Posts Tagged ‘Northwich’

The Lion Saltworks and Anderton Boat Lift

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):
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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):
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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: (

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.

Northwich Salt Museum, Part 2

Hello again. It’s Wednesday and time for my guest blogger to take over.

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Weaver Hall Museum in Northwich (Cheshire) as a follow up to the post NaCl (1.8.12). I covered the first part of it in last week’s post – “A Trip Back In Time To The Workhouse”. This one is to cover the salt side. Here’s my salt collection. (The tray map may be familiar to JumeirahJames).


Before we start, let’s just have a think on something here. You know the chemical formula for salt is NaCl: that means it’s made up from ions of sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl).

Not that interesting perhaps except if you think back to your school days. Remember those chemistry lab demonstrations that the teacher did to show you the properties of certain elements? Sodium is a metal which reacts violently with water and chlorine is a sickly smelling greenish-yellow gas and yet together they produce a substance which everyone in the world eats, in some form or other and it dissolves easily in water. Strange, hey?

Here is the coat of arms for Northwich with the Latin phrase I mentioned last time, Sal Est Vita (salt is life).


As an aside, note the symbol on the right of the three flags on the golden ship at the top. The blue & white wavy lines were from the Mond family crest and believed to be the inspiration for the current ICI logo which is so familiar to us today particularly on their tins of paint. (It has two wavy lines with the letters ICI above. ICI was formed by 4 companies in 1926 one of which was Brunner Mond.)

I mentioned the brilliant book by Mark Kurlansky (Salt – A World History) last time; as I entered the museum there on the shelf was the paperback version of the very book. Other subject related books and pamphlets were available and I ended up with 3 of the latter.

The first display boards covered salt production dating back to the Bronze Age and up to the present day. I mentioned Roman involvement and how important access to salt was for their empire building.

Rome itself was located near a source of salt and had a street named Via Salaria (salt road) which was used to transport salt to the city; it also served the salt trade, eventually stretching 150 miles (242kms) north-east to the Adriatic Sea. In Roman times a man in love was called a salax meaning ‘in a salted state’; the ablative case of the noun is salaci which is the root of our word salacious (meaning lustful, lecherous).

Remember the refs in the Bible mentioned in the previous post – here are a couple more:

1. In the book of Leviticus: “And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offering you shall offer salt” (Lev 2:13). Salt was an essential part of worship.

2. In the book of Ezra: “Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonour, therefore we send and inform the king, …..” (from ESV version of Bible, 2002) This verse was part of a letter written to King Artaxerxes (ruler of Persia (Iran) from 465BC-424BC).

The inference here is that, for the writers, eating salt (of the palace) meant they were being loyal, law-abiding subjects as opposed to those who ate salt ‘not from the king’s palace’ and therefore not paying the tax included in the price.

At various times through history, rulers around the world have made salt production and its sale a monopoly to generate tax revenue for their governments. You have only to think of the population of the world, presently around the 7 billion mark, to realise the potential in terms of revenue for private companies or governments if they’re involved in a state monopoly.

In 2011, the top four salt producing countries (in order: China, USA, Germany, India) accounted for just over 50% of the world total; UK is 13th in the list producing just 2% of the world total.

Indian salt workers are not well paid and feel trapped in their situation. Saltpan workers in the state of Gujurat which produces 70% of (4th placed) India’s total, say this: “There is a saying here that if you’re a saltpan worker, you have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis) or third blindness. In every house, people die this way.” It is not a healthy occupation! Life expectancy is only 50-60 yrs.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported in Feb 2010 that, after death, certain parts of the bodies (hands & feet) of Indian saltpan workers are difficult to burn when they are cremated because of the salt content.

A saltpan, in this case, is not a pan like the ones we use in our kitchens; it is a rectangular bed or beds grouped together containing brine which, with heat from the sun, begins to evaporate and form crystals which are then collected by the workers.

Apologies for the digression – back to the Museum and a bit of geology in order to understand why the area became such a centre for salt production.

