Worth its salt

The Worcestershire town of Droitwich Spa lies on the banks of the River Salwarpe and owes its existence to the natural brine springs that emanate from subterranean beds of pure rock salt located some 200 feet below the ground. The importance of the salt can be seen in the town’s motto – Sal Sapit Omnia – meaning ‘salt flavours all’. Pippa Sanderson uncovers its long and fascinating link with Droitwich Spa.

Photo caption: Chateau Impney, built just outside Droitwich between 1873–75 for the homesick wife of Salt King John Corbett.

Droitwich brine – with its 25 per cent solution of salt – is some 10 times saltier than seawater: a mere 3 per cent solution; its density and buoyancy in fact rivalled only by that of the Dead Sea.

How it all began
According to Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service’s Derek Hurst in his 1992 book, Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry, there are indications that brine was being exploited in the area as early as the Iron Age (between 800 BC to 43 AD). Indeed, mankind has understood the importance of salt for a very long time. As we evolved as a species, moving from a nomadic hunter–gatherer existence to settled agricultural communities exploiting the land, salt became important, not just as a condiment to add flavour to a cereal diet, but to preserve meat and fish, and in manufacturing processes including tanning and pottery (potters sometimes glazed their wares with salt from the thirteenth century onwards). Salt was even used as currency.

At that time, most salt was obtained almost exclusively by evaporating seawater, so those living inland, including in Worcestershire, found salt difficult to obtain and, as a result, it was a highly prized commodity not just in Britain but worldwide; in fact, the ancient Greek author Homer regarded it as a divine gift.

According to Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry by J D Hurst from Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (1992): ‘The story of Droitwich brine began about 200 million years ago, when the area was being periodically flooded with seawater. In the prevailing hot climate, the seawater evaporated, leaving behind the salt. As this process was repeated, the salt became concentrated into thick deposits. In the course of time, rock salt was buried under a deep bed of clay. . . . As the clays were folded by movements of the earth’s crust, the rock salt beds were tipped, leaving the salt closest to the surface directly under Droitwich. As ground water permeated into the rock salt beds, salt was dissolved and underground streams of brine [were] created. As a result of natural pressure, the brine was forced back to the surface through clay fissures, to emerge at the surface as brine springs. Since the brine appeared on the surface in springs, it was easily available, no doubt an important factor leading to the early development of salt making.’

Salt-making equipment used in this nascent industry included large, clay-lined brine tanks, hearths for boiling the brine and containers known as briquetage, coarse ceramic evaporation vessels that not only dried the salt, but were used to transport the precious commodity as well.

Roman Droitwich
The town, known during late Roman times as ‘Salinae’, translates as ‘the place of salt works’. Salt was so important that Roman soldiers were given a quantity of salt – a salarium – as part of their payment. This payment later on became monetary, but the name remained and it is where we get the name ‘salary’ from today.

During the Roman occupation, the town was situated along the principal road between Worcester and Birmingham (today, the A38) and was ideally placed for the purposes of trade. Alongside a fort and villa, the Romans built a number of ancient roads, later known as saltways, from Droitwich.

Many of the Iron Age production techniques continued until the second century, when the Romans constructed substantial engineering works around the brine springs. A century later, there’s evidence of brine storage tanks being used, which were constructed from halves of larch and silver fir barrels that had originally held wine.

Anglo-Saxon Droitwich
During the Anglo-Saxon period (fifth to eleventh centuries), ‘a series of brine boiling hearths were built over the decayed remains of Roman structures. Unlike the earlier hearths, these were long, stone-lined channels, above which lead pans were set. Wind breaks of wattle fencing were erected alongside, as boiling would need to have been carefully controlled to prevent the lead from melting.’ Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry by J D Hurst from Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (1992).

The first documentary evidence we have of salt production in Droitwich is contained within a 716 AD charter from the King of Mercia, Ethelbald, who granted the Church of Worcester land on the south side of the River Salwarpe, so that it could construct salt works, including six furnaces and three buildings for the purposes of salt extraction, in exchange for a salt works north of the river. Also in this year, Eafe, a nun, was granted a portion of a building and two salt furnaces in (Droit)wich.

A 717 AD charter makes reference to Saltwic as a place of salt production and a charter dating to the tenth century outlines the ‘arrangement of three distinct brine well centres in Droitwich, namely Netherwich, Middlewich and Upwich. These places were named in relation to their respective positions along the River Salwarpe. So Upwich was furthest upstream with Netherwich downstream; Middlewich lay in between.’ Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry by J D Hurst from Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (1992).

