the cuts, several feet in thickness, are commenced at the top of the cliff, here one hundred and eighty feet high, and then worked down perpendicularly to the bottom; and thus, by degrees, a vast portion of the material has been scooped out, leaving, as it were, an extensive irregular semicircular bowl, the area of which is the theatre of operations, and in appearance truly volcanic. The blue colour of the surrounding cliffs of alum rock, the burning mountains below, and the whole scene, round and about, are such as, when seen from the summit, give the whole together the character of one enormous crater. At all parts workmen are seen driving their loads in wheelbarrows, sometimes across rude bridges and planks, perilously planted from one precipice to another; or along narrow ledges of rocks, and platforms supported by rough blocks of stone.

By such a path as the latter I descended for the greater part of the way from the top of the cliff to the bottom, stepping from stone to stone, in some places laid in imitation of a flight of steps.

The process of preparing the alum is sufficiently simple. After having quarried the shale, which, from the softness of the substance, is performed without much difficulty, it is piled in the enormous heaps before mentioned: these, being ignited, burn for several months together, till the whole is reduced to a red calcined ash or cinder. At the commencement of the formation of each fiery mountain, a nucleus is, in the first instance, created by a layer of fagots or bushes placed on the ground, and set fire to. On these is thrown a layer of the alum shale. As soon as the latter becomes red hot, a second layer of shale is placed upon it, upon which the workmen stand, and supply from the rear with alum shale a second layer of bushes placed in front. Thus the heap extends, by layer after layer of bushes in front being fed with stone brought from the rear; and, as the heap increases in height and dimensions, the material is wheeled across the top, from one end to the other, in wheelbarrows, and shot over from the summit upon the new-laid layer of bushes in front.

I mounted to the top of one of these huge heaps, twenty feet from the ground, and containing an area of several hundred square yards, following the men who wheeled their barrows along planks laid from end to end, pitching their contents over the summit, as has been described.

How it is possible for any living creature to exist and work in such an atmosphere, I do not exactly comprehend, where the fumes of sulphur predominate in such a degree as almost to stop the breath. As an evidence of the pestiferous effluvia which arose, the edges of many deep fissures were abundantly fringed with flower of sulphur; and, as the smoke and steam oozed upward the air trembled in the sunshine, as may be observed in a field of burning bricks. Nay, besides the appearances above stated, red heat was not only visible through the cracks in many places underneath, but might be discovered glowing everywhere by merely scratching a few inches with a stick below the surface. Nevertheless, even with so shallow a covering, that part which came in contact with the feet was cool.

The shale having been by these means reduced to a calcined mass, and allowed a sufficient time to cool, in order to extract the alum, the ashes or cinders are immersed in water in shallow tanks cut in the ground, like salt pans; from which the liquor passes away by a channel cut for the purpose under ground, full half a mile in length, to the boiling houses.

The liquor is here boiled in several large caldrons, one after another, till the water, having sufficiently evaporated, it is poured into barrels, containing three hundred gallons each, and then allowed to cool. As it cools, the crystallization takes place; the crystals adhere to the sides of the barrel, the water settles in the middle, just as the milk lies within the cocoanut, and the nut cleaves to its shell. When cold, the barrels being purposely constructed to take to pieces, the hoops and staves are removed, when the crystals remain in a solid mass, the usual proportion being two thirds of crystals to one third of water. A hole is bored to Jet the water off, and the alum cut with a saw in blocks for the market. On an aperture being made in one of these masses when entire, the crystals within assume, as may be readily imagined, a splendid appearance.

Returning home towards Whitby, I observed, adjoining the seashore, a manufactory for cement, prepared from a peculiar sort of stones or boulders, found imbedded in the alum shale: the process merely consists in burning the stones in a kiln, and then grinding them. Nearer still to the town are limekilns, whither the white limestone is brought from Flamborough Head. The stones, all round and smooth, having been taken from below high-water mark, are shot from the vessels which bring them overboard into the sea at high water, as near the land as possible, whence they are carted, at low water, to the kilns.


As I was walking along the summit of the cliffs on the other bank of the Esk, in a direction southerly, as applied generally to the coast, but in point of fact easterly, more properly speaking, I heard that some men were digging jet a few miles from the town, and therefore proceeded in search of them. I was in the end only partially successful, for I met with the men and I saw the jet, but I did not see them, as I wished, in the act of digging it. I came to the spot where they were at work, but they were at the extremity of a level, driven under the verge of the cliff, so that I had an equal chance of detecting a sea bird sitting on her eggs, as of discovering these men pecking at the rock within their burrow.

Returning to the town, I encountered them on the way, one with a narrow sack of jet on his shoulder, which each took it by turns to carry. They opened the sack and showed me the jet, in pieces the size of ordinary charcoal; they said they were miners by trade; that they rented the ground where they worked on speculation; that the tradesmen in Whitby gave them a fair price for all the jet they could furnish, and manufactured it into ladies' ornaments; that the price varied considerably— from 3s. 0d. to 10s. per stone.