Northwich’s salt deposits lie in two layers: one is approx 150ft (40m) below the surface, called the Top Bed, and the other 330ft (100m), called the Bottom Bed. Rainwater sinks into the ground and when it reaches the rock salt deposits begins to form brine & eventually brine streams. The deeper the water goes the more saturated (concentrated) it becomes. This water can be as much as 8 times more salty that ordinary sea water – not the sort of water swim in for sure!

Here’s an example of the different grades of salt produced and their uses.


In Victorian days salt mining, along with many other industrial processes, was very labour intensive.

Here’s a picture of a mine worker and the tub the salt was collected in which was then pushed out on rails. Note the photo in the background: the guys working on the mound are all stripped to the waist as is the man pushing the rail tub. There are three men stood by the tubs in the black & white pic who have white shirts and ties on so it must have been a posed photo with above ground workers at the mine or maybe some local bigwigs on a publicity shoot.


In the next photo you can see some of the effects of salt mining in the local area. The bottom left photo is rather extraordinary. It demonstrates that the Victorians had been mining far too much salt from the Top Bed without leaving sufficient support to prevent sinkage. Despite the angle the building is leaning at the actual brickwork didn’t give way and the whole building just tilted over. Amazing!


The next pic is proof that the ‘pun headline’ favoured by our (UK) tabloid newspapers is not a new invention.


Do you see what they did there with the brand name? Substituted Middle Witch for Middlewich (the town’s name) which is about 7 miles SE of Northwich and a big salt producing area. Remember the “-wich” ending for a place name often means it was a place where salt was produced.

I’m not quite sure how you make salt go “twice as far” other than by halving the amount you use. Maybe what they mean is that you got twice as much for the same price or am I missing something? Also, don’t forget the one penny referred to was in the days when an English pound had 240 of them (not the 100 we have today).

As I reached the end of the tour round the museum I came back to the reception area where the goodies were on display. Apart from the 3 pamphlets I couldn’t resist getting an actual piece of rock salt and here it is.


And of course I had to wet my finger and touch it and then taste – rather salty I thought. No surprise there then & probably 0/10 for originality! I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last. At the end of my visit the curator told me of a (free) guided tour at another salt related site not far from the museum. As this has rambled on longer than I expected I’ll do that one next week.

A trip back in time to the workhouse

It’s Wednesday and it’s time for Rambler5319 to take over with his guest post again. Enjoy….


Perhaps you remember the post NaCl (from 1st Aug) about salt: its early production techniques and different uses. In it I said I would try and visit the Salt Museum at Northwich in Cheshire and last Friday that’s what I did. First thing to note is that, a couple of years ago, the place changed its name from the Salt Museum to the Weaver Hall Museum & Workhouse. I had intended to write up on the whole visit but there was quite a bit of interesting stuff on the workhouse so will do that this week; next week will cover the salt bit of the Museum and another site visit.

I arrived, in boiling sunshine, an hour or so after opening time and yet was still able to choose any spec in the completely empty car park!

Here’s the front entrance

The Museum is housed in the refurbished original buildings of the old Workhouse, built as you can see in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. The irony is that an original salt museum, built in 1887 by two local businessmen involved in the salt industry, collapsed due to salt mining subsidence! A replacement was built in 1909 and eventually the collection moved to Weaver Hall in 1981.

I went in and paid my entry fee; parking was free. The curator led me through to the start point – the video room; a film show for one as I was the only visitor so far. After the brief intro film, the first displays were all workhouse related. Of course the workhouse was never meant to be an easy life; it was tough in order to deter people from taking it as an easy option. No state handouts for people to become dependent upon. All inmates had to work. Children were educated in the belief that by so doing they would improve themselves and their prospects. Here’s a quote from a 1901 Poor Law Handbook:

“The care and training of children are matters which should receive the anxious attention of Guardians. Pauperism is in the blood, and there is no more effectual means of checking its hereditary nature than by doing all in our power to bring up our pauper children in such a manner as to make them God-fearing, useful and healthy members of society.”

