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The rise and fall of Lymington's salt industry

For over 700 years Lymington was a principal manufacturer of salt until high taxation and coal costs led to its demise.

Map of Eastern Section Milford Manor 1720 salterns north of Hurst SpitEarly societies needed salt in considerable quantities for culinary, tanning and curative purposes and it's likely that the salt industry along the south coast of Hampshire dates from at least Saxon times. Lymington's salt marshes provided an excellent place for salt production from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century as they benefited from strong sunshine and low humidity which helped evaporation.

The exact start date of Lymington's salt industry is unclear. The first references to salt in the local area can be found in the Domesday Book (1086) which lists 22 salt pans between the 12 manors in Hampshire, including in Hordle (whose parish stretched eastward to Hurst spit), Dibden, Totton and Eling. It's likely that there were more, since it is now believed items of value were omited from the record.

References to salt are scarce. However a document dated 1137 confirmed a grant by Richard de Redvers' father, Earl Baldwin, of a tithe of salt of Lymington to the latter's monastic foundation at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. This document survived until the 1790s when it was recorded by Warner, although it's whereabouts are no longer known. It proves that there were a considerable number of saltpans in Lymington from 1132 at least. A century later, Nigel de Buckland gave a saltern in 'Oxiheye' marsh. By 1260, Quarr Abbey is recorded as having a 'granary' for salt on Lymington Quay.

By Tudor Times, salt had became more easily obtainable as trade with warmer countries increased. Lords no longer ate with servants in great halls, so medieval customs like being 'below the salt' were passed on merely as sayings and the saltcellar was no longer the finest piece on the table. Salt became used far more widely and manufacturing increased to take up the demand.

The Salt Tax of 1694

Trade Ship loading in Lymington By 1660, Lymington used as much coal for the Salterns as London and ships up to 1,300 tons berthed at the Quay to load and unload.

In 1694 the government of William III decided to impose a duty on salt. Salt had been selling at 2/8 a bushel; a duty of 1/8 was now imposed on native salt, with salt for the fisheries exempted and foreign salt charged at a much higher rate. The duty on English salt doubled in 1697 to 3/4. At the same time the government ordered a survey of all harbours and inlets.

Along the coast between Lymington and Hurst Castle there was an unbroken line of 163 salt pans, which brought great wealth to the town. The salterns comprised shallow pans around 25 feet square, with mudbanks six inches high, where the salt evaporated. Sixteen weeks' boiling was the general season average, each pan providing about three tons of salt weekly, with 19 bushels of coals burned for each ton.

The Method of Evaporation

So how did the salt pans work? A visitor to Lymington, Celia Fiennes, documented the method of evaporation at the turn of the century: sea water was drawn into the trenches and thence into ponds, secured at the bottom with clay and gravel, to evaporate in the sun. The remaining water was then drawn off by copper pipes to be boiled in iron or copper pans, about 2 yards square, inside boiling houses. The copper pipes were powered by wind pumps, which stood some 12 to 14 feet high. 

An average sized saltpan could make about three tons of salt per week, and consumed about 18 bushels of coal for every ton of salt produced. The pans ran for 16 weeks during an average summer, but in a year with excellent weather the season could be extended for as long as 22 weeks.

Salt T Rowlandsons sketch 1874 of himself on left and friend Wigstead inside Boiling House x400

Salterns diagramDefoe was another visitor and wrote at around 1725, "this town is chiefly noted for making fine salt, which is indeed excellent good, and whence all these South parts of England are supplied as well by water as by land carriage, and sometimes, tho' not often, they send salt to London, when contrary winds having kept the Northern fleets back, the price in London bas been very high."

Thomas Rowlandson made 19 sketches during his visit to Lymington in 1784/5, of which the one above shows him with friend Wigstead - it is the only known sketch of the interior of a boiling house.

Lymington's greatest prosperity

Salt TheSalternsLymington 1840 In 1730 Walpole had repealed the salt duties, only to reimpose the duty on salt two years later!

Despite the increased duties, the mid 18th century was the most prosperous time for the Lymington Salterns. £60,000 was paid in one year as a duty, and by 1804, 6,000 tons of fine salt manufactured was being produced every year. More than half was exported on board ships such as the Charming Sally, the Dolphin and the Sea Horse, departing Lymington Quay for Holland, the Channel Islands and the Baltic, as well as the three month round trips to America and Newfoundland.

In 1749 there were 149 salt pans in Lymington and 50 in Milford. However by 1796 this had reduced to just 103 pans. Lymington saltwork proprietors faced serious difficulties; they faced increased competition from Europe, not least because coal had to be brought in a high costs. 

The decline of Lymington's salt industry 

In 1805, there was a great local outcry when the Government duty reached 15 shillings a bushel (desperately trying to raise funds for the war with France), whereas the actual valaue of the salt was just one shilling. Mr Charles St Barbe documented in detail the accounts of some saltworks in 1805. 

The decline of the Lymington area salt production was a long and painful process. The latest tax increase created a product that was 40 times it's real value. Without doubt, the main reason for the decline was the overreliance on coal and its transportation from great distances - according to Mr St Barbe's notebook it took 18 bushels of coal to produce 1 ton of salt. Coal used for salt production was taxed also and the works were really only kept going by a seasonable demand for salt in Maryland and Virginia, plus the occasional export to London.

It was another ten years before the tax on salt was removed, but by then it was already too late to save the local salterns, though a few were restarted. By 1826 only 14 saltpans were in use. Efforts had already started to fill in the evaporation ponds to make the area more suitable for grazing cattle, later an Oyster Farm also started up in the marshes.

Within a decade, the new railway network enabled cheaper northern and foreign salt to be transported far more widely.

By 1865 the Lymington salt trade had ceased and the last saltern closed in 1866. It was all over. Only two of the windmills used in the extraction process were still standing in 1871.

Today the salterns are a nature reserve. Find here details of the walk around the Solent Way (sea wall).

Sources:

The Salterns of Lymington, Milford and Hordle - AT Lloyd (1965)
Lymington, A Pictorial Past - Brian J Down


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