After a Government decision to allow controversial underground gas storage in salt caverns at Preesall, in this two-part series, Nic Fogg, Fleetwood Museum volunteer, looks at the history of Preesall and its salt industry.
It once employed hundreds and sent its products around the world.
It had its own railway, its own “port” and its own ships. Thousands throughout the land used its raw materials to create the staple goods of modern life.
Little visibly now remains of the huge undertaking that was once the Preesall salt industry: just some odd bits of brickwork, strange metal objects in its peaceful fields and some large lakes caused by collapses into the hollowed-out caverns beneath. One of these, known locally as the Bottomless Pit, swallowed farm buildings and part of an orchard, and is reputed to be hundreds of feet deep.
With the Government’s recent go-ahead for the storage of hundreds of thousands of tons of gas in Preesall’s saltfields, now seems a good time to celebrate the almost-forgotten story of its past.
Fleetwood Museum has its own “time tunnel” – dedicated to the salt industry and the vast chemical plants it spawned over the river at Thornton. Volunteers have now dug into its archives to tell its history.
The tale starts in 1872 in Barrow. Then nicknamed the “English Chicago”, the town had expanded from 150 to 40,000 population, in just 25 years, following the discovery of iron ore deposits. A syndicate from the port suspected similar finds could be made on the far side of the bay.
They sank a shaft half a mile from Preesall village, only to hit a bed of something totally different 340 feet below the surface.
Returning to their lodgings at the Black Bull hotel, they persuaded landlady Dorothy Parkinson to boil and crystalise it – producing the first sample of Preesall Salt.
They dug two further boreholes, revealing a giant, rugby ball shaped bed of rocksalt at least 400 feet thick, caused by the drying up of a small sea some 200 million years ago. Other prospectors
confirmed the discovery.
They also found an enormous underground supply of fresh water the other side of a diagonal faultline, passing just to the east of the village. This was to prove an invaluable supply to the newborn industry.
Salt was vital to the food, agriculture and growing chemical industries, and late-Victorian Britain had an insatiable demand for it.
In 1883, the Fleetwood Salt Company was formed to develop the field under the partial supervision of a Mr A Anderton from Northwich – the eldest of three generations of the same family to work in the saltfields, and the first of hundreds from the Cheshire town to settle in Preesall.
Water was allowed to seep down the boreholes and a noisy steam engine worked 24 hours a day, pumping brine back to the surface.
Four years later, a nationwide Salt Union formed to regulate the market hiked up prices by between 100 per cent to 300 per cent. The Fleetwood company remained outside the union, but the huge returns it could now command meant it was able to afford massive expansion.
A pipeline was laid under the River Wyre and 22 acres of salt marsh at Burn Naze were bought and reclaimed. This was swiftly linked to the local railway and formed the nucleus of Thornton’s chemical industry. On the Preesall side, mineral leases were secured over 1,100 acres of farmland.
The promising young company was snapped up by chemical manufacturer the United Alkali Company in 1890 – later to become part of ICI. Within months, 13
giant salt-making pans were in use, with another seven on the way. Brine heated in these was scoured by men with long rakes as the salt emerged. One observer recalled seeing lines of “lithe, bare, swaying bodies, disappearing up the battery of pans in the rising vapour.”
The salt was set in eight-inch moulds, dried off, packed and sold from corner shops or hawkers’ barrows.
Meanwhile, six ships a month were carrying salt to Ireland and Bristol and an ammonia soda works was at the planning stage. The company was also planning a dry salt mine.
Faced with a need to increase brine-flow, new artesian wells were sunk for water. Excited excavation workers arrived at the company’s Fleetwood laboratories with what appeared to be small nuggets of gold. These turned out to be mica, also known as Fool’s Gold – but the area they were found was quickly christened ‘Klondike!’
The wells were linked to the brine boreholes through an underground pipeline. A pumping station was built to force the brine up under pressure – increasing the rate of extraction.
However, August 1891 witnessed an ominous sign of things to come. A 40-foot-deep hole a third of an acre in size across suddenly appeared – now known as Acre Pit. This was the first of at least 10 major subsidences in the area.
• An exhibition on the past and future of the saltfields, based on archive material from Fleetwood Museum and information from Halite’s gas storage planning application, is now on show at Knott End Library. It will continue until mid-September.
• Part two next week