Interesting that they saw ‘pauperism’ as an inherited (“in the blood”) condition.
Here’s a poster, from a London workhouse in 1902, showing one kind of job people were given to do – in this case, Oakum Picking:

Note, from the write-up, the effects on people doing this work over a period of time. I’m sure they are what today we would call RSI (repetitive strain injury).
Next up was the laundry area and here are some examples of items you would expect to find there:

You can see the two signs to encourage the workers to keep going: one says, “Hard Work Is Its Own Reward” and the other hanging on the right wall, “Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness”. Do you believe it?


An interesting chart was this one below giving the daily & weekly meal allowances for each category of inmate: male, female, child, over 60s, nursing mothers & sick. Have a good look through and see what you reckon to those meals if you had to eat them.

In some areas of the country H.M. Prisons allowed each prisoner 292oz (8.27kg) food per week; workhouse rations, in the same area, were set at 137oz (3.88kg). Meals were to be conducted in silence and sometimes without cutlery! However if you look at the allowances in the Northwich Workhouse some do seem quite generous. I was curious as to what they might equate to so did a quick measure on my kitchen scales of some of the food rations there.

For example, here’s a pic of the over 60s allowances which they could have in place of the breakfast gruel.

Here’s the same sugar ration in a jam jar:

1oz of tea per week equates to the tea in approx 14 tea bags (had to add a bit as theirs would have been loose tea); that means approx 2 cups of tea/day. 5oz butter looks reasonable but it has to last a week. The sugar pile on the plate is 6ins (15cms) diameter, or roughly half a jam jar, but as they were not getting any other sweet food maybe that just had to do. Apart from sugar in tea what else would they use it for?

Bread weight works out at roughly 1 slice (modern day) = 1oz (on my bread anyway); that means men got the equivalent of 12 slices/day, (adding breakfast & supper together) which seems quite a bit more than I’d consume. Most days men got 2lbs (908g) of potatoes.

Here’s my plate with 1lb (454g) so half a day’s ration:

That’s 19 smallish potatoes so 38 for a day’s worth of 2lbs.

There were some other historical exhibits but not related to the workhouse or salt industry. Here’s one poster, advertising a concert at a local dance hall, in the early 1960s.

You could have seen the Beatles play for an entrance fee of 10/- (or 50p/80 cents). Notice you also got The Cadillacs and The Psychos on the same bill. The following week Gene Vincent was due to appear with “HMV Recording Stars” The Outlaws; tickets were only 7/6 (37.5p/60 cents) for that one. And you could dance for four hours (7.45-11.45pm) – if you had the energy. Ah, those were the days, eh?
Then I came across this one. It was quite a high toilet from the ground to seat level. I wondered why? The note on the top warned the reader not to use it in the corridor (as if anyone would in a public place!). You may be able to read that.

It also said to lift the lid to find out more info, so I did and here’s what it said inside:

Imagine that – no flush. You just leave the waste, which dropped down a long pipe, to be washed away by water from the kitchen. It didn’t say if the toilet was likely to be located upstairs or downstairs; if upstairs imagine the length of the pipe down to the ground floor where your number twos would wait for someone in the kitchen to empty the sink. Hmm…..(I understand some people pooh-poohed the idea of including this exhibit….haha.. See what I did there?)

The next exhibit was interesting because of why it was made: “the model of the canal boat Wren was presented to Rev R.V. Barker, at the end of his ministry, by the local boatmen and the address was signed by the captains of the canal boats – Wasp, Beagle, Bunbury & Wren – in recognition of his ministry to them in Nantwich in 1879.

After the museum I headed north of the town to sit by the canal and have my sandwiches.

What a lovely peaceful spot and, a few minutes later, just the chugging sound of a westbound narrow boat passing by.

Different pace of life on the canals! 4 mph speed limit though most go a bit slower to prevent damage to the banks caused by the waves the boat creates as it goes along. Soon it was home time and back to the hustle & bustle of city life. (Time also to remember that we today have much to be thankful for in state and government provision so that the poor don’t have to go to institutions like the old workhouse any more.) It had been a really interesting day out.


