JET AND DEATH
References in literature show that jet was well known throughout the Elizabethan period, and in the 18th century crude beads and crosses were fashioned in Whitby. The rapid burgeoning of the industry during the Victorian age has been attributed to a number of factors.
The introduction of the lathe in 1800 is believed to have been the spark, followed by the opening of the first railway line to Whitby in 1836. This created a new market, as jet was sold to the influx of tourists as gifts and souvenirs, with many items featuring images of the town’s iconic St Hilda’s Abbey.
As women’s fashions changed to voluminous crinoline skirts and heavy clothing, jewellery had to become larger – and jet was the perfect gem to wear as it was so lightweight. And when jet was shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851, it led to Royal patronage – famously from Queen Victoria, but it was also worn by the Queen of Bavaria and the Empress of France.
The real turning point came at the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Victoria adopted jet as jewellery of mourning and specified that it was the only adornment allowed to be worn at court. Victoria’s subjects fol- lowed court fashion, and since infant mortality was so high, many women wore black for most of their lives. By 1872, there were 200 jet shops in Whitby employing 1,500 men.
But jet’s success was also its downfall. On the death of Queen Victoria, a new Edwardian era of elegance and light emerged which had no stomach for jet and its associations with death. The change in fashion sent the industry into the dol-
drums for decades. Again, it was the arrival of death, and on a colossal scale, that revived it: the outbreak of the Great War.
On his 1916 visit to Whitby, Machen tracked down a traditional jet worker called Mr Trattles, who was turning a lathe with his feet. Mr Trattles showed the journalist Victorian bracelets of “the old school” which Machen found “appalling”.
He wrote in The Evening News: “They were like mourning coach horses. They were composed of gross jet tablets two inches deep.” Trattles also showed him a bracelet that took a prize at the Great Exhibition – deeply carved with flint and flowers and “exquisite skill” – but admitted that “no-one would wear it now”.
However, Machen described how the jet workers were busy once more. “Not so busy as in the golden [eighteen] ‘fifties, ‘sixties, seventies; but still doing comfortably and working hard, and finding a ready market for their work. They are making mourning brooches, bracelets, ornaments of all kinds for those who have lost relatives in the war.”
BELOW: A 19th century Whitby jet stall; a mourning necklace; a pendant with the face of Medusa.