The Black Death
1348 brought the Black Death and this together with the other plagues of the mid 14th century almost halved the population, halving the domestic salt demand.
Together with rising sea level, this was to lead to a decline of the salt export trade of the Fenland ports. Coastal saltmakers near the main ports were to become importers and merchants of Bay Salt. In London the Salter’s Company dealt primarily in imported salt. Some coastal salt works eventually adopted the Dutch “salt on salt” process by which imported grey Bay Salt was re-crystallised from seawater to give a more acceptable white salt suitable for home sale or re-export at a higher price.
The Impact on Cheshire Salt Making
In Cheshire, the Black Death led to a reduction of salt demand which will have resulted in excess salt making capacity. Middlewich and Northwich were now Crown holdings. In 1349-50 the Bailiffs at the two towns collected customs monies called “Ernesselver”, “Herdelsalt” and “Struth” which related to the making of salt, its sale to merchants and the purchase of wood fuel for the pans.
In Nantwich, the division of the Malbank inheritance had resulted in a diverse ownership of the many salthouses – all competing in a limited market. While Middlewich and Northwich were small towns and very dependent on salt, Nantwich was the second largest town after Chester, with a diverse economy and thriving market. The town had furthermore benefited from the accrued imported wealth of local gentry who had been the Black Prince’s “men” in Gascony. Salt thus played a less critical role in the Nantwich economy but there could have already been too many salt houses for the available brine from the Town Pit. A system of rationing could already have been in existence.
Many of the Nantwich ‘wich’ houses were owned by the local gentry, others were in monastic holding. The surplus salt making capacity and depopulation of the manors conceivably brought about changes in the pattern of agriculture with strip arable land put down to permanent pasture and the production of meat, butter and cheese. Later town records show that women were employed by the Occupiers to work the salt pans as “wallers” while their husbands presumably worked in agriculture or had craft skills. This practice may have originated in the late 14th century.
According to Domesday, the salt houses of Nantwich were all within an area enclosed by the river and a ditch. By the mid 14th century this area had grown and there were now areas designated to be “Walling Land” on both sides of the river. No salthouses were allowed to be established elsewhere in the town. Mid 16th century documents and in particular a detailed survey of the town’s walling lands, made in 1624 show that there were 216 walling lands “of ancient inheritance”, each with six lead pans. The owner of a walling land was entitled to a share of brine from the Brine Pit and the Rules of Walling laid down the days and times when brine was to be taken and made into salt. This was done, according to a rota known as “walling in kale”. When all 216 shares had been obtained there was a meeting at which new Rulers of Walling were elected and the procedure would start again.
It is apparent that a proportion of the pans at any time would be idle and by the 16th century it is not clear whether the owner or occupier of a walling land still owned operational salt pans or whether the land and buildings had been put to another use. The share of brine could then be made into salt in a borrowed salt house or if the owner held more than one salt house. One or more of these could be put to other use and the total share of brine made into salt in one salthouse.