[Help] [Aide] [Up]

Science Tribune - Article - October 1996


The Lion Salt Works, Northwich, Cheshire, England

Andrew P Fielding

Project Director
The Lion Salt Works Trust, Ollershaw lane, Marston, Northwich, Cheshire, CW9 6ES. UK.
Tel / Fax + 1606 - 41823.
E-mail : afielding@lionsalt.demon.co.uk
Website : http://www.lionsaltworkstrust.co.uk


The Lion Salt Works was the last surviving UK salt works to produce white salt by evaporating "wild" (natural, unrefined) brine in a large open pan. It had been built and operated by the same family (trading as Ingram Thompson and Sons) from 1899 until it closed in 1986. In 1986, the site was purchased by the local authority, Vale Royal Borough Council, to prevent it from demolition. In March 1993, a charitable trust - The Lion Salt Works Trust (a) - was established to help raise funds to restore the site and manage it as a working industrial museum.

The Lion Salt Works is the most complete industrial monument of the salt industry in the UK. It is protected as a Grade II listed building and is situated within a Conservation Area. It is most extraordinary that this site survives at all because of the extreme subsidences around Northwich caused by salt mining and brine pumping. The future of the site is still in limbo because of uncertainty over the present ground stability. Ground investigations are being lead by the local authorities and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) to determine the extent of the instability. Up to 2.5 million may be required to complete the restoration of the Lion Salt Works

Salt making at the Lion Salt Works

Salt has been made in Cheshire since before the Roman conquest. Early exploitation concentrated where natural brine emerged as brine springs along the river valleys. During the medieval period, brine pits were generally shallow and produced cloudy and muddy brine. Rock salt was first found on the Marbury Estate - only two miles away from the present Lion Salt Works - in 1670 whilst digging for coal.

The Lion Works, named after the adjacent Red Lion Inn, is a small family works comprising five pan houses, each completed by a different generation of the Thompson family, who also owned other brine pumping salt works and mined rock salt. It is typical of a Victorian works but generally smaller than the industrial works constructed by the larger companies such as the Salt Union.

The first Brine Shaft at the Lion Works was dug by hand in 1899. It is eight feet square "timber lined and well puddled". Explosives where used to cut through the "flagstone" hard rock just above the rock salt. Two Pump Trees were set up between headstocks or gallows to lift the brine by steam engine. Brine was raised and stored in the brine cisterns or brine tanks where any solid material was allowed to settle before the brine was allowed to flow through brine pipes by gravity into the evaporating pans. In 1937 a new brine pipe was inserted by drilling a bore-hole.

Different types of salt were made by varying the temperature at which the brine was heated. The fine pans were shorter than common pans and constructed in covered pan houses with attached stove houses or hot houses. The common pans were constructed outdoors.

Common salt or fishery salt comprised large crystals replicating the Bay Salt considered the best form of solar evaporated sea salt imported from the continent. As with Fine Pans they consist of a brick furnace upon which the pan rested, flues carried heat below the pan to a chimney A hurdle walk-way surrounded the pan from which the waller skimmed the salt crystals from the pan. Below the hurdle a drain carried away the brine which dripped from the salt. Common salt was often shipped in a wet or un-stoved (dried) condition.

Fine pans or lump pans heated brine to a higher temperature than was required for common salt. Pan houses enclosed the pan. The walls of the pan houses comprise a dwarf brick wall supporting a timber wallplate with vertical frames morticed into it. Horizontal boards are nailed to the uprights to enable heat to escape. The roofs are constructed with central vents to allow steam to escape. Hurdles and drains are similar to the common pans.

The Stove Houses attached to the Pan houses are brick built to retain heat. Hot gases from the furnace were directed below the stove house through flues to a chimney. The brick core of the stove house retained heat even when the fires were extinguished.

Lump salt would be lofted to a lump room above the stove for storage as lump salt or for grinding as factory f'illed salt / Lagos salt. The lump room contains the crushing mill. Crushed salt was fed by chute into bags before being stitched and sealed. Varieties of bags were stored by the thousand in the bag store, formerly the Lion Inn, now used as the museum exhibition centre. White twill, cotton double wefted, hessian etc... were required for different salts or different countries and were all of different sizes. Bagged salt with stencilled labels would be stacked in the warehouses for shipment.

The salt works buildings and warehouse are constructed in timber with close vertical framing and internal horizontal boarding. The roofs are timber boarded and covered with tarred felt. Later work used asbestos or corrugated iron sheeting The floor of the warehouse is of timber boards laid on fine cinders .

