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Friday 12 February 2016

Piss Pots, by Anthony Bloor

Extracts from a letter written by Mr Jackson, manager of the alum works at Boulby, North Yorkshire, 1784

As I write this page, it is six days since I saw the sun. A chill wind continues to blow from the East, bringing sea frets to our coast from Whitby to Scarborough, and a ghostly pallor hangs over the land. A hoar frost has covered the works, which makes it hard for the men for the earth is like iron and does not yield easily to pick and shovel. We hope that the weather improve in the new year, lest the waters freeze and we be forced to lay men off. But I fear 1785 may bring more distress, with Sir Thomas’s wishes that we give up getting urine from the Manor. Sir Thomas has made it known that Lord Musgrave was fined by the Court Leet for allowing his casks of urine to become a nuisance. Even so, that was in London, where the casks stood on street corners and the shopkeepers complained of the annoyance. Our collectors ride by at night and carry two barrels per horse, each barrel being large enough to hold 25 gallons of urine. They collect chamber lye from our own men, who gain one penny per firkin for their urine. Should we be forced to make other arrangements, the extra expense will cost us dear and our men will face a loss. Both Sir Thomas and Lord Musgrave have expressed a wish to make urine a Manorial right which would be sad indeed as Sir Thomas could henceforth prevent Lord Musgrave, or anyone else, from collecting urine in the Manor, and where would such a measure leave our men? The demand for this article is increasing and we shall be obliged to have urine brought by sea and pay the costs of the transport. We have put off making a decision until the new year, but the men must have heard rumours of the Lord’s wishes, for a mob had gathered outside our gates when I rode home this evening and were protesting most loudly. They were there all eventide and the worse for drink I fear, for they were still there in the early hours, calling me "piss pot" and other unsavoury names. They were still there when the collectors came.

Note: Urine was widely used as a commodity from the 1600s to the late nineteenth century, not only in the manufacture of alum, but also in the production of saltpetre and gunpowder and in the scouring of raw wool. This fictional account is based on research by Alan Morrison as recorded in his booklet Alum: North East Yorkshire’s fascinating story of the first chemical industry.

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