Salt & the Salt Tax. Eighteenth Century Salt Making

Salt was frequently a source of taxation in ancient times and historically has probably been the most taxed commodity.
The early Stuarts had raised some tax on salt, wines and tobacco but salt was not taxed by Charles II after the Restoration. Following his accession in 1688, William III was, so to speak, “strapped for cash” and brought over Dutch accountants to solve his problems. As well as a more stringent duty on alcohol and tobacco, a novel form of salt taxation was introduced in 1693. This levied monies at the point of manufacture instead of at the point of use.

Collection Districts & Collectors

The Salt Tax applied to both foreign and home produced salt and was collected by two separate boards; the Board of Customs for foreign trade and the Board of Excise for the home trade. This arrangement proved unsatisfactory and from 1702 both salt customs and salt excise were handled by a Salt Office set up as a separate department of the Treasury. Five commissioners were appointed and the country was divided into “Collection” districts.

In each Collection where salt was made there was a Collector, a Supervisor and numerous Salt Officers depending on the number of saltworks. There were also numerous supernumeraries such as weighers and watchmen. In spite of the large number of staff appointed, corruption was rife and smuggling of salt widespread throughout the life of the department.

Cheshire was divided into the Nantwich, Middlewich and Northwich Collections. Lawton, Roughwood and Dirtwich were included in the Nantwich Collection and Winsford and Wheelock in the Middlewich Collection. This arrangement is often not made clear when statistics are quoted. For example, in 1733, of the total production of the Nantwich Collection only about a tenth or maybe less was actually produced in the town of Nantwich.

Impact on Domestic Salt Trade

The tax on home produced white salt was several times its market value and was twice this rate on imported foreign salt. For fishery salt, the tax was greatly reduced and rocksalt was taxed at a lower rate than white salt. Exports of rocksalt to Ireland were free of duty for most of the 18th century and this contributed to the growth of a considerable Irish rock salt refining industry with works established at locations all around the Irish coast.

Rock salt refining was an adaptation of a Dutch practice known as “Salt on salt”. The grey impure French Bay Salt produced by solar evaporation of sea water along the Biscay coast was redissolved in sea water (which already contained some 2.5 per cent sodium chloride, while saturated brine is about 26% NaCl) and converted to white salt by evaporation in heated open pans. By the 17th century “salt on salt” Bay Salt refining was also being practised by English coastal salt works and when cheaper Cheshire rock salt became available it replaced imported Bay Salt and from the 1690’s new rock salt refineries were established on the Mersey estuary and elsewhere until and extension of the Salt Act prohibited the further expansion of this trade in England , Scotland and Wales but not in Ireland.

Ireland became a major producer of white salt throughout the period of the Salt Tax and was exported to the Americas, Russia and Scandinavia. The availability of untaxed white salt prompted the growth of Irish buttermaking and salted and barrelled fish, beef and pork. Ireland became the world’s largest exporter of butter. Fish was imported from Scotland and Sweden to be salted, barrelled and re-exported to the West Indies.

While Ireland’s privileged position brought protests from England’s inland brine pumpers it was generally recognised in Cheshire that the vastly increased exports of rock salt more than compensated for a debatable loss in white salt trade. The hardest hit were the coastal salt producers in Scotland where the restriction on Cheshire rock salt refining contributed to a general decline in the industry. The 1702 Salt Act which prevented the erection of new refineries outside Cheshire was to remain in force throughout the life of the Salt Tax. There was one exception in 1793 when a Private Act of Parliament permitted a new refinery to be built at Garston Dock near Liverpool.

Salt Smugglers

As might be expected, there was widespread smuggling of white salt from Ireland back to England and this contributed to a decline of sea salt making down the West Coast.

Smuggling and other forms of tax evasion were common throughout the life of the Salt Tax and it is doubtful whether the revenue earned justified the enormous cost involved in its administration.