There has been continuous salt production on the same sites at Droitwich from the Iron Age through the Roman and Medieval periods, and up to the 20th century. However in Cheshire, recent archaeology at both Nantwich and Middlewich has confirmed that the Romans established new salt works on green field sites which were then abandoned and returned to agriculture.
This was either with their departure in the 5th century or possibly even during the occupation. One explanation is that these were Roman Army saltworks, providing salt for their own needs, while Romano-British salt makers occupied long established Celtic salt making sites nearby and continued to supply the traditional needs of the local population and the itinerant traders who travelled into Wales and to the North. These long established sites were in time to become the medieval ‘wiches’. Salt was also made at Northwich during the Roman period but archaeological evidence from the Roman and Medieval periods is unlikely to be found, because of the extensive subsidence in the 19th century.
Salt making continued in post Roman Cheshire, at first through a period of Welsh control and then as part of the Anglo-Saxon Mercia. The same pattern of trade will have continued and later this attracted Viking influence from the North. We lack documentary records of salt making in Cheshire during this period and more is on record about the salt making at Droitwich. The first documentary account of Anglo-Saxon salt making in Cheshire is found in the Domesday Book of 1086.
In 1086 the salt industry at the Cheshire “Wiches” was slowly recovering from the laying waste by William after the rebellion of 1070. However, the task of the Domesday commissioners was to assess potential worth and they made use of what could have been an existing documentary record of the fiscal control of salt making and distribution “in the time of King Edward”. This describes what must have been a long established industry developed during several centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule and could have retained elements of Roman control. There was little if any change in the technology during this period.
Domesday reveals one other secret of Anglo Saxon saltmaking. We learn that there was a salthouse in the manor of Burwardestone, now lost, but thought to be the manor of Iscoyd in Maelor Saiseg, the detached part of Wales. In 1086 it was held by Robert Fitzhugh but was claimed by the Bishop and according to the 1094 Foundation Charter of St Werbergs, Robert gave back the saltworks to the Abbey and it was then known as Fulwich —a fourth Cheshire “wich”.
At Droitwich the Commissioners produced a conventional entry in the Worcester Domesday. The town and its salt making had not been “laid waste” and had presumably continued unchanged since before 1066.
Domesday also records those manors which owned coastal salt making sites (salinae or salterns) along the coast between Lincolnshire and Cornwall. Quoted estimates of the number of such manors are between about 300 and 1195 but, whatever the number, it was considerable. The main concentrations were in the Lincolnshire- East Anglian fenlands and along the South coast.
Coastal salt-making in England took what advantage it could of solar evaporation and tended to be seasonal. But the final stage to give dry salt always involved evaporating the brine over a fire, at first in ceramic vessels and later in lead pans. As a result of Fenland drainage many of these sites are now several miles inland and have been the subject of extensive archaeology.G D Twigg – December 2002