The jet is found among the cliffs in very narrow seams, not more than two or three inches deep; consequently the work is performed in extremely narrow space; almost in a recumbent posture, and the rubble and earth dragged outward on the hands and knees, by a rope round the middle, after the manner adopted by the colliers in the narrow seams of coal. It frequently happens that the workman is lowered over the edge of the cliff, in order to reach the mouth of the level by which he enters. A man very often not only works alone all day in such a gloomy state of confinement, but reaches his solitary dungeon without assistance, merely by the perilous expedient of a rope rove round a stake fixed on the summit of the cliff: by the rope he lets himself down, and at the end of his day's work pulls himself up again.

At the spot where these men were at work, the cliffs are particularly high, two hundred and eighty feet, and form a bight to which sea birds resort in considerable numbers; though I had probably arrived within a few hundred yards of the place I was seeking, without further information, there was no visible object to direct my search.

As the crow flies, the point in question is not more than three miles and a half from Whitby; by the cliffs, the way amounts to about five miles: thus as I sauntered along I occasionally descended to the level of the sea, and walked sometimes, as far as was practicable, along the shore. The whole of these cliffs, viewed from below, present a wonderful accumulation of fossil substances, among which, of the nautili, or "snakestones," as they are provincially termed, I might easily, in a couple of hours, have filled a wheelbarrow. The country people suppose them snakes, and assert, as a matter of curiosity, that "no one has ever vet been found with a head.

Some lie rolling about among the shingle, like common boulders, others are imbeded in fragments of alum rock, and some are found mingled among the earth; but the entire precipice, from top to bottom, is a mass of shale, shells, and stones, disposed in layers, distinguishable one above another, as if each layer had grown year after year, as the strata of wood in an ancient tree.

It is remarkable that, for a considerable space hereabout, the sand of the sea is entirely composed of pulverized ashes of alum shale, the refuse of old works on the spot, which have been many years abandoned: it has precisely the appearance of pounded tiles, and although carried by so many succeeding tides backward and forward, is still quite pure and unmixed with any other substance.

As I walked homeward towards the town with the two diggers of jet, one of them informed me that a friend of his had in his possession a fossil monster, as wonderful as anything in Whitby museum; so accordingly I proposed going immediately to see it. I was conducted to a small house at the upper end of an alley, in the garret of which, extended in order, on the floor, were the fossil bones of the skeleton in question. These bones, as far as I could discover, might have been, the greater part, those of a small whale; but the poor owner, being partially acquainted with the saurian tribe, had determined accordingly on one of these for his model; and had collected vertebrae, at all events decreasing in size, and sufficient in number to form, properly distributed, a graceful curve, and exhibit the outline of a creature possessing, when alive, a long switching tail. The head, for aught I know, might have, nevertheless, belonged to an ichthyosaurus, as well as many of its component parts: the arrangement, at least, did credit to the owner's fancy.

This was not the only exhibition of the same sort then at Whitby. At a highly respectable tradesman's shop there was what was said to be a human leg petrified; but which bore, I think, very little resemblance to any such member. There was nothing whatever, that I could perceive, to justify its having ever been mistaken for a man's leg, bating that, in the mere outline, it bore somewhat the appearance of a very particularly bad one.

I afterward visited the museum, wherein the specimens are imperfectly arranged, and the exhibition altogether on a small scale; though it contains probably the very best specimen of antediluvian remains to be seen in England. Of the enormous skeleton of the ichthyosaurus almost every bone is perfect, particularly the small ones composing the feet; of these, even the nail, or claw, is, in one instance, quite perfect.

Among the fossils is a complete plant of sugarcane, or bamboo, dug up from a spot close adjoining that where the ichthyosaurus lay. This, as well as relics from the Kirkdale cave, superior to those in the museum either of Scarborough, Hull, or York, bears ample testimony to the violent natural changes which, in past ages, have taken place in the upper strata of this eastern coast.


PARTLY with the object in view to visit this little fishing town, and partly for the purpose of escaping the vortex then setting in from all surrounding quarters towards the York festival, I left Whitby one rainy afternoon, in a hired buggy, for Robin Hood's Bay. It was not without considerable reluctance that, yielding to other pursuits, I compelled myself to relinquish the pleasures of sight and sound attendant on this ceremonial; I was, therefore, more unwilling to behold the tantalizing preparations. On such occasions as these, Englishmen by no means appear to advantage; for, to say nothing of the trickery exercised by coach proprietors, innkeepers also take an opportunity of reaping the harvest of their servility, by exacting from the public usurious remuneration; a reflection which certainly tends to diminish the value of their attentions. At all events, a traveller once in the current encounters a hard-hearted band, among whom, even though the money fly from his pocket, like the nails in Sinbad's ship on the rock of adamant, he is nevertheless curtailed in his comforts in a similar proportion.

