Saturday, 16 October 2010

A Final Sprinkling of Salt

A final extract from The Salt Routes, in which I follow these most ancient trade routes .

Aside from the obvious culinary uses, the chemical industry require salt to produce hydrochloric acid, caustic soda and sodium metal. Drug companies are only a part of the numerous medical uses. Salt is used in the manufacture of paint, bricks, tiles, glazed pottery, leather tanning, shampoo, glass, yoghurt pots, plastics, slug repellant, for piping, as a water softener, on icy roads, in soap manufacture, in dyes, in agriculture, and in the production of metals such as brass, bronze, aluminium, gold, silver, and zinc. Food stuffs containing salt include bacon, fish, bread, jams, ketchup, ice cream, butter, cheese, pickles, and even confectionery.

John Corbett, the Salt King, had an array of managers working for him who looked after the daily running of the Stoke Works at Droitwich. One of these men had settled at Elms Farm, just a few hundred yards walk to work each day along Weston Hall lane. Mr Grafton and his young bride regularly entertained her brother, who arrived by train and would have walked past the salt works to reach The Elms. A common enough occurrence, but one where the visitor was about to be better known than even Corbett, for Mrs Grafton's maiden name was Elgar and this was her brother Edward, later Sir Edward and Master of the Kings Music.

Those who worked on the shop floor had a hard life. Wages were poor, working conditions necessarily hot and hours were long. Whole families were engaged in producing salt, an image depicted on the statue entitled the Saltworkers. Such conditions, as seen with mining communities, where a great number of generations are tied to a particular industry through a lack of any alternative way of earning a living and with no new blood from outside, see the family names become fixed in the area.
Anyone who has traced their family tree will be aware that the first born son and daughter would be named after the father and mother. Subsequent children would then take the names of uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents. This lead to many individuals having the same name and the community took to giving nicknames. Such were not, as is often the case today, derogatory but a reflection of the individuals skills or job and thus seen as almost a badge of office.
For example over three generations there were no less than twenty men by the name of George Harris in Droitwich. Their surname, while recorded, was hardly ever used in favour of their nickname - even by their employers. Thus we find Harris as a surname becomes Smoker, Dukes, Fantail, Pigeon, Ballis, Stafford, Tant, and even one example of one William Harris who was known as Billy Old Hen. Note this is not their christian name which is replaced here but the surname - hence we should not be looking for Smoker Harris, but Georgie Smoker.
Meanwhile other familes attracted different alternatives. The Harrison family had individuals called Banes, Cloggy, Tottenham, Buffer, Bantam, Hobby, August, Wanna, Noggy and Gomfrey. The Bourne family, who had a long association with Droitwich, kept their surname but to each was added a suffix and became Bourne-Tow, Bourne-Molly and Bourne-Column. Other branches of this family took the same route as the Harris clan, and thus we find Blue, Bobbem, Gory, Tongy, Dandy, Panto, Boniker, Rabbit, Pie and Jinkum. The Nicklin family somehow managed to acquire the nickname of Nick, through Jimmer, Joey, Harry, Peckum and Weighum. The Cuckoos were all of the Pittaway line, the Colleys became known as Toodle, and the Duggans had their name changed to Diddle.
Family connections, although the main source of nicknames, could and would be ignored in favour of a more personal reference whenever the individual was deemed to merit such. Two examples stick out, although neither of these have any written explanation but which suggest enough for us to have some idea of what was being implied. For example, maybe the morals of a lady by the name of Joe Tom George's Lizzie's Rose are questionable, to say the least. While the reader should make up their own mind as to the reasons why one gentleman was known to one and all by the name of Three-Elbowed-Dick.

In Cheshire, where the production of salt was over a wider area and other industries provided opportunites work outside salt production, the community was not reliant on a few families. However regional dialect words did develop, even as they continue to do so today despite the exposure to a more national, or even multi-national, English thanks to the ease of travel and instant interaction.
Local terms are particularly evident in jobs and in the tools used by these individuals. Common salt pans were up to one hundred feet in length and worked by gangs of men known as wallers. These men had the job of turning the evaporating brine as it thickened and the salt crystallised out. Not a pleasant job at best owing to the extreme heat and the dehydrating effect of working so closely with salt. However evaporation was never even throughout the brine mixture, even in the smallest pans and here they were huge. In order to reach every part of the pan with their rake-like implements the wallers were required to stand in half barrels placed IN the boiling brine!
Tool names varied from place to place and even from one works to another, hence a mundler, a mudling stick and a punner were all the same thing. In Victorian times the tubs and storage vats used to drain excess brine renaining in the salt were made from elm. They came in sizes known as 40s, 60s or 80s and the salt was packed down by using the mundling stuck, whereupon it would be left to dry out and produce blocks or lumps of dry salt. Other tool names included rake, chipping paddle, lofting spike, happer, skimmer, mundling peg, salt tub, cotter patch, and bagging shovel.
Commercial salt extraction started near the modern Marbury estate near Northwich around 1670. The layers of rock salt, some eighty feet thick, were mined leaving columns of rock salt supporting the ceiling. Unfortunately these caverns regularly flooded and the pillars were dissolved, causing the land to collapse into the caverns below. Taken overland to Frodsham Bridge, the rock salt was then shipped along the River Mersey where it was dissolved in sea water and refined. A rapid increase in business followed the work to make the River Weaver navigable from 1721. However all this was based on a lucky discovery, for these salt mines was only discovered by accident when John Jackson was prospecting for coal in 1670.
Salt workers everywhere were known for dipping all manner of personal items in the brine to produce highly unusual decorations. Each dipping in the brine solution left a film on the item and, as successive dippings dried, a layer of crystals became encrusted on the item. All manner of objects were dipped including plenty of old shoes.

Northwich Victoria, the local football team who regularly come to the attention of the nation when they appear in the early rounds of the FA Cup, are nicknamed the Salt Boys.
When Queen Victoria came to visit during her long reign, the town wanted to add a local flavour to the decor in order to welcome the reigning monarch. During this era decorative arches appeared in quantities not seen since the Roman era. Hence the town produced an entranceway, a construction made from local salt with the bottom supporting pillars cut from brown rock salt, topped by an archway of white salt blocks. It is not recorded how long they withstood the weathering of the British climate after the Queen and the local dignitaries had passed underneath.

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