What a back-breaking job! Standing bent over a huge steaming saltpan the whole day, regulating the flow of brine and the temperature of the furnaces, raking the salt, filling the tubs and baking it dry. Working in a traditional salt-works was anything but a push-over! Salt-making was not only damaging to the works it also had a corrosive effect on the buildings as can be seen at the Lion Salt Works in Marston near Northwich, the last of its kind in the county of Cheshire. Cheshire is justifiably proud of its thousand year old history of salt making. The last traces of this tradition are all the more precious in Marston. An exhibition in the former works office provides visitors with a brief survey of the history and workings of the plant which was closed down in 1986. The pump which drew the salty water from the earth has been saved along with the steam engine which drove it. But the five pan houses have been heavily damaged by the salty steam. This is why practical demonstrations of salt making in small salt pans are only available at certain times. Now at the latest you realise that a visit to the Lion Salt Works is the quintessence of industrial archaeology.
Salt making in Cheshire can be traced back to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. “Salarium” or salt was the currency with which they paid their workers. Hence the word salary. Salt was always a natural resource in Cheshire. The reason for this was the huge strata of rock salt lying beneath the surface. When it dissolves with the ground water it turns into brine, a substance which is eight times as salty as sea water. In the late 19th century salt from Cheshire provided 86% of the nation’s salt. At the time there were 250 or more salt works in the county hard at work reducing the brine to salt by boiling it in large heated salt pans. Everyone profited from the improved canal and rail communications. This explains why the Lion Salt Works were situated directly next to the River Trent and the Mersey Canal.
The family works were set up in 1894. The most important section was the pump house with its so-called nodding donkey, a bell-crank pump shaped like a horse’s head which was driven by a steam-engine and drew up the brine. It was only replaced by an electric pump in 1960. About the same time a mechanical rake was installed in one of the five pan houses to lighten the work at the salt pan. In almost 100 years this was the sole technical innovation in the works apart from the later change from coal to oil firing. The only other improvements were the nine new pan houses which were successively added to the works, stainless steel tools and glass fibre moulds. The production process itself, which basically dates back to ancient times, never changed. The art of salt-making consists of keeping the temperature of the salt pans and the amount of brine at optimal levels to keep pace with the process of evaporation. For there are many different sorts of salt and different customers demand different qualities. In 1986 the works were closed down. Now the Lion Salt Works Museum is under construction. Future plans foresee a partial revival of salt-making in the form of practical demonstrations.