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A Welsh Salt-Making Venture of the Sixteenth Century

W J Lewis, The National Library of Wales Journal Vol VIII/4 Winter 1954

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete extract of this article [Gareth Hicks 29 June  2002].


Few are the people of Britain who would feel grateful for a legacy which consisted only of small periodic portions of salt, yet such bequests were made and greatly appreciated in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Our ancestors lived on salted provisions for five or six months of every year, and home produced salt was far from sufficient to supply their needs. In the sixteenth century, England and Wales were largely dependent on France for their supply of this commodity, and as these countries were almost continually at war from 1542 to 1564, this country had considerable difficulty in obtaining sufficient salt. During this period, the price of bay and white salt rose from 5d and 8d a bushel respectively, to 1s and 1s 6d, an increase which can only partly be explained by Henry VIII's debasement of the coinage. Also, trade with France was condemned as being 'hurtful to the realm', it enricheth France whose power England ought not (to) increase. Some consideration was thus given to the possibility of increasing home production and, probably acting on Mr Secretary Cecil's advice, one of the first patents granted by Queen Elizabeth was to a German, Casper Seelar, to make salt in 1564. According to this patent, Seelar was to be allowed to set up works wherever he wished, subject to the Queen's permission. For this privilege the sovereign claimed a tenth of the salt produced and, by right of pre-emption, the sole right to sell the remainder throughout her domains at a substantial profit. Seelar may have refused these terms and offered either the tenth or the monopoly of sale, for it was the latter that was adopted, Seelar engaging to sell the finished product at 7d a bushel to Her Majesty who planned to sell it at 1s 6d. The Queen also reserved the right to take over the industry at any time during the twenty year life of the licence for a payment to the licensee of £25,000.

For this enterprise, Seelar had the support of Francis Bartie, a financier of Antwerp, and a Florentian saltmaker, Thomas Baroncelli. Within a year, salt pans were shipped to England, but for some unknown reason, and before a start had been made, the patent rights were transferred to Bartie.

The large gains promised by this new venture attracted the attention of some of the leading courtiers and towards the end of 1565, they succeeded in capturing the patent from Bartie. The following year an Act of Parliament confirmed the transfer of the licence to the Earls of Leicester and Pembroke, Lord Cobham, Cecil, Knollis, and others, and they became known as the 'Lords of the Salt Privilege'. They were assisted by two well known London financiers, William Wightman and, more important, Peter Osborne, former Keeper of the Privy Purse, an authority on commercial matters and Deputy Governor of the Corporation of Mineral and Battery Works.

The first of the new salt works were set up in 1566 at Dover, Southampton, and on the Essex coast. In the same year, Mount, Cecil's secretary, was sent north to establish works at Blythe near Newcastle, and in the following year similar concerns were set up in Suffolk and in another part of Essex.

No Mention is made in printed sources of the establishment in Wales of one of these ventures, but among the large collection of Powis Manuscripts deposited at the National Library of Wales are several letters and documents which describe in some detail the building and working of salt works in the Principality.

It was in February 1566/7 that Wightman wrote to Edward Herbert, Sheriff of Montgomery, to inform him that the 'Lord Keeper, Duke of Norfolk, Lord Pembroke, Lord of Leicester, Mr Secretary, and others their copartners' had decided to erect salt works and that they wished to have one near the River Dyfi 'where the hearinge fysshing is'. It was also their wish that the control of the Mid-Wales works should be in the hands of Herbert with the assistance of William Wightman. The Lords' attention was probably drawn to this district by the report on the shipping and ports of Wales made to the Queen in 1566. Cardigan Bay had even then an important herring fishery centred mainly on Aberdovey. The existence of an extensive salt marsh nearby made the prospects of a salt industry even brighter, while the ease with which ships could sail to Ireland was a further attraction, for one of the conditions laid down in the privilege was that enough works be set up to supply that country with salt. The exact location of the works is unknown but the fact that letters were occasionally addressed to 'Dovie or Abustwith in Cardiganshyre' combined with the instructions for the siting of the works, indicate clearly that they were on the south side of the Dovey.

The final choice of the site was to be made by Christopher Schutz, reputed to be 'the most perfecte man in that art [salt making] that is to be found'. Schutz who was also described as 'such a jewel as all Germany hath not his like', was a German who came over to this country to help establish a brass industry, in the making and working of which metal he was expert. He was responsible for the wire works at Tintern and could ill spare the time to visit North Cardiganshire. Herbert was therefore to understand;

'that the worke must be set upon A salt marshe or flatte neare the deepest Sea you canne fynd, and distant fromm all fresshe springs or fresshe Rivers twoo myles if it maye be or A myle and A haulf at the least. The marshe must be so chosen as the Sea maye be taken into it at everye hye tyde...............'