The manager's office and smithy are timber framed. Framed buildings became commonplace from 1860 when salt extraction caused massive subsidences because they could be jacked or raised as the ground moved. The result is a town which has a unique appearance which is only now becoming appreciated as an important technical achievement.

Demonstrating salt making

The Lion Salt Works Trust is beginning research into salt making which will be the key area of its operation as a working museum. Alongside the practical demonstrations, the social conditions and background to the site are being researched. The Trust is seeking information concerning the Thompson family tree, its business and trade locally and worldwide. The Thompson family have been involved in salt making from the 18th C but had other interests in architecture, brickmaking, shipbuilding and timber.

The Trust has constructed two model salt pans with the help of support from local companies. The first is based on the descriptions published in De Re Metallica (1556) by Georgius Agricola (1), the second uses solar energy panels to evaporate brine.

Model of a salt pan described by Agricola, 1556 : The original Latin text of De Re Metallica was translated into English by HC & LH Hoover in 1912. Extracts were included in the major work on the Cheshire salt industry compiled by Calvert titled 'Salt in Cheshire' and published in 1915 (2). Copies of De Re Metallica, including illustrations and a written description, were given to apprentices at Brunner-Mond and Co Ltd, Northwich. They were asked to produce, under the supervision of Bill Shaw at North Trafford College, Manchester, a working version which could be self supporting, transportable and could be heated using propane gas (Shellgas). The completed pan is almost half size being 1 m by 0.75 m. Brine has been provided by British Salt.

The model provides a demonstration to students and visitors to the site of the volumes of salt produced by open pan evaporation which is not possible in laboratory test tubes. It is also possible to demonstrate the manufacture of different grades of salt by changing the heat input. As the pan is made from steel plate, the effects of salt corrosion and iron staining is also an integral part of the demonstration process. Future tests and demonstrations will include experiments with brine clarification recipes, some of them dating from the sixteenth century which utilise egg white and ox blood amongst other things.

Construction of a Solar Energy Salt Pan : One of the contributory causes for the decline in open pan salt production was the inefficiency of heating the open pans using simple coal fires. The multiple effect vacuum chambers are much more efficient on fuel and labour. In the spirit of preserving the art of open pan evaporation, the Trust has created a pan which uses the sun's energy by transferring heat collected in three 1 m sq. solar panels (donated by Sundwell Ltd, Washington, Tyne and Wear) through a hot water bath made of titanium (donated by Timet UK, Birmingham), thereby heating the brine.

The project provides us with a link to describe the differences between coal-fired open pans and traditional solar evaporation used in the manufacture of sea-salt. It also brings up to date an ancient process and promotes the discussion ofaltemative energy sources.

Business and trade connections

Information is being collected into the Thompson family business and the connections Northwich salt businesses had with overseas trade particularly during the C 19th.

Thompson Overseas Business Connections : Orders were sent from Northwich by narrow-boat and barge to docks at Manchester, Liverpool, Weston Point, Birkenhead and Bromborough for trans-shipment to overseas markets. Accounts studied for the period 1914- 1918 show salt from the Lion Salt Works was dispatched to New York, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, French Equatorial Africa, Congo, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, French Caledonia and Vladivostok ! Three shipping agents known from this period are PZ (Paterson Zachonis); BK & Co (Baumuller Klombie and Co) and G & A ( ? ). Trade is also known to have occurred with Belgium, Holland and Germany. Most of the Thompson's salt would been part of a larger consignment comprising many manufactuers and would not necessarily have been identified as Thompson's Salt.

Thomas Ward, a member of the Thompson family by marriage, learnt the salt trade under John Thompson. Later, he became manager of Ashton's Salt Works and, after 1888, was General Manager of the Salt Union. He collected salt samples (from the USA and India), developed markets for Cheshire salt and, in 1889, inaugurated the first salt museum in Northwich with the patronage of Sir John Brunner.

