Apr 222020
 

 


It's April so it's time for our members to help us blog through the 2020 A-Z Blogging Challenge. Our chosen theme this year is Employment, also the topic of our Shared Endeavour where our members are encouraged to research employment within their one-place study. Today's entry is from Karen Bailey.

Droitwich in Worcestershire, England, is situated on underground brine springs which are more salty than the Dead Sea, and has been important centre for salt extraction for a long time; Iron-Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon finds in Droitwich demonstrate the importance of its salt trade. By the time of the Domesday Survey, Droitwich had five wells, with combined annual production of over 1,000 tons of salt, more than the whole of Cheshire’s production1.

Until 1695 the Crown owned all the rights to the salt production in the town, levying heavy rent charges on the three existing pits and restricting the ability to sink any further pits, however local man Robert Steynor broke this monopoly, allowing more people to profit from the natural resource. Deeper pits were sunk to access a stronger brine flow, and new steam-powered machinery meant production skyrocketed; the traditional June to December production season became a thing of the past and all-year-round manufacture became the norm.

By the 19th century, many large salt works (and some smaller enterprises) covered the town, the larger works having their own rail sidings and canal barges. Tenements were “thrown up” to house the workers arriving in Droitwich to work at the new factories. This period has been described as Droitwich’s “heyday of salt production”; at its peak in 1872, 120,000 tons of salt was produced2.

For the saltworkers, the work was backbreaking, heavy labour with long hours in hot and humid conditions, as the furnaces burning off the water from the brine to leave the salt were lit twenty-four hours a day. Both men and women worked in the factories, with older children helping too.

Figure 1: Salt workers loading coal into the furnaces under the huge salt-evaporating vats, c1900. Source: old postcard

 

Figure 2: Salt workers packing salt (left of image) into sacks (right of image). The sacks weighed around 130kg each. Source: Brettell, Droitwich in Old Photographs

The view of Droitwich in the 1800’s would have been dismal: smoke and debris from various salt works creating a grey smog and turning buildings black and dirty; chimneys, workshops, and slum workers housing, all contributing to an image of “grey industrial squalor”. With the decline of salt manufacturing, by the late nineteenth century, the ‘industrial squalor’ was replaced by “by the sadder squalor of abandoned and derelict buildings”3.

Figure 3: The Vines area taken from Dodderhill in 1860, showing the smoggy, dirty conditions. Source: Town Centre Development Plan, 1960.

In 1825 the salt tax was repealed, and a new brine source was discovered at Stoke Prior, a few miles north-east of Droitwich4. Attracted by the large profit margins in salt manufacturing, local entrepreneur John Corbett acquired all the salt producing companies at Stoke Prior as well as some of those in Droitwich itself, developing the sites and incorporating more efficient means of brine pumping and finding “new markets in which to sell it”5.

Being a “typical Benthamite entrepreneur”, Corbett provided an entire village for his workers and their families including providing a church, school, good housing and amenities, as well as improving their working conditions. He stopped employing women, claiming it promoted immorality as men and women often worked in a state of undress because of the heat of production, increasing pay for married men to compensate for the loss of their wife’s earnings6.

Figure 4: Female salt workers tending to the brine in the evaporating vats, c1900. Source: old postcard

Increased domestic and foreign competition bankrupted many smaller companies and the “stress of competition”7 drove survivors to amalgamate in 1889 to form the Salt Union. The whole industry was in decline, and with the added pressure of the close proximity of Stoke Works, salt manufacturing ceased in Droitwich in 19228. The sites of the old salt works “degenerated into rubbish tips”9, and soon the whole of the Vines and Covercroft areas were ‘slums’.

A new industry was needed to save the town – and surprisingly a large-scale cholera epidemic was the answer! But that’s another story for another post!

However, in recent years, salt has once again started to be produced from the brine springs under the town. You can now buy Droitwich Salt again, which is particularly nice in the equally locally made Wychbold Fudge’s salted caramel offering! (I only try these things out for the good of my One-Place Study, of course!)

References:

1 Salt Manufacturers' Association, History [Online]. Available:  https://www.saltsense.co.uk/a-brief-history-of-salt/

2 L. Blewitt & B. Field, Droitwich: A Pictorial History (Chichester: Phillimore, 1994), p. 3.

3 B. Middlemass & J. Hunt, John Corbett: Pillar of Salt, 1817-1901 (Droitwich: Saltway Press, 1985), p. 87.

4 B. Middlemass & J. Hunt, John Corbett: Pillar of Salt, 1817-1901 (Droitwich: Saltway Press, 1985), p. 20.

5 A. White, Worcestershire Salt: A History of Stoke Prior Salt Works (Bromsgrove: Halfshire Books, 1996), p. 32.

6 B. Middlemass & J. Hunt, John Corbett: Pillar of Salt, 1817-1901 (Droitwich: Saltway Press, 1985), p. 31.

7 W. Sterry Cooper, Fragments of Droitwich History and Development (Droitwich: F. L. Whately, 1935), p. 7.

8 D. F. Freezer, From Saltings to Spa Town: The Archeology of Droitwich (Droitwich: Droitwich Print and Design, unknown date), no page numbers.

9 C. Weaver, The Healing Baths of Droitwich Spa (Malvern: Spas Research Fellowship, 1999), p. 110.

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