This website is now an archive of the restoration and should only be used as a resource. Please visit the Lion Salt Works website for the most up-to-date information.

Welcome to the Lion Salt Works blog

The Lion Salt Works is a historic brine salt making site that is being restored and transformed into a unique heritage attraction. Led by Cheshire West and Chester Council, this £8million project will see the site reborn as a fascinating destination for tourists, day visitors and families and a valued resource for local communities, businesses and heritage interest groups.

Located in the village of Marston, close to the town of Northwich, the site lies adjacent to the Trent and Mersey Canal and is close to the historic Anderton Boat Lift. A substantial part of the site is a Scheduled Monument.

Restoration work has now started on the site, with an expected opening in spring 2015. The Lion Salt Works is currently closed to the public.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Salt in Cheshire before the Lion Salt Works

From the Prehistoric to the Thompsons

In a new part of the Lion Salt Works blogs we will look at the history, processes and people of the Lion Salt Works and salt industry in Cheshire in our in depth history guides. This will bring together historical reports and the latest research where possible. The blogs will also try to explain the different buildings and processes at the Lion Salt Works in the easy …How to … guides.

Roman and prehistoric salt-making

Salt-making in Cheshire dates back over 2000 years and is prehistoric in origin. The latest research by Janice Kinory into prehistoric salt-making has highlighted Cheshire as an important salt-making area from prior to the arrival of the Romans.

The salt towns of Cheshire were first established by the Roman period at Northwich (Condate), Middlewich (Salinae) and Nantwich. In 2002 excavation revealed the fullest evidence so far recovered for the Roman settlement at Nantwich, a historic salt-producing centre in Cheshire (north-western England), was revealed by an excavation carried out at Kingsley Fields, on the west side of the town. Positioned along a Roman road was evidence for the collection and storage of brine and the production of salt, together with buildings, enclosures, a well and a small number of cremation burials. Waterlogged conditions meant that organic remains, including structural timbers, were well preserved on the site. These included the two finest examples of timber-built brine tanks excavated from Roman Britain. The report on these excavations by Peter Arrowsmith and David Power has been recently published (see below).

Medieval salt-making

By the Anglo-Saxon period the towns had developed the –wich place names by which they are described today. The Domesday Book of 1086 describes the extent of the salt-works in the Cheshire region. Northwich was described as

In the same hundred of Mildestvic there was a third Wich called Norwich (Northwich), which was in farm at eight pounds. In it there were the same laws and customs as in the other Wiches, and the King and the Earl divided the receipts in the like manner. All the thanes who held salt-houses in this Wich gave no Friday's boilings of salt the year through.

The Nantwich Salt Ship
Production continued throughout the medieval period. Perhaps the best archaeological find from this period was the Nantwich Salt Ship now on display at the Nantwich Museum. This huge hollowed out tree trunk is an amazing survival of the medieval salt industry in Nantwich. Known as a ‘salt ship’ it was found during excavations in 2003 and was used to store brine before it was heated in shallow lead pans to produce salt crystals. It survived due to waterlogged conditions preventing its decay. Evidence of medieval salt working in Nantwich survives well in the waterlogged ground and remains of timber buildings, salt ships and wooden barrels all show how important the salt industry was in the town.

In 1580, the great chronicler William Camden writing in his Magna Brittanica describes the area;

Agricola - Woodcut of salt-making
From thence runneth Wever down by Nantwich, not far from Middlewich, and so to Northwich. These are very famous Salt-Wiches, five or six miles distant, where brine or salt water is drawn out of pits, which they pour not upon wood while it burneth as the ancient Gauls and Germans were wont to do, but boil it over a fire to make salt thereof. William Camden – Magna Brittanica 1580.

A wood-cut of the 17th century by Georgius Agricola shows the process in detail. 

