Curator's Choice: The Nantwich Salt Ship at Lion Salt Works, Cheshire

Liz Royles, Curator, Lion Salt Works Museum | 26 May 2016

What is a Salt Ship? Lion Salt Works curator Liz Royles talks us through a precious object from the award-winning Cheshire museum and heritage site's collection

a photo of a woman in front of a display case
Liz Royles with the Salt Ship
"I was lucky enough to be able to be able to choose this object when I curated the recently-refurbished £10 million Lion Salt Works Museum based near Northwich in Cheshire.

My favourite object is the ‘Nantwich Salt Ship’ – hewn from oak sometime around the Norman Conquest. It is both an unusual and unique object to the salt towns of Cheshire, where for thousands of years salt has been (and still is) a key industry.

On one level, I love the ‘Salt Ship’ because, being one of the oldest objects on display, it marks the start of a visitor’s journey through the story of salt, as told at the museum. But I think I must confess that my love of this object stems also from my passion and training in archaeology.

Though I didn’t lift this particular object from the ground, I have in my career been present when normally perishable items, thousands of years old, such as wood, clothing and leather have risen intact from the earth.

On a usually muddy, sometimes cold ‘dig’, finding a relic that by rights should have perished and was last touched by the ancient hands, is intensely exciting. But there is trepidation about getting it undamaged from the ground and then a certain amount of fear as the race to preserve the object kicks in.

Objects like the salt ship need the right chemical treatments and interventions to take place fast so you don’t destroy what you aim to save. So when I look at the ‘Nantwich Salt Ship’, I am fully aware of the triumph that getting this object in front of the public represents.

Looking at the picture attached, you must be wondering ‘where is the ship’? The answer is that the name is misleading. Although it looks a bit like a ship’s hull, this item is actually a container to hold brine. 

This doesn’t sound very remarkable until we think ‘where has this brine come from?’ It is not from the sea – the brine carried by this container has always bubbled up naturally as pools from beneath the Cheshire plain. Cheshire is one of the only places in the UK to have deep reserves of Triassic halite or salt.

Historically, salt has always been difficult to mine, making it a very valuable product. But it is also crucial in other very immediate ways that apply to us today – no-one on earth can function without salt – it is a vital mineral for the human body.

Moreover, in ancient times, it was also a vital food preservative. So historically, finding salt in soluable form was a God-send and a valuable commodity. During their occupation, the Romans, were quick to realise that if they boiled the brine in open pans they could produce salt crystals. This salt was paid to Roman soldiers -  and the word ‘salary’ derives from the Latin word for salt.

It seems almost unbelieveable but this ‘open-pan’ method of salt-making was passed on almost unchanged for hundreds of year. Analysis of the rings of the oak ‘Nantwich Salt Ship’ show it was felled about 1191 and there are indications that it was still in use as a receptacle for moving brine to the salt pans until the 16th century, when the site at Nantwich closed. 

But this did not mark the end of the remarkable story of open-pan salt-makin. This continued in an unbroken line, using almost identical methods, until the closure of the last works – those of the Lion Salt Works in 1986.

In its heyday, salt from Cheshire accounted for 86% of all salt in the country and was shipped around the world. It was a founding industry of Liverpool; it accounts for Cheshire’s flavoursome cheese (all cheese needs salt) as well as Cheshire’s thriving chemical industry (salt is a catalyst for many chemical processes).

Thanks to a generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the Stove and Pan Houses of the Lion Salt Works have been meticulously restored and renovated by Cheshire West and Chester Council. We are proud to have recently won the UK’s top conservation award from the Civic Trust.

The museum has interactive displays, including a light and sound show that simulates the clouds of steam that once rose from the bubbling pans and a ‘subsiding house’ shows what happened to some of Northwich’s houses once mining salt started (before there was an understanding of the need to ‘shore up’ salt caverns).

Valuable information was saved by the museum’s passionate trustees before it was closed for business for the last time, including the entire contents from the manager’s Office. During restoration, poignant finds were made: for instance, cigarette packets on which the number of salt blocks made by workers were recorded to make sure they got the right ‘piece work’ wages. 

The museum is also fortunate in having oral histories from the last owner, John Thompson, as well as former workers on the site. They bring to life this site’s history. There can’t be many Scheduled Ancient Monuments that can interview past workers for insights into working life.

And yet, somehow, of all the objects that define salt and its huge importance to Cheshire, my heart is still with the ‘Nantwich Salt Ship’ – a very fragile survivor of the early days of the open-pan salt industry in Cheshire."

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