The central portion of the town of Guisborough, by the market-cross and the two chief inns, is quaint and fairly picturesque, but the long street as it goes westward deteriorates into rows of new cottages, inevitable in a mining country.
Mining operations have been carried on around Guisborough since the time of Queen Elizabeth, for the discovery of alum dates from that period, and when that industry gradually declined, it was replaced by the iron-mines of to-day. Mr. Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough, in his travels on the Continent about the end of the sixteenth century, saw the Pope’s alum-works near Rome, and was determined to start the industry in his native parish of Guisborough, feeling certain that alum could be worked with profit in his own county. As it was essential to have one or two men who were thoroughly versed in the processes of the manufacture, Mr. Chaloner induced some of the Pope’s workmen by heavy bribes to come to England. The risks attending this overt act were terrible, for the alum-works brought in a large revenue to His Holiness, and the discovery of such a design would have meant capital punishment to the offender. The workmen were therefore induced to get into large casks, which were secretly conveyed on board a ship that was shortly sailing for England.
When the Pope received the intelligence some time afterwards, he thundered forth against Mr. Chaloner and the workmen the most awful and comprehensive curse. They were to be cursed most wholly and thoroughly in every part of their bodies, every saint was to curse them, and from the thresholds of the holy church of God Almighty they were to be sequestered, that they might ’be tormented, disposed of, and delivered over with Dathan and Abiram, and with those who say unto the Lord God, “Depart from us; we desire not to know Thy ways."’
Despite the fearful nature of the curse, the venture prospered so much that the Darcy family, about the year 1600, set up another works in the neighbourhood of Guisborough; and as this also brought considerable wealth to the owners, a third was started at Sandsend in 1615. Many others followed, and in 1649 Sir Hugh Cholmley started the works close to Saltwick Nab, within a short distance of his house at Whitby. But although there must have been more than twenty of these works in operation in the eighteenth century, owing to cheaper methods of producing alum the industry is now quite extinct in Cleveland.
The broad valley stretching from Guisborough to the sea contains the beautifully wooded park of Skelton Castle. The trees in great masses cover the gentle slopes on either side of the Skelton Beck, and almost hide the modern mansion. The buildings include part of the ancient castle of the Bruces, who were Lords of Skelton for many years. It is recorded that Peter de Brus, one of the barons who helped to coerce John into signing the Great Charter at Runnymede, made a curious stipulation when he granted some lands at Leconfield to Henry Percy, his sister’s husband. The property was to be held on condition that every Christmas Day he and his heirs should come to Skelton Castle and lead the lady by the arm from her chamber to the chapel.