Ok, a quick note from me before handing over the guest blogger. Does everyone remember the post about invisible art? Well, as I wandered around London yesterday enjoying my day off, I happened upon the exhibition itself! Just so you know it really does exist. It’s at the Southbank Centre in London, should you wish to pop along!

Remember that chemistry lesson? When you were wondering what use it would ever be I think you’re about to see why you should have paid attention.
Salt has a number of uses. First off, it can preserve: Egyptians used it when mummifying bodies and many cultures use it to preserve food.
There’s a fascinating book on the subject:

You may be surprised to learn that salt also appears, a number of times, in the Bible. In the Old Testament book called Numbers (the 4th book in the index of the Bible): “It is a covenant of salt forever, before the Lord with you and your descendants with you” (Num Ch18 v19). It also appears in the Book of 2 Chronicles (the 14th book in the index of the Bible): “….the Lord God of Israel gave the dominion over Israel to David forever, to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt” (2 Chr ch13 v5). Covenants are binding agreements between two parties so salt was clearly very important in these cases. In the New Testament there are a number of refs to salt. Remember the expression that we use when we say a person is “the salt of the earth” – it’s a direct quote of Jesus’s words recorded in Matthew’s Gospel Ch5 v13.
By the start of the 7th cent AD the city of Venice was using landfill to extend the mainland out to the islands and to produce salt it had begun using a system of “ponds” or pools which had seawater in. (NaCl – that is, sodium chloride – is what gives seawater its salinity). The system works like this beginning, quite naturally, with Pond 1. As the sun evaporates the water its salinity increases. Then it is moved (or pumped) into Pond 2 where more evaporation takes place and Pond 1 is re-filled with a fresh supply of seawater to start the process off again. Once Pond 2 has increased salinity due to the evaporation by the sun acting on it then it’s moved into Pond 3. Ponds 2 and then 1 move their water up and Pond 1 is re-filled. And so the process goes on until the salt begins to solidify and drops to the bottom of the last pond where it can be scraped out. This process saved the problem of just having single ponds which you had to wait for to go through the whole evaporation cycle over and over which could take up to a year from start to finish.
Did you know that Roman soldiers were at times paid in salt? This is where we get the English expression that someone is “worth their salt”. Our word “salary” is derived from the Latin salarium (not solarium!) which, it is believed, referred to money given to soldiers to buy salt. The Romans often located their settlements in areas with easy access to salt because it could be used, as they saw it, to further the development of civilisation and, of course, primarily their empire.
World production of salt is around 300 million tons per year. My little salt cellar holds approx 50gms.

