Normans & Late Medieval
Production methods remained unchanged for a thousand years after the Roman occupation. Salt boiling was bound by ritual and tradition. Blood or white-of-egg was used as a coagulant for precipitating marl; urine, presumably as a froth flotation agent.
Until the 19th century, the main use for salt was to preserve food for the winter months. Salt was probably the first traded commodity. If not available locally it would have to come from afar by packhorse or boat (or, in desert lands, by camel caravan.)
The arrival of the Normans brought no immediate change to the salt making industry of Cheshire. The three “Wiches” continued to be held equally by the King (now William) and the Anglo-Saxon Earl Edwin. But all this was to change following the rebellion of 1070 and William’s laying waste to the county. For a brief period Gherbod, the Flemish noble, was Earl of Chester, but after a year he returned home, William’s nephew Hugh of Avranches became the first Norman Earl and divided the Manors of the county amongst his men. Northwich and Middlewich, were retained in lordship by Earl Hugh but the unnamed third Wich in the Hundred of Warmundestrou, (in time to become Nantwich) was granted to William Malbank and became known as Wich Malbank. In spite of the changes of lordship we know from Domesday that the Anglo-Saxon laws and customs of salt making were retained.
The Lost “Wich”
Domesday also reveals that Cheshire had another “wich” in Anglo-Saxon times. The entry for the lost manor of Burwardestone includes a salt house which was claimed to have belonged to the Bishop of Chester. But Earl Hugh had granted the manor with its salt house to Robert Fitzhugh and the 1094 Foundation Charter of the new Abbey of St Werberg in Chester records that a salt house “at Fulwich” was included in Robert Fitzhugh’s gift. Burwardstone has been identified with the present day Township of Iscoyd which is now in Maelor Saiseg, the detached part of Flint, and adjacent to the Township of Wigland, in Cheshire.
The Fulwich brine pits were at two hamlets along the Wychbrook valley known as Higher and Lower (or Over and Nether) Fulwich. With the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 Flint was created and the river became the boundary with Wales but the Fulwich name was retained; maybe because brine pits were on both sides of the river. Later in the middle ages the name Fulwich was changed to Dirtwich.
According to Domesday the three Cheshire salt towns were waste in 1071, and they had only partly recovered by 1086. Droitwich in Worcestershire,on the other hand, suffered little damage as a result of the Conquest. Worcestershire Domesday lists 318 salt houses and refers to the existence of lead pans, a lead smithy, furnaces and the need for firewood. There is however no mention of laws and customs although these are likely to have been similar to those in Cheshire. At this time and before 1066 Droitwich was much the most important centre of inland salt production and produced more than the whole of Cheshire.
Population and Salt Demand
Throughout history and up to the industrial revolution, the prime reason for making salt was the preservation of food for the winter months. If not obtainable locally it would have to be obtained from afar by packhorse or boat [or, in desert lands, by camel caravan.] Salt was probably the first traded commodity.
Clearly the demand for salt will have varied with the size of the population. Between 1066 and the mid-fourteenth century, England’s population roughly doubled and hence so did the demand for salt.
In addition to Worcestershire and Cheshire, there were many coastal saltworks. These were most numerous in the Lincolnshire and Norfolk Fenlands, and along the south coast especially, Sussex. These coastal centres maintained a considerable export trade of white salt with the continent, this being the prime source of the coastal industry’s prosperity. The inland salt industry of Droitwich and Cheshire remained of local importance. Land carriage costs were such that any salt reaching London by this means would only be affordable by the rich. English salt was brought to London mainly from the coastal salt works but the chief source of salt was the Biscay coast.
With Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, a large area of south west France came under the English crown. There was an assured English and North European market for Gascon wine and Biscay salt. This trade prospered through the 13th century with imports into England through London and the ports of southern England. In London the trade of the salt merchants was localised in the Bread Street area and here they formed a Fraternity of Salters for their mutual aid; later to become a chief City Livery Company.
The size of lead pan and the technology of open pan salt making remained essentially unchanged for over one thousand years but the only surviving documentary reference to the use of blood, eggs and ale as additives to the brine date from the 16th century. The protein in these additives helped to clarify turbid brine from the pit by forming a froth in which the fine suspended solid matter was collected and skimmed off. This technique called “froth flotation” is still used today in mineral processing. Agricola in De Re Metallica decribes the use of blood, eggs and ale as brine additives in early 16th century Saxony. It is possible that the common use of these additives in both Cheshire and Saxony may have been more than coincidence and could have dated back to the Roman occupation.