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Reflections: a salty New Forest tale of a vital industry



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EVERYONE who bathes from our local beaches is well aware of the saltiness of the sea water and the Bible tells of the extreme saltiness of the “Sea of Arabah” (Deuteronomy 3:17) – known to all as the Dead Sea.

Salt is known to us as a condiment which historically served many purposes and was a valuable economic resource.

There is some rather tentative evidence of salt making in Iron Age times at Hengistbury Head but for firm documentary evidence we have to wait until the time of Domesday Book (1087). Therein is recorded the fact that Hordle possessed six salt pans which were sited on the marshes sheltered by the western end of Hurst spit.

There were also at that time salt pans at Dibden, Eling and Totton, the latter belonging to Romsey Abbey (Totton is in Eling parish but is recorded separately because of its ownership by the abbey). There were also a number to our east on the marshes around Portsmouth Harbour.

What is perhaps odd is that no mention is made of either Lymington (Lentune) or Milford (Melleford) having any. Domesday is a unique and extraordinarily valuable record but it is imperfect and a few things got missed.

The only surviving salt boiling house near Lymington
The only surviving salt boiling house near Lymington

When we advance into the early Middle Ages the records of the existence of salt pans increase greatly. By the late 13th century we learn of customs being taken from salt works in the “hamlet of Lymington”, Pennington, Battramsley and Milford, indicating a scattered but extensive industry. This proves that the establishment of salt pans on marshes was active; the point being that it was relatively easy to collect sea water into man-made shallow ponds as the tide rose and trap it there by means of small sluice gates.

By the 1190s the Priory of St Peter’s in Bath was collecting income from its properties in Keyhaven through a man named Nigel de Kiehavene who rented properties in the hamlet for “ten horse-loads of salt, three shillings and a pound of cumin”. A few years later the salt requirement had increased to “62 horse-loads of salt.” This proves the existence of a thriving salt industry before the 13th century.

The only surviving account book for the Cistercian Abbey at Beaulieu, for the year 1269-70, records the account of “the Keeper of Salt” and we know from the abbey’s cartulary that salt pans were held by its tenants on the marshes of Pennington. The abbey also had a salt store house, recorded as a garnarium, near the quay in Lymington. As one trawls through the documents it becomes very obvious that the production of salt was not only important but a major economic activity for all the coastal communities.

What is salt and why is it valuable?

Until relatively recent times nearly all salt was obtained from sea water. About 3.5% of sea water is comprised of dissolved salt, and salt itself is composed of sodium chloride (two poisonous elements by themselves but made edible when in molecular combination). It forms naturally in rocks on land and is then eroded from these by precipitation which runs into streams and rivers and thus flows into the sea. This has been happening for a very long time.

Virtually all the oceans and seas contain the same proportion; the Red Sea and the Gulf waters very slightly more. All the Mediterranean countries have sufficiently warm sunshine to enable salt to be gathered in salt pans by solar evaporation but northern Europe, including the British Isles, is obliged to use artificial heat to finally evaporate the sea water and leave the deposit of salt. This is the activity pursued in our salterns.

Thomas Colborne’s pencil sketch of salterns with named proprietors c.1840
Thomas Colborne’s pencil sketch of salterns with named proprietors c.1840

The sea water is collected in shallow pans lined with clay and exposed to sun and wind to effect a degree of evaporation which leaves a much saltier brine. This brine is then pumped into cisterns which have a pipe leading to boiling pans. The flow is regulated by means of taps which ensures appropriate quantities of brine to be poured in where it is subjected to sustained fierce heat until all the remaining water is evaporated leaving a coating of encrusted salt to be scraped off, packed and distributed.

When Celia Fiennes visited Lymington in 1698 she closely examined the salt works and spoke with the individuals operating them. Her account is very accurate and is the earliest detailed description we have: she noted that Lymington was a seaport town having a few small ships belonging to it but “the greatest trade is by their Salterns”.

She went on to describe how the sea water was drawn into ponds, which were always kept in good repair, and there allowed to partially evaporate until a briny liquor remained. This, in turn, was pumped into iron or copper pans situated in buildings were it was boiled dry. Five of the wind-driven pumps which carried the brine from the ponds into the boiling houses are clearly depicted on a map of 1698.

She described the metal pans as being shallow but measuring “a yard or two if not more square” fixed in rows with a fierce furnace blazing beneath to keep them rapidly boiling. As the liquor boiled away so a deposit of salt was left on the sides and base of the pans. This was collected in great baskets and was described as “very good Salt”. As soon as the salt was scraped from the pans they were refilled with the brine liquor and the operation repeated.

She said: “They told me when the season was drye and so the Salt water in its prime they could make 60 quarters of Salt in one of those panns which they constantly attend night and day all the while the fire is in furnace... their season for makeing Salt is not above 4 or 5 months in the year and that only in a dry Summer.” (A quarter of salt weighed about 4cwt.)

