Northwich is one of the three local salt towns – ‘wyche’ meaning salt; the two other towns being Nantwich and Middlewich. Salt has been produced from the area since Roman times. Originally the salt was extracted from the natural salt brine springs, but as demand increased wells and pits were dug to access the deeper natural brine. The brine was then boiled up in huge pans until the water evaporated leaving the fine white salt, often causing clouds of smoke and steam to hang over the town. By the 1620s, over 200 ‘wyches’ or salt houses were busily producing salt in the town of Northwich.
The problem with extracting the brine from the surface was that it was a hit and miss affair as no one could be sure where the salt beds were. Although the most successful boreholes were often situated on the line of pre-existing natural brine runs. However when brine was pumped out at the surface often this draw freshwater that was elsewhere in the area, to be drawn into the system. Consequently subsidence occurred but often far away from where the pumping was actually taking place. Eventually subsidences were commonplace across the whole of the Northwich area. Some gradual movement, others occurred without warning and Northwich Town began to subside.
By the 1850s, it was customary for a man to rent a salt pan, and the whole family would assist with tending it. In the salt works the heat was so intense that women would work in just their underskirts and men only in their trousers. The work was heavy as well. Raking the salt with huge iron rakes from the base of the salt pans, then loading, moving and breaking up the lumps of salt by hand when dried. Scalds and burn injuries from the hot salt pans often happened. Twelve hour shifts were usual, but slowly reforms took place which meant that children and women were no longer allowed to work at night, and compulsory education was introduced for children.
As more and more mining took place, the ground underneath the Northwich area was over-run with tunnels, often flooded with water, causing the salt to dissolve even more. Subsidence had always been a problem in the area, (there were literally hundreds of salt borings and mines in the town) but around the 1870s, the practice began of pumping out the brine from the flooded mines, and using it to supply the salt works. This had catastrophic effects. Houses, shops and offices disappeared without warning.
Eventually in 1871 the Northwich Salt Chamber of Commerce requested that the Board of Trade investigate the problem of subsidence. A report was issued in 1873 blaming the brine pumpers. The Great Subsidence of 1880 caused major disruption and a solution was sought.