The Overseas Salt Trade Reported in a Northwich Newspaper : Local Northwich newspapers (b) have much information about salt and its effects on the town with regard to trade as well as the physical effects caused by subsidence. There are a number of references to the development of trade with foreign countries. These reports provide a social background to the technological side of salt production.. A selection of news items are listed below:-

Nortbwich Salt Cbamber of Commerce viz Foreign Markets. (Northwich Guardian, 18th Feb, 1863) :
"A committee consisting of the chairman Mr Blackwell, Mr Thompson & Mr Cross should take steps to preserve unsatisfactory salt works and adapt such establishments to salt export in the yet undeveloped but huge markets of the French and Chinese markets. ........ The Chinese War was renewed and to our relief a new treaty concluded, but with a clause making the admission of salt in this huge Asian market prohibitory ! Nothing has been done to recreate the Chinese salt trade under the contemporary Indian model .... 1. The destruction of the native salt monopoly. 2. Contracts with the ship owners for the carriage of salt in and goods out. In conclusion, the committee drew attention to the condition of the new Southern Confederate States of America; before the war this area had taken a full one fourth of our salt exports; now with blockade and war, this market is depressed and has resulted in a total failure of this source."

Salt Making in Africa, a Northwich First (Northwich Guardian, 9th April, 1864)
"Mr Joseph Gill of Northwich, an officer of HMS Hardy has begun making salt after a Cheshire process at Lagos. ..... The salt works consisting of a pan 20 ft long (of prefabricated English manufacture), 4 tons in weight and supplied by two furnaces is situated on a spit of land between sea and lagoon at Glologune."

Northwich Salt Chamber of Commerce (Northwich Guardian : 14th Jan, 1865)
".... It is a feeling of pride among us that the name of Northwich is a power felt in the council chambers of the Indian Government-General. It is hoped following early sceptical responses that our export salt will overtake the native monopoly and establish a trade beneficial to all. Chairman pro tem. John Thompson."

A Paris Silver Medal, but no trade with France (Northwich Guardian, 13th July, 1867)
"The Salt Chamber of Commerce reports the award of a Silver Medal for its salt at the Paris International Exhibition, a worthy award but it does little to aid our salt exports to the French Empire (69 tons). The French obtain their salt from the now declining salt marshes of their four great rivers.
Total British salt exports from Liverpool were 334,586 tons; 6,890 tons of which is supplied yearly to the post-bellum United States of America. Trade is now progressing in previously closed areas, the southern USA, India, East Indies but the French ignore us."

Northwich Salt Chamber of Commerce viz. Chinese Empire (Northwich Guardian, 20th Feb, 1869)
"The Chinese foreign office states that imports of Cheshire Salt will mean millions of peasants will be thrown out of work. The salt chamber of commerce disagrees with this. Salt will be of benefit to China. A salt trade ship can bring back Chinese goods such as grass. The Chinese have vast resources for which there is a great demand in our spinning industry & paper manufacture (Chinese grass) but little transport. Our salt can be shipped at £3 per ton, grass at present is £30 a ton. Salt is shipped from Liverpool from which returning oil seed and grass can be trans-shipped.... A salt ship is a prime example of an ingoing trade developing an outgoing native trade. Salt for example has developed the palm oil trade in Africa and the jute trade in India. A free trade results in a growth of native trade in European markets".


(a). The objectives of the Lion Salt Works Trust are to advance the education of the public by:
- The preservation of features and objects of historical and industrial interest which relate to the traditional practices of open pan salt production.
- The re-establishment of the said practices for presentation to the public by the provision of a working museum at the restored Lion Salt Works, Marston, Cheshire together with a reception centre to display related and associated material.
- The re-development, in association with other parties, of the derelict land surrounding the Museum for purposes appropriate to the objectives of the Trust.
- The organisation of meetings, exhibitions, displays, lectures, publications and other forms of instruction for promoting and developing the public knowledge of and interest in the practice of open pan salt production at the Lion Salt Works and its industrial and social heritage.

If you would like further information about the Lion Salt Works project, a leaflet and quarterly newsletter are available by post from the Project Director, Andrew P Fielding, at the above address (The Trust does not have an e-mail address at present).

(b). The Trust would welcome contact with individuals who have information from their own local newspapers which give the other side to these comments.


1. . Agricola : De Re Metallica, 1556 - translated into English by HC & LH Hoover in 1912 (reprinted 1950, Dover Publications. New York)

2. . Calvert : Salt in Cheshire, 1915.

To find out more about salt in the UK, why not order the video tape


which traces the salt-making industry in Stafford from its beginnings in the 17th Century to its end in 1970.

Produced by : P. Kay, Staffordshire Film Archive, University of Stafford.
Running time : 50 mins approx.
Price : 13.00 (including postage and package) for a VHS tape to the PAL recording standard. (Ask for a quotation for tapes to other international playing standards.)
Available from : Robert Cartwright Productions
12 Dearnsdale Close, Tillington, Stafford ST16 1SD, UK.
Tel. (44) (01785) 254283