A modern reconstruction of the Upwich brine pit.

The brine springs were held in such high esteem that they were regarded as the fourth wonder of Saxon Britain, an accolade noted by the ninth century writer, Nennius in the Historia Brittonum, or The History of the Britons, thus: ‘The fourth wonder is the salt springs . . . from which springs salt is boiled, with which various foods can be salted; and they are not near the sea, but emerge from the ground.’ The importance of Droitwich during the Anglo-Saxon period is evidenced by its tax yield which, in 1066, was second only to London.

Medieval period
Domedsay mentions the town’s link to salt production several times. According to the 1086 book, Wich or Wyche, operated five brine wells, which were controlled by the King, William the Conqueror, who owned the largest share worth £76.00, a huge sum in those days. The book records that William took over all brine pits and salt pans, but allowed certain individuals rights to them. A salt tax was imposed at town gates around the country as the commercial activities of Droitwich expanded. During the Domesday period, some 1,000 tons of salt were being produced each year, far outweighing local requirements. To fuel the ever-hungry brine boiling hearths, large amounts of wood had to be sourced and cartloads were sometimes brought in from several miles away.

A medieval salt-production scene, courtesy of Droitwich Spa Heritage Centre.

According to CBA Research Report No 81, Iron Age and Roman Salt production and medieval town of Droitwich, edited by Simon Woodiwiss (1992): ‘The saltworkers belonging to Bromsgrove are said to have been given 300 cartloads of wood in the time of Edward the Confessor for the 300 mitts of salt they produced [one mitt equated to around eight bushels, or a horse load]. Northwick manor had in Droitwich one saltpan rendering 100 mitts of salt for 100 cartloads of wood. The Bishop of Worcester had woodland in Fladbury supplying fuel for the saltworks. Finally, Westminster Abbey’s manor of Hussingtree rendered annually 100 cartloads of wood.’

The most important area for salt production was at Upwich brine pit (the two other areas being Netherwich and Middlewich) although, during the thirteenth century, the well dried up numerous times. During one such dry spell, the Bishop of Chichester, Droitwich-born Richard de Wych, was called in to help. He blessed the well and, according to legend, it flowed again and de Wych was made a saint.

Salt production was seasonal; lasting from June until December. ‘Extraction of brine was by a large bucket (the ‘common bucket’) attached to a winch or crane (known as a ‘rydhoc’). . . . Once lifted, the brine could be poured for temporary storage into barrels beside the well.’ Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry by J D Hurst from Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (1992). The town grew as the wealth generated from salt production increased. Many half-timbered buildings dating from the fourteenth century were constructed and can still be seen in the High Street today.

Post-medieval period
The industry evolved and new techniques resulted in improvements and efficiencies including, for some, the use of iron pans (rather than lead) for boiling the brine; and coal began to be used instead of wood to fuel the furnaces. According to Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry by J D Hurst from Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (1992): ‘By the second half of the seventeeth century, up to 3,000 tons of salt were being produced annually. As production increased, it became more important than ever to have cheaper transportation for the salt. In the mid to late seventeenth century, attempts were made to improve the navigability of the River Salwarpe between Droitwich and the River Severn. By 1678, daily brine output from the Upwich brine well was reported to be sufficient to make about 10 tons of salt a day. Many salt makers were still using lead pans made from a single sheet of lead measuring 1.68 x 0.91 metres (5.5 x 3 feet), several pans being heated together on a hearth. Six types of salt were being made, including ‘white salt’ (salt loaves made in baskets), ‘clod salt’ (scraped off the bottom of the pan) and ‘knockings’ (formed on the outside of the baskets). Droitwich salt was praised at this date for its purity.’

The industrial age
After 1695, Droitwich opened up its salt production to private enterprise thanks to the efforts of Robert Steynor who, although mounting a successful challenge to the town’s monopoly to extract salt, bankrupted himself in the process. New private brine wells opened at different sites around the town, with shafts lined with bricks sunk to depths not witnessed before. ‘By 1725, some of these shafts were about 61 metres (200 feet) deep, tapping into the underground brine stream itself’. Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry by J D Hurst from Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (1992).

