My regular guest blogger is posting on Thursday this week, a day later than usual. Enjoy it!
This week’s post finds me in a village in the Cheshire countryside just NE of the town of Northwich. What am I doing here? Well, at the end of last week’s blog you remember the guy at the Museum told me about a site visit with a free guided tour in a nearby village; and so off I went, just 2 miles across town, to the Lion Salt Works in Marston. (Its population was in 1801-284, 1901-878 & 1951-729.) It is interesting to remember that the discovery of salt in the area was accidental; people in the 17th cent were digging to try and find coal and came across the salt.
Here’s a view of the works from the opposite bank of the canal. You can see how handy it was for collections and deliveries to the site. Canals were of course the highways of their day. They were the new form of transport enabling importers and exporters to get their goods to or from a port and others who just needed to move goods to market where there were no decent road connections.
Thanks to Chris Allen for photo from Geograph site. Photo used with permission under Creative Commons Licence (details below, each of which can be copied/pasted into browser to see relevant info):
Licence details: “http://creativecommons.org/ns#”
Usage permission: “http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”
And next is an aerial view; the renovation scaffolding had not arrived at this point. Thanks to Edward Robinson for the pic from the Geograph site (taken in Oct 2011). Photo used with permission under Creative Commons Licence (details below, each of which can be copied/pasted into browser to see relevant info):
Licence details: “http://creativecommons.org/ns#”
Owner: ” http://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/75769″
Usage permission: “http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0″
I had to use someone else’s aerial view as my private helicopter was in the garage being repaired and my pilot was on holiday! It was his turn on the rota (or should that be rotor….haha).
The site was owned and operated by the Thompson Family from 1894 to its closure in 1986: this was due to a civil war in the country where most of its exports went – Nigeria. (It was the last open pan salt works in the county; it is the only surviving Victorian salt works in the UK; and although not actually working, the structure is one of only 3 surviving open pan salt works in the whole world!).
The poor quality of the upper structure, made from mainly wood, corrugated iron & asbestos, was due to its owners believing it would be just a temporary building until the mine or brine was exhausted and they would move on.
It made the BBC’s “Restoration” programme but didn’t get enough voted to progress finishing in second position on the day. However a campaign, which has run for many years to turn the site into a proper visitor centre, has eventually resulted in an £8 million refurbishment programme; it is hoped that work, just started, will be completed by Spring 2014.
Our archaeologist guide Chris was ready and waiting with a couple of other visitors as I arrived; in the next 10 minutes the group expanded to about 12. I hope I have remembered his info correctly – any mistakes are mine as they say in the publishing world.
Open pan means basically you construct a large rectangular shaped metal tank, fill it with brine pumped from underground, and put a heat source (originally coal, later oil) underneath it; as the brine evaporates a salt precipitate is formed which is then scooped out. The one we were able to see measured about 30ft x 20ft (9.1m x 6.1m). The strength of heat is what determines the quality of salt produced: hotter equals better quality. It was said that it needed 1 ton of coal to produce 2 tons of salt.
The Lion Salt Works, as you saw in the pic, is located right next to the Trent & Mersey Canal which runs 93 miles from Derby through to near Runcorn. That canal also serviced exports from the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent area) and Josiah Wedgewood (yes ‘the’ JW himself) cut the first piece of turf (in 1766) to start the construction of the canal. It also brought coal to the Lion and took salt exports away.
The big barrier to the smooth operation through to the ports on the River Mersey was the difference in height which had to be overcome at Anderton just north of Northwich itself: about 50ft (15.24m). It was solved by building a boat lift to raise and lower the narrowboats with their cargoes. It was closed for a long time because of corrosion caused by the very cargoes of salt which it was built to move. After a £7 million refurbishment it is now open and working although the salt trade has gone. It’s well worth a visit as there are only two such structures in the UK – this one and a far newer one in Scotland called The Falkirk Wheel.
Here’s a view from a boat on the River Weaver approaching the lift. Thanks to Dave & Ann-Marie of the blog Becoming Listless for the excellent action photos. Their blog, about their narrowboat travels, is definitely worth a visit: (http://becominglistless.blogspot.co.uk/).
The Lift, built in 1875, has two large tanks both of which can take two full length (72ft/22m) narrowboats (side by side) – see the space beside the one in the bottom left side of the lift in the photo. The tanks are called caissons and each weighs 252 tons when full of water.
Can you answer this question: if there were 2 boats, in one caisson, each weighing 24 tons how much would the total weight in the caisson be? Think carefully! Can only offer a (paper) gold star to the first correct reply but they’re quite rare in the Rambler’s Blogworld.
And here’s a view from the boat when it’s actually in the lift looking back the way it’s just come.
In the distance you can see the concrete buildings of an industrial site called the Winnington Works. These chemical works were built by the Brunner Mond Company in 1873 – remember the wavy lines in the Northwich Town Crest at the beginning of last week’s blog. (Interestingly, Brunner was born and raised in Everton in Liverpool.)
