Whitehaven Saltpans

From sometime in the 13th century the Abbey of St.Bees appears to have enjoyed the right to 'cavill' for coal in the Whitehaven area, and it may be supposed that they fuelled their salt pan at Saltom with this coal. Because coal could be used instead of peat and turf it became possible to use larger pans and so have bigger units which could work more intensively than the older installations of North Cumbria. Furthermore the buildings were constructed of stone which was freely available, and were thus more durable and could withstand the stormy conditions of the coastal sites.

The former monastic estate of Whitehaven was acquired by Lowther’s grandfather in 1631 and settled on his father, the younger brother of Sir John Lowther I. Harbour works began before the Civil War, in which Lowther’s father served as a royalist colonel and commissioner of array. At the Restoration Lowther obtained a confirmation of his right to hold a market at Whitehaven. He then set about vigorously developing the collieries and salt-pans on his estates, and, to provide an outlet for them, transformed Whitehaven into a thriving seaport with 2,222 inhabitants by 1693. He also planned a carrier service to connect with London through Kendal. As a member of the Royal Society and a friend of (Sir) Joseph Williamson he was interested in education, and built, at his own expense, a school at Whitehaven to teach grammar, navigation and mathematics.

There is one site at Crosscanonby, near Maryport, and called Saltpans, which shows the remains of a large seawater storage tank and a clear brine pond. There is a large heap of ash showing that only the poorest quality of coal must have been used as it contains such a large amount of fused material and burnt slate. There is some evidence of stone buildings and a flue amongst the undergrowth. The salters’ cottages and stable ( in latter years a single dwelling house ) were demolished in 1970 due to dereliction. Well down the beach there is a hollow wooden structure which is thought to be a pump barrel base, a few timbers at angles to each other suggest that some sort of a pump hose might have been supported. The foreshore is unstable at this point and over the years most of the installation has been washed away.

Most of the salt was disposed of by way of regular dealers known as badgers, but some smaller amounts seem to have been sold as well, possibly to individual householders or small shops.

The Saltom Pit salt pans were built in 1734-5 with seawater pumped by one of the colliery Newcomen engines. The saltpans were still working in 1760 but had closed by the 1780s when one of the pan houses was converted into a foundry to supply wagon wheels, furnace bars and other cast iron goods to the collieries.

Perhaps the largest and most important salt works was at Bransty, Whitehaven. In 1688 they were described as of considerable importance and for the most part the salt they made was exported as part of the developing Irish Trade from the port.

The works continued in operation until the shipbuilding industry began to expand rapidly. In 1770 the salt works site was acquired by Daniel Brocklebank, the works were closed and demolished to make way for a successful shipbuilding yard and ropery. The Bransty Salt Works were the last ones to make salt in Cumbria, and with their destruction nearly 700 years of salt making came to an end.

There is no evidence that salt was made in Cumbria other than by evaporation of brine in pans as obtained from the sea. The pans were small and made of lead or iron, though perhaps lead was more common in the early days as it was easier to get and fabricate. In South Cumbria a boiling of salt produced 2 gallons (9.1 litres) of salt in 4 hours. No attempt was made to clarify the liquors but the prepared salt was suspended in wicker baskets to dry. In this was the bittern (very soluble sulphates) drained away. Experience showed that the best large crystal salt was produced by slow heating, and that fast boiling produced fine grained salt. Overheating had to be avoided or the bittern crystallized into the salt.

The salt content of the water varied according to the weather, which the old pans of South Cumbria (and likely in the North) endeavoured to overcome by producing a concentrated brine by 'sleeching'. In this process shore sand from just below high water mark was raked up by a horse drawn device called a hap. The moisture was air dried from the sand, and thus the salt caked on to the sand particles. This is called 'sleech'.

Pits called sleech pits or kinches lined with puddled clay were prepared by spreading layers of straw or rushes over the bottom and around the sides to act as filtering medium. There was an outlet to a storage tank or cistern. Sleech was carted into the prepared pit. Water was then poured over the salted sand and eventually brine filtered into the cistern. This was recycled several times, until the brine was sufficiently concentrated to float an egg. More and more fresh salt sand was put into the pits as required.

It was a laborious business, more so because when the sleech was spent the kinches had to be cleaned out and the process repeated. It was obviously a Spring and Summer job preparing the sleech and brine. The salt boiling appears to have taken up the Autumn and it was aimed to have the boiling done by Christmas. The pits would be cleaned out and prepared early in the Spring ready for the next sleeching.

As sea borne salt came in larger amounts to the Cumbrian ports from Liverpool, the old installations found it more and more difficult to compete and closed.

Dr. William Brownrigg from Whitehaven studied 20 different salts in 1774, collected from the mines at Whitehaven and presented his findings in another paper to the Royal Society along with the samples which were placed in the British Museum. He also collected and studied the minerals around Keswick but his findings were never published.

In 1748 Brownrigg wrote a book about making salt with the snappy title of "The Art of Making Common Salt as Now Practised in Most Parts of the World with Several Improvements Proposed in that Art for the Use of the British Dominions" which ran to nearly 300 pages, much of which was footnotes.

Britain's salt was of such poor quality that Brownrigg thought that when used as a preservative it might actually speed up the decay of meat and fish. France and Holland both produced better salt but European wars meant British supplies became expensive. The government had offered 10,000 shillings for improved domestic manufacture and the recipient, Mr. Lowndes, published a document that Brownrigg thought fell short of the mark. With a patriotic and philanthropic spirit William Brownrigg collected together all the information he knew on the subject and used his scientific mind to propose improvements.

He also felt his methods could be applied in North America and thus reduce its dependence on supplies from the Caribbean which had been disrupted by the Spanish. In fact his treatise was delivered to James Bowdoin of Boston by Benjamin Franklin in 1753.

He thought salt could also improve the fisheries for Western Scotland and by improving their lives possibly reduce the chance of insurrection as had happened with the '45 Jacobite rebellion.

Brownrigg had insight into the secret Dutch method of production from his time in Holland and also laid out the French method of evaporating sea salt. Observing the rates of evaporation in England verses precipitation he calculated their effects for English salt pans. From this and his knowledge of domestic production at Whitehaven and other places he proposed better forms of manufacture which he felt would allow British production to satisfy its domestic requirements, and improve the nation's wealth. An abridged version was included in the Royal Society transactions.

Brownriggs book was instrumental in changing the mode of British salt making but alas too late for the Cumbrian industry. Its existence today remembered in a few slight remains and several place names.

Early Whitehaven Etching
Early Whitehaven


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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