Salt

An edited version of an article by John J. Martin in the CIHS Newsletter for January 1988, from an original publication by the Colchester Archaeological Group

(Page created 21/04/05. Last updated 17/01/16)

The Romans left the Border area of England and Scotland, including Cumbria, in A.D. 385, and in the centuries up to the Norman Conquest the Christian faith became established around numerous small chapels set up by missionaries. The Normans created large Baronies to enable some measure of control over the country, and turned to the Church as the only real civilising influence in the area, to help in the work of organising and settling the area.

By means of gifts of land and property, and exemption from duties and taxes, a number of Priories and Abbeys, seven in all, were founded. These were – from north to south – Lanercost, Carlisle, Wetheral, Holme Cultram, St.Bees, Calder and Furness. They were all built strongly and defended by river or marsh, and they were all on the fertile plain areas of Cumbria. It is remarkable that each House had amongst its earliest gifts the right to build salt-pans (salterns or salt-works) and the right to get peat and turf to fuel the pans. It was thus the Church that was to establish the Cumbrian salt industry, which was to work more or less continuously for 700 years on the Solway coast.

North Cumbrian salt

The Solway coast has a number of ideal sites for salt works. The coast line is low and there are extensive areas of sand. These areas are for the most part backed by large peat mosses on the inland side. The conditions are best met around Moricambe Bay, and it was in this section of the coast that the first pans were built. Holme Cultram Abbey, perhaps the richest of the foundations, seems to have been very successful because by 1536 they were farming 21 pans stretching from Saltcotes to Angerton and the Border, and everyone carried the right to cut turf.

To protect the new industry a system of sea dykes was constructed to prevent damage by the Solway tides which are often violent. Vestiges of one of these dykes is still called Monks’ Dyke. One of the duties imposed on the local people was sea-wake, the maintenance of the sea dykes against decay, but this was largely ignored, with serious consequences. In 1301 a severe storm caused a large breach in the neglected dyke and most of the salt installations were swept away.

There may have been some attempt to re-build salt works on new sites, or by renovating sites which had been abandoned. It would seem that after the dissolution the making of salt passed into the hands of manorial tenant farmers.

West Cumbrian salt

The small Cumbrian coalfield outcrops to the surface on the coast between Maryport and Whitehaven. From sometime in the 13th century the Abbey of St.Bees appears to have enjoyed the right to ‘cavill’ for coal in the Whitehaven area, and it may be supposed that they fuelled their salt pan at Salton with this coal. Because coal could be used instead of peat and turf it became possible to use larger pans and so have bigger units which could work more intensively than the older installations of North Cumbria. Furthermore the buildings were constructed of stone which was freely available, and were thus more durable and could withstand the stormy conditions of the coastal sites.

There is one site at Crosscanonby, near Maryport, and called Saltpans, which shows the remains of a large seawater storage tank and a clear brine pond. There is a large heap of ash showing that only the poorest quality of coal must have been used as it contains such a large amount of fused material and burnt slate. There is some evidence of stone buildings and a flue amongst the undergrowth. The salters’ cottages and stable ( in latter years a single dwelling house ) were demolished in 1970 due to dereliction. Well down the beach there is a hollow wooden structure which is thought to be a pump barrel base, a few timbers at angles to each other suggest that some sort of a pump hose might have been supported. The foreshore is unstable at this point and over the years most of the installation has been washed away.

Most of the salt was disposed of by way of regular dealers known as badgers, but some smaller amounts seem to have been sold as well, possibly to individual householders or small shops.

Perhaps the largest and most important salt works was at Bransty, Whitehaven. In 1688 they were described as of considerable importance and for the most part the salt they made was exported as part of the developing Irish Trade from the port. The works continued in operation until the shipbuilding industry began to expand rapidly. In 1770 the salt works site was acquired by Daniel Brocklebank, the works were closed and demolished to make way for a successful shipbuilding yard and ropery. The Bransty Salt Works were the last ones to make salt in Cumbria, and with their destruction nearly 700 years of salt making came to an end.

South Cumbrian salt

Salt making in the southern part of the coast was not carried on to the same extent was it was in the North and West. The pans that worked do not appear to have been documented very well, and apart from the references to gifts to St.Bees and Calder Abbeys nothing is known of their history. It is probable that the pans were smaller than those used in North Cumbria, and firing material would be wood or later coal.

In his book “The Art of Making Common Salt” (1748), Dr. William Brownrigg says “that salt was formerly made at Ulverston from brine prepared by washing caked sea salt from dried shore sand”. Many farmers near the coast made salt this way but the trade was not important. Some small quantities may have been shipped through Ravenglass to the Isle of Man.

Salt-making plant and processes

There is no evidence that salt was made in Cumbria other than by evaporation of brine in pans as obtained from the sea. The pans were small and made of lead or iron, though perhaps lead was more common in the early days as it was easier to get and fabricate. In South Cumbria a boiling of salt produced 2 gallons (9.1 litres) of salt in 4 hours. No attempt was made to clarify the liquors but the prepared salt was suspended in wicker baskets to dry. In this was the bittern (very soluble sulphates) drained away. Experience showed that the best large crystal salt was produced by slow heating, and that fast boiling produced fine grained salt. Overheating had to be avoided or the bittern crystallized into the salt.

The salt content of the water varied according to the weather, which the old pans of South Cumbria (and likely in the North) endeavoured to overcome by producing a concentrated brine by “sleeching”. In this process shore sand from just below high water mark was raked up by a horse drawn device called a hap. The moisture was air dried from the sand, and thus the salt caked on to the sand particles. This is called “sleech”. Pits called sleech pits or kinches lined with puddled clay were prepared by spreading layers of straw or rushes over the bottom and around the sides to act as filtering medium. There was an outlet to a storage tank or cistern. Sleech was carted into the prepared pit. Water was then poured over the salted sand and eventually brine filtered into the cistern. This was recycled several times, until the brine was sufficiently concentrated to float an egg. More and more fresh salt sand was put into the pits as required.

It was a laborious business, more so because when the sleech was spent the kinches had to be cleaned out and the process repeated. It was obviously a Spring and Summer job preparing the sleech and brine. The salt boiling appears to have taken up the Autumn and it was aimed to have the boiling done by Christmas. The pits would be cleaned out and prepared early in the Spring ready for the next sleeching.

The end of an industry

As sea borne salt came in larger amounts to the Cumbrian ports from Liverpool, the old installations found it more and more difficult to compete and closed.

It is ironic that in 1748 Dr. William Brownrigg wrote his treatise on “The Art of making Common Salt”. He was a Whitehaven man, and was encouraged in many works by Sir James Lowther. Brownrigg drew much information about the art of salt making from local practice. His book was instrumental in changing the mode of British salt making but alas too late for the Cumbrian industry,  its existence today remembered in a few slight remains and several place names.

SITES TO VISIT

Crosscanonby NY 065401 Salt-making complex with traces of 18th century washing and settling tanks on the seashore. Memorial to John Martin who researched the area and industry.
Walney Island SD 228626 Salt works established by Barrow Salt Company in 1896 but worked for only a short time. Revived in 1909. Many remains.

FEATURED SITE

For an overview of the Walney Saltworks visit the Walney Island website, and for more detail see
Barrow Salt : Brian Cubbon, The Author, 2015