Eighteenth Century Salt Making – Inland White Salt

Inland white salt making in the 18th century grew with rising home demand and the expanding export market stimulated by Bristol’s and Liverpool’s involvement with the slave trade.

A major event of the century, supported by the Liverpool merchants, was the passing of the Weaver Navigation Act of 1721 and the subsequent opening of the navigation to traffic between Frodsham and Winsford on 1st January 1732. The tonnages of rock and white salt shipped down the Weaver, and their toll revenues are recorded in the Weaver Account Books now at the Cheshire Record Office.

The Salt Office Commissioner’s 1733 Report records that the white salt trade of the Middlewich collection (ie Middlewich plus Winsford) with 26 pans had already overtaken Northwich with 17 pans. Winsford was already a significant part of Middlewich collection but with the opening of the Navigation this contribution was to rapidly increase. Supplements to the 1721 Weaver Navigation Act provided for an extension of the Navigation upstream of Winsford as far as Nantwich and for making the River Dane navigable between Northwich and Middlewich. These schemes never materialised.

While the Weaver Navigation brought most benefit to the salt works at Northwich and Winsford, the opening of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1777 brought water transport literally to the doorsteps of existing salt works in Middlewich and along the Wheelock Valley at Lawton, Roughwood and Wheelock. Below Middlewich, Brindley’s canal followed the contours and was without a lock for the last twenty miles between Middlewich and Preston Brook. The route took the canal around the north of Northwich and brought waterborne access to the rock pits and salt works of Wincham, Marston and Marbury before passing, at a high level, close to the Weaver Navigation at Anderton. This became a convenient point for transhipment down into the Weaver boats.

Salt pan size increased throughout the 18th century [see 1.2] while improved pumping technology permitted the digging of deeper brine shafts to yield a clear, strong brine. Although the Newcomen steam engine had been conceived in 1712 there is no evidence that it was ever used to pump Cheshire brine. The horse gin or water wheel was presumably adequate for the volume of brine needing to be raised. The first steam engine (fire engine) to drive a brine pump and in fact Boulton and Watt’s first Cheshire contract, was supplied in 1777 to Edward Salmon’s new salt works alongside the Trent and Mersey Canal at Thurlwood. This was a reciprocating beam engine based on Watt’s 1775 Patent. Edward Salmon’s new works was built as an extension to the existing 17th century Lawton Saltworks on the Lawton side of the river, in the valley below.

Much of the output of this new works was shipped along the canal to Anderton for transhipment to the Weaver and on to Liverpool, but there was also considerable trade eastwards to the Potteries and beyond. By the 1790’s, Lawton saltworks was shipping salt along the national canal system to warehouses at Paddington Basin and at Shardlow at the Trent end of the canal. From here it could be shipped onwards as far as Hull.

Still in the Nantwich Collection, the new Lawton Saltworks, together with a new canal-side works at Roughwood, completely eclipsed the salt production at Nantwich itself, where there were only two small works. Lawton Saltworks is credited with the introduction of hessian bags for shipping salt in place of the old wicker baskets then still in use at Middlewich. Edward Salmon became proprietor of the saltworks through his wife, the last member of the Lowndes family who had made salt there since the 17th century.

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