While waiting for Schutz, Herbert was to set men to make a frame for a building one hundred and twenty feet long and twenty feet wide. This was to be made of rough timber and to have walls only six feet high composed of twigs and loam 'or some suche sleight mater as wooll defend the wether'. The roof was to be thatched with reed, fern or straw according to what was available in the neighbourhood. It was to have a louver stretching from end to end, or four or five short louvers to allow for the escape of smoke and steam. Inside this long 'howse' were to be installed ten pickle pans each ten feet by twelve, and two salt pans of fifteen feet diameter or side. Under the former, furnaces were to be built of brick and stone set with loam or horsedung, unless lime was easily procurable. Wood was to be the fuel and men were to be sent into the country to fell trees for this purpose.

In the same letter a description is given of the process of making salt at the period. The sea water was first to be;

'receyved into A pond called A store pond which hadd meet to be about xv yards long and x yards broad, and so deepe as youe maye when youe wooll at everye lowe water marke, drayne the same, if anye rayne or fowle wether have hurt the goodness of the water.'

Between this pond and the long building there had to be fifteen acres of marshland all of which was to be 'cutte into small shallowe ponds of xx or xxiij fote square and haulf a foote deepe.' These ponds were to be connected to the store pond so that they could be filled with sea water. In them the water was;

'to lye A tyme to be enriched by the benefyte of the sonne and drye wether, And then to be lette by scluse into an other pond whiche must wyne hard to the howse called a savd pond. And that pond had need to conteyne xxxty fote in lengthe xv fote in breadeth and vi fote in depth. It must have A howse or hovel on it thatched to save the water that comes in there frome all Raynes and Mysts.'

The enriched water is to be drawane by A sweepe with A bucket out of the same pond after the maner as the dyars and brewers upon Thames use, and conveyed by troughs into the pickle panes within the howse there to be boyled, till it will eyther beare A newe layde egg or an amber beade.

After the boyling that pickle must oft times be let for the of the pickle panes into certaine coolers such as Brewers use whiche must be mad of oken boord and stand all alongst the lengthe of the owtsyde of the howse to the sea warde covered with A penthowse eyther of thatche or evesboord to save the pickle frome rayne and wether. The coolers had meet to be three fote broad and x ynches deepe, ffrome the Coolers it must be by troughes lykewise conveyed into the salt panes and there boyled to salt.

Then there must A howse be mad to stand just crosse over thwart the middest of the long howse to kepe the salt in, which howse must be xxty fote square at the least, the walls and floore whereof on the ynner side must be boorded to kepe the salt frome the earthe.'

In fact it was eventually decided to erect a store house at each end of the long building and so to arrange the pans that those for pickling were in the middle with a salt pan at each end, next to the store rooms. Great care was to be taken to ensure that these rooms were made so 'close and staunche' as to be weather-and sand-proof. Herbert was also warned to beware of contamination from the animals' 'dryfte pond'.

The process depended so much on fine, warm weather that the 'Lords' were anxious to take full advantage of the coming summer. The output was expected to amount to one hundred bushels a day so that delay meant a serious financial loss to the promoters. This prospect of a large output was also responsible for Wightman's anxiety that Herbert should seek out markets in advance lest he find himself with more salt than storage room. Men were to be put to work with all speed to make two barges or boats for the carriage of fuel and salt to and from the works.

In due course, Schutz arrived and greatly impressed Herbert with his knowledge and skill. By May 1st, 1567, the works seem to have been ready for the more specialised workmen, for about that time men arrived from London. The wages paid to some of these men were high; Michael Millard received 20d. a day, William Laycroft 18d., while Thomas Justice the bricklayer and his labourer earned 26s.8d for the first month. Of the saltmakers who arrived, the chief was a Raes Eaton who brought with him two 'great Ambre Stones to try his pickle'.

The equipment did not arrive until late in the same month. Since the previous March, Osborne had been trying to get the pans ready for transport. Cast pans not being procurable, some thought was given to leaden pans but it was eventually decided to use plate pans and twelve of these were to be sent in sections, the ten pickle pans in halves and the others in quarters. As these would make six or seven wayne load, all thought of sending them by road to Bristol or via Shrewsbury, had to be abandoned. Osborne's plan was to send them by water to Sussex and by sea from there to the Dovey. A blacksmith-saltmaker was to accompany them on arrival. In fact, it was from London that the 'Christopher of London' eventually sailed but not until about 13th May 1567. Among its cargo were the following items --- 40 double plates for the making and mending of pans; a barrel of nails to fasten the pans together; 50 staples to be riveted into the pans and as many hooks to support the same; barrels of pitch and tar to close the joints of the said pans and coolers; a barrel of powder called 'cacke' which was to be mixed with white of egg, rye flour and yeast to stop the running (sweating) of the pans; 40 ell of salt with which to lap the pans for it was found that salt was deposited much more readily if the pans were lined with salt before hand; 70 feet of cast pipe weighing 700 lbs; 6 copper corks; half a hundredweight of solder to mend any broken pipes and to fasten the corks to the pipes; a barrel of plaster of paris to stop the running of the pans should the 'cacke' prove a failure; a bar of 'crossbowe' steel for making the blacksmith's tools.