According to Worcestershire: The Little Guides, by F T S Houghton (1922): ‘In 1725, it was discovered that brine of great strength could be drawn from a deeper stratum than had up to that time been tapped, and there followed a great increase in production. A hundred years later, brine was tapped in borings made near Stoke Prior. This has now become the only seat of the industry in Worcestershire, for all the salt works at Droitwich are now closed, the last chimney of the last remaining works having been felled in 1923.’

The brine pit at Upwich fell into decline during the early eighteenth century and, in 1767, Droitwich Council appointed famous canal engineer James Brindley to survey a route for a canal linking Droitwich Spa with the River Severn at Hawford Mill. In 1768, construction began of the Droitwich Barge Canal, which opened on 12 March 1771 and included a wharf adjacent to the pit.

Seasonal salt extraction became year round and production increased greatly during the eighteenth century, with new steam-powered engines incorporated to pump out the brine.

During the nineteenth century, several salt factories were built adjacent to the canal to make use of the water system for distribution by boat and extraction was undertaken on an industrial scale. Brine arrived at the factory in wooden (later cast iron) pipes. Entire families were involved in the production of salt, which was undertaken on a 24-hour a day basis throughout the year and, at its peak in 1872, Droitwich’s salt factories were producing some 120,000 tons. The arrival of the railways in the mid-nineteenth century provided a far quicker means of distribution and acquisition for ever-eager consumers.

Female salt workers packing cut lumps of salt. During the 1920s, a female packer could earn up to 4½d (pence) a day for 144 cubic lumps packed, equivalent to just over 2p in today’s money. Image courtesy of Droitwich Spa Heritage Centre.


Salt men shovelling salt out of the stoves after the water has been boiled off. Image courtesy of Droitwich Spa Heritage Centre.


Salt workers ‘blocking’ salt in the Drying House (when the salt is pressed into solid cubic blocks ready for distributing elsewhere). The salt blocks were kept in the Drying House for one day and, once dry, were taken to the women to pack. Image courtesy of Droitwich Spa Heritage Centre.

The Salt King
In the late nineteenth century, John Corbett became Droitwich’s principal salt producer because he bought out his rivals. Born in 1817 at Brierley Hill, he worked in his father’s canal business until, in 1853, he sold his share of the business to purchase six acres of land from the British Alkali Company, made up of a derelict brine works outside Stoke Prior near Bromsgrove on the banks of Brindley’s Worcester and Birmingham canal.

In 1854, Corbett began building his own salt works, which became the largest, most modern and most successful in Europe, earning him the title of ‘Salt King’.

In 1855, Corbett met his future wife Anna O’Meara in Paris, where she lived with her French mother and Irish father. The following year they married and were to have six children. Now resident in the county, Anna missed the elegance of France, so Corbett commissioned a French architect to design a French-style chateau – the Chateau Impney – to appease her melancholy. Building started in 1873 and cost an estimated £7 million in today’s figures. Chateau Impney still stands today, as a well-known landmark just outside Droitwich Spa. But despite this lavish and romantic gesture, the couple separated after nearly 30 years of marriage.

By 1886, Corbett’s works spanned an area of some 30 acres and production of salt reached between 200,000 to 300,000 tons a year. The high-quality table salt was sold under the brand of the Black Horse and, by 1888, Corbett controlled nearly 50 per cent of Britain’s salt producing industry.

Corbett, a great philanthropist, helped change a grim industrial town into a fashionable spa in the late nineteenth century. The therapeutic qualities of brine had previously been discovered in the 1830s when sufferers of cholera had been cured by hot brine immersion and, in 1838, the Saline Baths, later renamed the Royal Brine Baths, opened in Queen Street (closed in 1930). This was followed by the opening of Salters Hall (1881–1933), St Andrew’s Brine Baths (1887–1974 and now St Richard’s House, home to the Droitwich Spa Heritage Centre) and the Worcestershire Brine Baths Hotel (opened in 1891, the hotel was once described as ‘the finest in Britain’. It closed in the 1980s and was demolished at the turn of the twenty-first century), which were all built around Victoria Square, and the Raven Hotel was converted from the old St Andrew’s Manor House.

The GWR railway station, of the old Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway, was rebuilt and visitors flocked to the town to use the spa facilities. At the time of Corbett’s death, on 22 April 1901, it was estimated that he owned or part-owned nearly half the town. He is buried in the churchyard at St Michael’s in Stoke Prior.