Open pan salt-making

The process of medieval salt-making was almost identical to that undertaken at the Lion Salt Works. It relied on heating brine over a fire, but the pans were much smaller and generally made of lead not iron. The supply of brine at this time relied on natural springs or brine pits;

" At Northwich there is a deep and plentiful brine pit with stairs about it, by which, when they have drawn the water in their leathern buckets, they ascend, half naked, to their troughs and fill them, from whence it is conveyed to the wich-houses about which there stand on every side many stakes and piles of wood." (William Camden – Magna Brittanica 1580).

The extent of salt-making in Northwich was significant as suggested by a letter received by George Johnson from Chomley, in February 1605; ‘The said Northwich is a Burrow and holden of the Earle of Chester… There is, in the same towne or Burrow, one hundred and thirteen salt houses, every one containing four leads apiece...’.

William Brownrigg - small pans and furnace
The pans were small and set in groups of four with the heat drawn from the fires by a small chimney. William Brownrigg writing in 1748 in his ‘Book of Common Salt’, shows a wood-cut of one of these salt-making pans.

By the later 18th century the small pans of the medieval period had been replaced by much larger iron pans in the Cheshire region. These were almost as large as the ones in the Lion Salt Works. Christoph Chrysel writing in 1773 in his ‘Remarkable and very useful Information about the present Salt Works and Salt pans in England’ notes a pan in Northwich;

The first pan is 36 feet long, 25 feet broad and 13 inches deep and holds at one time 975 cubic feet of brine and has three furnaces.

The second pan is 40 ft. long, 27 feet broad and 13 inches deep, and holds at one time 1170 cubic feet of Brine and has 3 Fireplaces. Both these large pans are still to be seen in England on the Baron's Quay Salt works near Northwich in Cheshire, where they are worked weekly and were built more than 4 years since.

Christoph Chrysel developed an improved system of salt-making for which he received a 14 year patent. He describes a process not dissimilar to that used at the Lion Salt Works suggesting it had reached its ultimate form by the 18th century. His improvement to the process developed the furnace beneath the salt pans and resulted in ‘the least Fire and Coal the most Salt can be made and the greatest Profit received’. The two types of salt normally produced are described below;

William Brownrigg -
Outline of Furnace and salt pan

" The fourth sort is Broad Salt, that is to say Coarse Salt, because it has larger crystals than the foregoing salt. It is made more especially in Cheshire in every salt works. The Brine from the Salt springs with a very gentle and moderate fire, in large pans is heated for 24 hours when large hard crystals are formed. It is drawn into Salt Tubs and allowed to remain on the sides of the Pans for 8 or 9 hours then taken to the Storehouse and thrown into a heap and allowed to lie until it is dry, which happens in a few days. I have seen it sold in two or three days and taken away. The price of this Salt at the works is 14 shillings per ton without the duty.

" The fifth sort is Fishery or Flakey or Shivery salt. The Brine is heated with a very gentle fire for 36 hours for half a pan of brine or 72 hours for a full pan, when crystals of half an inch and ¾ inch cube are formed. This is sold at 20 shillings per ton without the duty and is chiefly sent to the Newfoundland Fishery without paying any duty, for all salt sold and shipped out of England pays no duty. On the contrary all salt used in England must pay a duty of Ten pounds per ton.

His description of salt made in Cheshire would not have been unfamiliar to the Thompson’s in the 1960s. The open pan salt works that developed around Northwich used unchanged 18th-century technology but were generally larger in scale. Tom Lightfoot describing his memories of the Middlewich and Winsford industries of the early 20th century suggests large numbers of salt pans set side by side along the River Weaver.

Further Reading

Janice Kinory 2012 Salt Production, Distribution and Use in the British Iron Age, Archaeopress, BAR 559

Peter Arrowsmith and David Power 2012 Roman Nantwich: A Salt-Making Settlement Excavations at Kingsley Fields in 2002, Archaeopress, BAR 557

Calvert, AK 1915 Salt in Cheshire

Brownrigg, William 1748 Book of Common Salt

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