The master of the ship had instructions to land his cargo on the works side of the Dovey and Herbert was to see that there were men and tools in plenty ready for the task of moving the new equipment from the landing place to the works site. There was also to be made ready a 'Sleade' (wheel-less cart), eleven feet long and eight feet wide, to draw the plates and other material across the Marsh.

After the arrival and installation of the equipment, work seems to have proceeded satisfactorily until the coming of winter. Being himself able to pay only the occasional visit to Mid-Wales, and being still responsible for the salt-making process, Schutz seems to have had agents at the works. Late in September 1567 he was informed by a messenger from Machynlleth that while the work had been going well until that time, difficulties had arisen which were probably due to heavy rainfall or very high tides. His letter to Herbert states that the men at the salt works were;

'ffirst and fformoste desyrus to have moor of their owne countreymen to helppe them in theyre woorke and without them they [report] that they canne doo nothinge, because the water that they had mett withal being soo that the woorke must goo daye and nighte orells they doo but litell good.'

As Schutz was then busily engaged in expanding the works at Tintern, he could not spare any more men and there were evidently no skilled men available in the Dovey area. He therefore suggested that salt-making be suspended at the works for the winter and that the skilled men be sent to him at Tintern where they could be profitably employed until the 'springe of the yeere'.

That much was expected of the works is indicated by Osborne's continued interest, after he had refused to make further loans to the Newcastle concern. He was therefore irked by this forced inactivity and in December 1567, with Wightman, he was considering suggestions for improvements made by Peter Bryet and Christopher de Braye from Holland. These seem to have been nothing more than the digging of more shallow pits, devices with which the Mid-Wales works were already well supplied. Whitman's comment on the discussion was as follows ;- 'In wynd and soonne and warme drye wethr whiche when god send it, we shall have little need of there helpe'. This statement shows only too clearly that not enough attention had been paid to the nature of British weather when these works were planned.

That the early promise shown by the salt-making scheme in England was not fulfilled is indicated not only by Osborne's reluctance to make further loans, but also by the 'Lords' apparent loss of interest as early as May 1567. In that month they were prepared to allow another company to take over their salt works, though nothing seems to have come of the negotiations. By the end of the following year their interest in a domestic industry was even further reduced by the consequences of the outbreak of the Third Religious War in France. In 1568 the Huguenots seized the entire salt production of the Biscayan provinces and used it to bargain for loans and weapons of war from England and Italy. The English Government was given the unexpected opportunity to monopolise large quantities of salt and wine, and in October 1568, England contracted to buy £20,000 worth of these commodities. Among the English contracting agents were Peter Osborne and William Wightman and they sought the assistance of the lord keeper, the Earl of Leicester and Secretary Cecil, also partners in the salt privilege. These people thus found themselves in a position to profit immensely from the sale of foreign salt in the home market, a situation which could not but lessen their interest in the domestic industry, and they began to look round for people to whom they could transfer the salt privilege without loss to themselves.

Their terms were as follows ;--- The first charge on the salt works was to be the repayment to Francis Bartie of all money owing to him by previous agreement. Next, 'the Lordes and their Copartners' were to receive the sum of £4,500 'by them already defrayed in and about the sayde woorckes'. While these sums were being paid from the clear profits of the works, the Lords would be 'contented and pleased' with a fourth part of the profits, but after these sums had been paid, they were to receive half the profits.

Whether they succeeded in transferring the privilege is not known, but in August 1569 the Cardiganshire venture was visited by the representatives of a group of merchants who were contemplating taking over the works, one of whom was the above mentioned Mr Bryet . Osborne and Wightman begged Herbert to receive them courteously, to let no hindrance be put in the way of the visit and to give them every facility to inspect everything. That the works were still in production is shown by the comments of these visitors. They complained of the wilful spoiling of over a hundred barrels of salt consumed by the weather because of the practice of measuring the product in an open field. Herbert and his associates were also accused of selling the salt at 2s.6d a barrel whereas the merchants could sell it, and had done so, for four shillings. Though anxious to please the merchants, Osborne was loth to believe this of Herbert and asked for an explanation but it is not known whether the latter ever made any attempt to defend himself.

It seems fairly clear from this correspondence that the 'Lords' did come to some kind of agreement with these merchants but nothing is at present known of its terms nor its effect on the salt works near the Dyfi. With peace in France, England lost its monopoly of Biscayan salt and official interest was aroused once more in the development of a domestic salt industry. But the 'Dovie' no longer attracted attention, nor is there any further mention of salt making in that part of Wales.

W J Lewis

University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.