Immersion in brine was soon prescribed for a range of complaints, including sciatica, lumbago and gout, which made Droitwich Spa a popular destination for visitors from both home and abroad. Along with other spa towns and resorts, Droitwich saw a gradual decline in popularity after World War II; eventually, the brine baths closed and no spa facility existed for more than 10 years. The re-emergence of interest in health and leisure resulted in the new Brine Bath complex opening in 1985, Britain’s biggest spa development this century. Unfortunately these baths are not open to the public at present. A campaign to build and open new brine baths is ongoing.

Corbett was generous elsewhere in the UK. Family holidays were taken at Towyn on the west coast of Wales. The town’s promenade was rebuilt by Corbett and a plaque can be seen at the northern end to commemorate this fact. In nearby Stourbridge, he offered his Georgian mansion, The Hill, Amblecote, for conversion into a hospital. The offer was accepted and the hospital was opened in 1893. Making a play upon his name (the French word for a raven is corbeau), John Corbett adopted the raven as part of his family crest and many buildings constructed or sponsored by John Corbett in and around Droitwich Spa can be seen showing a raven, usually within the framework of gable ends.

The end of salt production in Worcestershire
According to Savouring the Past. The Droitwich Salt Industry by J D Hurst from Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (1992): ‘Salt production finally ceased in the town in 1922, alleviating the pollution for which Droitwich had become notorious. However, another problem was to emerge as a result. It was not realised until too late that the pumping of brine at Stoke Prior was to have serious consequences for Droitwich. For the first time, subsidence occurred within the town and evidence of this can be seen especially in the High Street, where many of the buildings are leaning. The ending of salt production at Stoke Prior has, however, reduced the possibility of further subsidence taking place.’ Stoke Prior Salt Works finally closed in 1972 because of cheaper imports from abroad.

The Stoke Prior Salt Works in the late 1800s. The ‘big chimney’ can be seen on the left while, to the right, are the salt works’ chimneys. Bottom left of the photograph, six women can be seen along a footpath. Image courtesy of Droitwich Spa Heritage Centre.

Salt ways
Salt was originally distributed from Droitwich by way of pack horse along tracks, known as salt roads or salt ways, which radiated from the town to a wide range of locations, including Ireland (for the salting of herring), south Wales and London. According to Salt-ways, by F T S Houghton (1932): ‘The earliest knowledge that we have of the routes along which salt was conveyed from Droitwich to various places in the south Midlands is contained in pre-Conquest charters. In these documents there are 15 references to Salt streets, Salters wells, Salters fords etc, dating from 777 to 1042.’ The salt was contained within conical wicker baskets and loaded on packhorses; the weight of the load being known as a ‘mitt’.

The ancient salt ways radiating from Droitwich, adapted from a map by F T S Houghton (1932).

According to Religion and Literature in Western England, 600–800, by Patrick Sims-Williams (1990), ‘A further system of communications was provided by the spider’s web of saltways which radiated far outside the Hwiccian kingdom from its vital brine springs at Droitwich. The reconstruction of these “salterstreets” depends mainly on late Anglo-Saxon or later allusions, but seventh-century royal grants of rights over brine pits and salt pans at Droitwich imply that many of the saltways which carried the salt from Droitwich (Roman Salinae), and brought the fuel to its furnaces, were very old.’

The Salt Museum
The whole development of Droitwich, from ancient salt making centre to the present day can be explored at the Droitwich Heritage Centre. The Salt Museum is located inside the heritage centre and includes artefacts dating from the Roman period onwards to the nineteenth century.

Andrew’s Brine Baths (1887–1974), which is now St Richard’s House, home to the Droitwich Spa Heritage Centre.

Droitwich offers plenty to see and do in order to keep the whole family entertained. The recently restored Droitwich canal network is a haven for walkers, cyclists and nature lovers; and the open air lido and acres of green parks have enough play areas to keep the children occupied. A spot of retail therapy and a coffee can be enjoyed in the St Andrews shopping centre or at one of the town’s many markets that regularly take place. Numerous well-established festivals take place throughout the year, including Salt Fest in September, which celebrates the town’s salt heritage.

Take a virtual tour of the heritage centre and to look through the town guide to see what Droitwich Spa has on offer. Visit www.visitdroitwichspa.com and www.droitwichspa.gov.uk/about-droitwich-spa.html for more information.