The approach to the village of Robin Hood's Bay is by a steep descent, which, commencing at the parish church and extending a full mile, becomes, for the last three or four hundred yards, so precipitous, as to be all but inaccessible to wheel carriages of any description; so that the inhabitants may be said to be secluded, by local causes, from the adjoining country.

Having taken no pains to inform myself of the disposition of the villagers, it was with some hesitation that I dismissed my vehicle at the door of the principal inn, being led involuntarily, owing to its small size and the appearance of the street, to question its respectability. But a more kind, respectable, well-conducted, and amiable person I never encountered than my hostess of the Mason's Arms; under whose tranquil roof I sojourned for two days, and then departed with regret.

No place of human abode can be conceived more wild in its appearance than this village, where the tidy little edifices of the fishermen are perched, like the nests of sea gulls, among the cliffs; the communication from one street to another being, in some places, entirely cut off, so that access is obtained by a plank bridge thrown over a gully. Nevertheless, every individual dwelling is characteristic of the neatness of a seafaring proprietor, him whom early habit has taught the true principles of the economy of space, and to whom the contrast of rough and perilous hours abroad the more endears the delights of home. Among such a population, I had no reason to repent my visit. Such is the precarious position of many of the houses among the craggy eminences, that one is inclined to wonder they have not long since been washed away. Twenty years ago a considerable number were abandoned, and afterward actually swept off by the waves; and now the sea has undermined the rocks in many places under their foundations to such a degree, that, with an in-shore swell, the sound of the tumbling waters resembles a distant discharge of artillery. These cliffs, formed of the deeper lias shale, afford a better resistance than those of loam, which support the devoted town of Kilnsea, elsewhere described; nevertheless, the whole shore within the bay appears of the same substance as the cliffs above, exhibiting a flat surface worn smooth by the attrition of the waves, and divided by longitudinal and transverse fissures, so as exactly to resemble an artificial pavement. The entire area is covered by multitudes of periwinkles of unusual size. In every part these shell fish are scattered in the utmost profusion—so that the only pains necessary to gather them is to sweep them with a common broom into a heap, and carry them off; and in this manner, in the proper season, boatloads are collected and sent to Yarmouth. The herring fishery here, as well as at most other parts of the coast, affords the principal source of livelihood for the inhabitants, and has been, during the present year, attended with unusual success: large quantities have been sold to the French fishermen, who bring their own salt and cure them on the spot, as at Hartlepool, Whitby, and other places.

I observed vast quantities of varech or seaweed on the beach, which, notwithstanding its efficacy as a manure, was suffered to lie and rot, swarming with maggots; however, the steepness of the ascent to the fields above, renders it perhaps impracticable to cart it thither. It occurred to me that, in situations like the present, wherein it is required to surmount a short and steep acclivity, the substitution of a mechanical purchase for horse power is seldom applied, though generally in such cases it might be used with advantage: for instance, in the steep streets leading from the Thames in London, the whole length of the strand, and eastward, as well as in many other places that might readily be mentioned, At all events, the quantity of manure that on the present occasion lay unapplied to useful purposes, within the space of three or four hundred yards, was at least forty wagon loads.

On leaving the village, I engaged the service of a man and his cart to transport my luggage to a point of rendezvous, on the turnpike road, with the stage coach to York; and as the old horse leaned steadily on his collar, I walked up the hill, and entered into conversation with the proprietor. He was intelligent and inquisitive, his numerous questions all tending directly, one way or other, to increase his little stock of knowledge; he was, besides, not only a self-taught artist, affectionately devoted to his profession, but a poetaster, possessing at the same time an enviable privilege—namely, provided all the world were deaf to the harmony of his rhymes, the means of ensuring their immortality. By his hand many of the tombstones in the churchyard were engraved; and as to these, without interfering with the department of the muses, I may honestly say that better specimens of handicraft, even in more civilized parts of England, are not to be found.

On proceeding on my journey in due course, I made the discovery that I had unwittingly arrived in York precisely one day too soon; the consequence was just what might be expected—no quiet, no comfort—the inn, from top to bottom, a scene of bustle and confusion. When I took my seat in the coffee room, a group of bacchanalians, "far in the wind," were vindicating their musical taste by levying contributions from every individual indiscriminately in favour of a trumpery set of glee singers then standing in the street: they, in return, while the windows were wide open for the purpose, vomited forth "The Hunters' Chorus" in "Der Freischutz," and all the worn-out trash of the London streets.

Seeking my place of rest, I was conducted to a delta chamber in the garrets; and here the noise in the house was quite sufficient effectually to prevent sleep for the whole night: nevertheless, no sooner were the set of people who produced it worn down by fatigue and silent, than they were replaced by others. Three sturdy fellows began at daylight, both in the adjoining chamber, and in the landing place close to my door, to black shoes for all the household. For this night's lodging, that of a traveller merely passing through the town, the charge was precisely, compared with that on ordinary occasions, ten fold.

George Head, A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2009.

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