This little heritage museum on the banks of the Trent and Mersey Canal is well worth an hour or two, the £6 entrance fee and a 40 minute walk up from our Northwich Quay Marina mooring. Usually there are guided tours with knowledgeable local people who really know their stuff but alas we just had to follow the arrows.
Although it is no longer producing salt, the buildings and much of the machinery are still in place and you really get a feel for the sweat and toil that went into making something we all take for granted. It might be a natural product, but it doesn’t grow on trees. I could impress you all with my scientific knowledge, but the museum posters sums it up so well.
Cheshire Salt production began as soon as early man realised that the briney water in some of the ponds could preserve food. But through the centuries the surface ponds have gone, used up, evaporated,or drained away. In the 18th century rock salt was discovered underground, and this became a profitable mining industry. But that became uneconomic and in the late 19th century, commercial salt production returned to what had been the old cottage industry method but on a grand scale. And this story is told at the Lion Salt works.
Shafts were sunk to the underground salt layer. Water was pumped in to create a stream which dissolved the rock salt to make brine.
This was then pumped back into holding tanks and then into sheds with boiling pans the size of a tennis court.
Coal fired furnaces on the ground floor underneath the pans, were stoked to a specific temperature, not only for the water to evaporate off, but, and this is the clever bit, by varying the temperature and the length of time the evaporation takes, the shape and size of the salt crystal is controlled, thus creating different qualities of salt that could be used for differing tasks.
At 38°C fishery salt is a very course, hard to dissolve crystal, used for preserving fish. This salt is taken straight to the warehouses to dry out.
93°C produces a course large grained common salt used in the chemical, manufacturing and pottery industry. It took up to a fortnight for the evaporation to be complete.
110°C produces the fine salt where the pan was ‘doped’ to aid the quick formation of fine crystals used in home cooking, in mediaeval times the doping ingredient was a preciously guarded secret for each salt producer, it could be anything from ox blood or pigs urine, but the Lion Works used egg whites, animal jelly or soap powder, though I’m still not sure I really want to know.
The men that looked after the pans were skilled at their trade, known as lump men. But it was a dangerous tiring job. It was like working in a sauna, except that the salt would chaff their skin. They risked their lives raking the salt across the boiling water, cause they wouldn’t survive falling in.
Once the desired crystal size had been obtained the salt was raked to the edge, scooped out and packed into block shaped moulds.
The blocks of packed salt were taken to the drying room for several weeks.
And then taken by conveyor belt into a milling machine to be ground back into usable crystals.
You can see how the wood has been corroded by the salt.
At the end of a gruelling shift the men and women would nip across the road to the pub to rehydrate themselves and they would also add salt to their beer to compensate for what they’d lost through sweat.
The finished salt was then bagged and taken by barge to the Mersey ports to be shipped all around the world. Nigeria was one of the largest importers of lion salt, but when the country fell into civil war in the early 70s business dried up. The Lion Salt works closed It’s doors in 1986.
The rock salt used for gritting roads is still mined at Winsford about 5 miles downstream. But as we all know too much salt is bad for us, so as Firecrest’s repairs have now been completed, and with some covid lock restrictions still being in place, we have decided to cut our losses and abandon our plans to explore the River Weaver and Winsford.
Hopefully there won’t be any more subsidence causing canal breaches like this one outside the lion salt works in 1907, cause once we get cruising we don’t want any more stoppages.
But Weaver, we’ll be back…