Now, go on admit it, you’re wondering – how many times could I fill my little salt cellar from the world’s production for just one year. Ok, well here goes – 1 kg would supply me with 20 refills (20 x 50g); so 1 tonne would give me 20,000 refills; 1 million tonnes would give me 20,000,000,000 (20 thousand million =20 billion as per the OED); so finally 300 million tonnes would give me 300 x 20 billion = 6,000 billion refills or 6 Trillion refills! And just one 50gm amount lasts me ages & ages. (For comparison purposes think of it this way – there are 31.6 million seconds in a year so if I consumed what would definitely be a fatal – 50 gms/sec – it would take erm…..200,000 years to use up just one year’s production!! Numbers are just too big – blowing a gasket here! Moving on……..
In the county of Cheshire in the UK there is a small town called Northwich (pop. 20,000 as of 2001). Dated pottery fragments found there suggest the town has been associated with salt since at least 600BC and it became more important, as a source of salt, during Roman times. The town’s coat of arms has the Latin motto Sal Est Vita which means salt is life.
There is also an association with salt found in the etymology of the town’s name Northwich. The “-wich” part of the town name itself is believed to derive from the Norse “wic” (or wych) meaning bay and is associated with the traditional way of obtaining salt by evaporating sea water (Wikipedia). The “wich” (or wych) suffix occurs in other towns in the county – Middlewich, Nantwich and Leftwich. In fact anywhere in the UK with a “-wich” ending in its name means that usually there will have been a connection to salt at some point in its history. Therefore a place for making salt became a wych-house; and Northwich was so named because, you’ve guessed it, it’s the most northerly of the “-wich” towns in Cheshire.
To get salt out of the ground it has to be mined. Once the traditional (c.16th cent) method of sending men into a hole in the ground, to manually dig it out became unviable in terms of cost, producers moved to what is called “solution mining” (c.17th cent) where fresh water is pumped down a well to dissolve the salt. The salted water (brine) is then pumped back to the surface where the salt can then be extracted. The difficulty with this method is that as more salt is dissolved & drawn out, it leaves holes underground where the solid salt used to be; then land above can easily subside and this is what happened in the Cheshire area. The ignorance or deliberate avoidance of the consequences of their actions back in the 19th cent led to the salt extractors causing many areas to subside and holes to form at ground level. These holes then would fill with rain water adding to the whole problem. Indeed, in Northwich itself, there are horrendous examples of buildings leaning and damage to shops, private houses etc.
The social and practical impact of salt extraction in this area is highlighted by displays & storyboards in the SALT Museum located in the refurbished workhouse (built c.1838) in Northwich. I hope to visit it some time before the autumn and will report back.
In more modern times (1972) the group Steeleye Span released an album called Below The Salt. You, like me, may have wondered where they got the title from. In the Middle Ages, when families & their servants ate together, the salt would be placed in the middle of the table separating the two. The servants were then referred to as sitting “below the salt”. Incidentally the album contains an acapella track sung entirely in Latin which got to No.14 in the UK charts – Gaudete. I’m sure you remember that famous opening chorus: “Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est natus ex Maria virgine, Gaudete” (Translation: Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, Rejoice).
You must have heard people talk of someone “rubbing salt into the wound” as a way of saying a bad situation has been made worse by whatever that person did. However did you know that the origin of it goes back to days of sail and punishment by flogging on board ship. Once the skin was broken and bleeding, salt was rubbed in to prevent infection (and therefore ultimately the loss of a crewman) but it was a very painful experience for the person concerned.
There are a number of “sal” expressions and derivations in the English language. Let’s look at a few:
1. You’ve probably heard of the compound sal volatile (pronounced sal volatilly) which is the Latin name for what we refer to as smelling salts. You know the scene in a play or film when someone faints and the salts are used to “bring them round”. Workplaces used to have some in their first aid boxes for emergencies and I’ve seen them used a couple of times. They act by releasing a small amount of ammonia gas which produces a reflex in the nose causes the person to inhale.
2. Do you know the expression people use when they don’t believe something is true – they say you have to take what another person says with a “pinch” or “grain” of salt. (The latin is cum grano salis.) The expression dates back to Roman times (with Pliny the Elder) and refers to one of the ingredients of an “antidote to poison”. Threats of poison in food were therefore said to be taken “with a grain of salt”: the inference being that the effects would be less serious if the salt was taken. The lessening effect, in modern times, has been transferred but inverted to mean a lessening of the truthfulness of a particular statement.
3. The word “salad” means salted dish and “salami” is a sausage which contains a lot of salt.
4. Remember those films again with safecrackers blowing up the safe to get the money. They were called Petremen (pronounced Peter-men) referring to the substance they used which was actually called “saltpetre” or potassium nitrate – a component of gunpowder. Originally saltpetre meant salt of rock – the “petre” bit coming from one of the Latin cases of petra meaning rock. However did you know that it can also be used as a preservative. I’m not joking, if you check Amazon you will find it on sale (4oz for £2.25 from one supplier) for curing beef.
5. A sailor can be referred to as an “old salt” – the reason coming from the preservative qualities of salt for their meat & fish which were soaked in brine.
If you get a chance have a read of Mark Kurlansky’s book (in the pic at the beginning). I really enjoyed it and it’s got to be THE authority on the subject and kept me interested from start to finish. (It’s 452 pages with a 12 page Bibliography!). Thanks to him for some of the historical stuff used in this article.
So you see salt can be a very interesting substance and far more important than you thought. Hope this has not been too much of an assault on your brain and senses (haha).