In the 1860's the Empress Eugenie wore a silk dress dyed with a newly invented aniline dye to the Paris Opera for the first time. This dye was the first green which did not go blue in gaslight and marked the high point of the new artificial dyes, produced by Perkins and put on sale by him in 1857 in London. It was also to mean a dramatic decline in the demand for natural dyes and to a lesser extent the demand for mineral pigments.
Umber, a mineral pigment, a hydrated ferric and manganese oxide, had been mined in the Isle of Man for many years and crushed at the Umber Mill at Ballasalla, then stored in the Umber House on the Irish Quay prior to shipment to England. Umber, however, could be imported more cheaply, particularly from Cyprus and as a consequence of this competition and the declining demand the mining of the ore on the Island became uneconomic.
The Umber House used in my childhood as a store for both coal and general goods, was a fine, sizeable stone building and was removed by the Harbour Board, in the interests of harbour improvements, some thirty odd years ago.
The Umber Mill, or quite a good proportion of it, still remains. It stood on land in the lower Silverdale Glen and was owned by the Quine family. On his retirement to the Island in the early 1930's Doctor Quine had the Mill converted into a lovely dwelling house and carried out major landscaping in the surrounding Glen.
The Doctor, who lived to over 100 years of age, was a man of many parts and carried out much of the landscaping himself. It was not uncommon to see him, even in his late eighties, wading through the Silverburn in thighboots clearing debris and tidying the banks. Right to the end of his days he had a strong vigorous mind and not long before his 100th birthday wrote me a personal letter detailing major improvements which he thought should be carried out in Castletown to relieve the congestion in the narrow streets without spoiling the ancient appearance of the town.
He had been a County Medical Officer and being of an inventive turn of mind had devised a system whereby refuse vehicles by moving tilt bars set to actuate refuse bins could collect household refuse without having to stop.
The alterations to the Mill were carried out by Harold Callow, a relative of ours who at that time lived with us and I remember Harold recounting to my father details of an ingenious gate latch which the Doctor had had made by Oates' the Ballasalla blacksmiths. When the Doctor produced his drawings to the Oates brothers they were at a loss to understand how the latch was to work. 'Make it first and when its complete I will explain it', he promised. On its completion the brothers were amazed at the ingenuity of the locking latch.
I have wandered a bit from the old Umber House but suffice it to say that with the demise of the umber mining the Isle of Man lost an ancient industry which by now has been forgotten by almost everyone and with the removal of the old Umber House even the name link with the past has been irretrievably lost.
Teddy Blackburn of Castletown.