Salt has been a highly regarded condiment since earliest times but it had many other purposes such as the preservation of meat, fish and other foodstuffs. It thus fulfilled a vital purpose before the invention of refrigeration (late 18th century) and its domestic application (late 19th and early 20th centuries). According to the records of the Cistercian monks at Beaulieu Abbey, it was used also for processing leather and cleansing in addition to its importance as a food preservative.

The application of salt for so many purposes led to huge commercial demands and from about the middle of the 17th century through to the mid-19th the salt works along the Solent coast, centred on Lymington, grew in importance. In 1645 there is a record of 39 salterns owned by prominent Lymington men, many of whom were burgesses.

The heyday of Solent salt manufacture

The government was to capitalise on this expanding trade by imposing in 1694 a tax on all English-produced salt. Initially this was levied at the rate of 1s 8d a bushel (a bushel of salt weighed about 56lbs). Salt for fisheries was exempt from this imposition but only three years after its introduction the tax was raised to 3s 4d a bushel. Necessarily tax collectors were appointed to manage the taxation and issue dockets so that salt owners could prove that the imposition had been paid.

The Dummer & Willshaw map of Lymington salterns 1698
The Dummer & Willshaw map of Lymington salterns 1698

Entries in the parish registers supply some information Just a few entries will indicate the value of this evidence: a Mr Kent, “the Collector of Duty on Salt”, had a daughter Mary baptised on 6th May 1697; on 18th October 1768 Joseph Shepherd, “Supervisor of Salt Duties”, had his wife Jane buried; on 5th August 1777, George Burrard, “Collector of Salt Duties” was buried; and seven years later Edward Goodeve, described as a “large proprietor of the salt works” was buried on 19th September 1784.

There are a great many more similar entries ranging well over a century that provide all kinds of snippets that help build a picture of the social life as well as the employment of those involved in the salt industry.

The many surviving property deeds (now found in the Hants Record Office) provide quite a dynamic picture of the sale and purchase of salt works, usually giving the name and location of particular salterns as well as the owners. They would be tedious to list here but selected examples will provide perhaps a surprising picture.

For example, the Lisle family of Moyles Court were saltern owners mainly in Keyhaven, on quite a scale in the early and mid-18th century. I found an assignment, dated 22nd December 1836, of “Great House Saltern consisting of West Saltern and Cole’s Saltern in Pennington by Mrs Elizabeth Compton of Enfield, Middlesex, to Ralph Allen Daniel of Lymington” and then to John Pulteney of Northerwood, Lyndhurst on 29th November 1837.

Quite frequently we find that the sale of salterns comes with agricultural land which presumably abutted the site of the salt works. It should be noted that the saltworks were closed through all the winter months but of course still required maintenance until restarted in late April or May. Evidence for this winter maintenance is difficult to locate as financial records, apart from wages, did not need to be kept.

The duty or tax collected on salt is recorded in the government Treasury Books giving a clear indication of the growing importance of Solent salt production. For example, in 1715 Joseph Slater collected £25,100 from Lymington saltern owners and 30 years later, in 1745, John How took close on £49,000.

Such independent figures clearly reveal the great expansion of the industry in the 18th century. By 1755 the taxable yield had increased to close on £58,000 but from then onwards the local industry began a slow decline leading to extinction a century later. The tax was repealed in 1825 when due to the competition from mined Cheshire rock salt which was not only much cheaper but also continuous throughout the year.

Charles St Barbe, the Lymington banker, became a significant owner of saltworks and he provided a specimen account of the costs and profits of his salt pans for the year 1805. It requires listing to illustrate the real figures: 100 tons of salt at £1 18s a ton brings in £190, 50 chaldrons (one chaldron equals 36 bushels) of coal cost £100. Rent and taxes £18, the process of manufacture at 5s a ton is £25, depreciation is £20, therefore net profit on the 100 tons of salt is £27.

The international dimension

Between 1724 and 1766 we find that 4,612 tons of salt was exported from Lymington in 64 ships, an average of 72 tons per vessel. Twelve cargoes were destined for Newfoundland and 33 for the American colonies. Others went to Norway, Ireland and the Channel Islands.

The quantity of salt used in the Newfoundland fishing industry must have been vast. Large quantities of “English white salt” were a regular importation to Poole and by the 1750s certain vessels were making regular trips to Lymington carrying wheat, barley and assorted cargoes of Norwegian deals, plantation pitch and Purbeck stone and returning with salt in bulk.

In the 18 months from January 1758 to July 1759, 322 weys (a wey or weigh varied and cannot be translated with assured accuracy) of salt were imported from Cowes and Lymington. This salt was en route for Newfoundland where the incredibly rich Grand Banks provided huge quantities of cod which were salted to be dispatched to European Mediterranean countries.

It is interesting to reflect that the Solent salt industry played such a large economic role for so long and was then to disappear in a few decades by the mid-19th century.



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