Also interesting is that, at these very works back in the 1930s, a substance called polyethylene (or PE) was discovered just by accident; we know it by its more common name of polythene. One of its uses is in the manufacture of – what currently seems to be public enemy no.1 – the ubiquitous plastic carrier bag. So now you know, that’s where the bag that has gone all over the world started its life.
But I digress. Back to the Lion Salt Works.
I had hoped to show you a picture showing a plan of the site but have been unable to obtain copyright permission. (There’s one in Google Images if you’re interested.
Because of all the scaffolding and areas still being made safe we were somewhat restricted in the areas we could see but we did go inside pan house 4 and the small Exhibition Centre. The rest of the talk took place outside looking across the site towards the canal at the top of the plan.
Here are a couple of views of the side of panhouse 4.
And here’s a close up of the chimney on the left of the previous pic<
Here’s a view of one end of the saltpan inside panhouse 4.
And where the furnace was fed with coal:
When the crystals were scraped out of the saltpan they were put into receptacles (salt moulds) originally cone shaped but later a tapered rectangular shape and packed down. Once set, the blocks would be tipped out and then lifted through a space in the roof to an area just above head height where they would be stored to dry out using the heat rising from below.
I had hoped to use 3 or 4 pics from a booklet produced by the Lion Salt Works Trust but unfortunately after many attempts by phone (including leaving messages) and an email using an address from the site which was returned as “unknown recipient” this has not been possible. I will have to just direct you to a YouTube vid (sound not that good, seems to be too fast but it shows the place and some old stuff). If you have a couple of minutes watch this:
Apparently elm was the wood used for the salt moulds. They had a cricket bat shaped piece of wood called a ‘mundling stick’ which was used to bash the crystals down into the moulds to make the lump as heavy as possible. Long handled perforated ladles (‘skimmers’) were used to gather the crystals and allow surplus liquid to drain off back into the pan. After tipping the blocks out of the moulds the next job would be to lift them up over head height into the drying area on the floor above.
Halfway through the tour a visitor arrived, from a nearby village, who told us (and our guide) that he had actually worked at the site in the 1960s doing various jobs including the one just mentioned lifting the blocks to the floor above. His info was great as we were literally hearing it from the horse’s mouth. He told us that working there in the heat caused a number of health issues from breathing in the fumes coming off the saltpans and burns from hot surfaces.
He also showed us his finger tips where you could see he had no fingerprints – they were burnt off he said through the work there! Yeah, I know what you’re all thinking….. because I did too. (Had he thought of a safe job…. Perhaps at my local bank?)
The Salt Union, which is still in business today, was formed in 1888 by the amalgamation of over 60 salt producers to try and address the problem of overproduction which was bringing the price down to uneconomic levels. (The influence of cheap Cheshire salt was felt across the country. The decline and closure of salt workings was reported in town histories for places as diverse as Lymington on England’s south coast and the county of Fife in Scotland!) Today technology has moved on of course and the production figures, by this conglomerate, are staggering compared with earlier times. Here are some statistics from their own publicity. Check out how far their tunnels go in the last paragraph.
It’s also worth remembering that, in our ecologically more sensitive times, some of the excesses of the salt mining companies which caused land & road subsidence at various times have got a new life. For instance Neumann’s Flashes, an area of subsidence just up the road from the Lion Salt Works, has been turned into a Community Woodland with a lake and numerous wildfowl species. (My 1908 OS Map puts the lake size at 17 acres – that’s about 10 times the size of Liverpool FC’s Football Pitch!) Keep your eyes open there and, amongst other species, you might catch a glimpse of the rare “dingy skipper butterfly”!
The Census records for 1871 tell us that Henry Neumann, who had owned the mine in that area, had retired by 1871: that means prior to his 60th birthday. It possible to gain some idea of his financial success as a salt producer from the census records for that year: at his home are four family members along with a butler, domestic servant, house maid & kitchen maid. Records for the 1881 & 1891 continue to show him with a staff of at least 4 servants. Salt was very good to Henry. Don’t know about you but I wouldn’t mind retiring with such a set up as that.
Anyway that was it. Overall I’d learned a lot about salt, how it was produced & some of the disasters over-mining caused. It was certainly a lot more interesting than I’d expected. Time to set off for home. The Lion Salt Works free tour had been an unexpected bonus on my trip and very enjoyable. Hope the guys doing the renovation work will not meet too many problems in trying to preserve the structure and build the new stuff. Roll on Spring 2014 and the new Visitor Centre.
Salt does have other more unusual uses: have a look at this clip showing a guy producing a picture using salt! It is quite good.
And finally don’t forget to have a go at the quiz question about the boat lift. If you can’t work it out try a guess. Answer will be given next week if no-one gets it by then.