Post-Medieval Saltmaking around the Beaulieu River

Jeremy Greenwood

Before 1700 there was little maritime activity on the Beaulieu River as its hinterland was of little significance; there was then no quay on the river and access from the sea was complex.[1] The River Beaulieu is unusual in that its bed is owned by the lord of the manor who consequently possesses the foreshore and is appurtenant rights.[2]

There is no positive (or negative) evidence for saltmaking by the Abbey of Beaulieu apart from a lone account of 1269-70.[3] This shows that the salt needed for the abbey’s extensive commercial interests - and domestic use - was exclusively bought in. Large grained fisheries salt for the Great Yarmouth herring fisheries was bought in Poitou and brought back, together with wine, in the abbey’s own ship. Fine domestic salt was bought from Lymington. By the 15th century, the once flourishing commercial production of salt in Hampshire had ceased to exist. The contributory factors included war, disease, extreme weather and foreign imports. However, by the end of the 16th century, the industry had recommenced as salt supplies from the Continent were disrupted by war.[4]

 Place name evidence (Salterns copse etc.) suggests saltmaking - by the old method - on both banks of the river although archaeological confirmation is unavailable as yet. On the Beaulieu side, this was north of Ginns whilst, in Exbury, it seems to have covered the entire riverine bank south from Gilbury Hard.[5]

River Beaulieu estuary. OS one inch map 1810

An excise duty on salt was re-imposed in 1694 which was collected by a separate department. At this date, only a saltworks at Ginns existed using the new techniques.[6] The Beaulieu estate came under the control of John, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690 - 1749) in 1709 on the death of his father. Known as ‘John the planter’ for his horticultural endeavours, he set about improving his estates and the income therefrom.


Robert Braxton of Beaulieu, yeoman, had a lease of Park farm which obliged him to erect a saltern on some part of the farm but it expired in 1718 without him so doing.[7] However very soon after, one was built by his successor, George Drew, on the shore in a somewhat exposed situation. The Drews were tenants of both Park and Ginns farms and their saltworks. They were both given up in 1743 and the salthouse contents at Ginns sold to Michael Lejeune. In 1749, it was described as:

‘Park saltwork; 3 pans; proprietor Michael Lejeune; this proprietor finds it worth his while to bring all his duty paid salt to Lymington key to ship it (which is at least 8 miles) in order to intitle himself to the allowance for waste on carrying it to Redbridge’.[8]


Although the collection of the excise duty was performed by a Salt Duties Collection department, separate from both Customs and Excise, salt shipped coastwise or overseas came within the remit of the Customs. To prevent smuggling cargoes of salt required the issue of cocquets by the Customs Collector at the port of departure. Beaulieu had too little trade to justify the expense of a Customs officer; the nearest such being at Lymington.

  Park saltworks. BL Maps OSD 89 (PT2), 2 1797

The exposed situation made it particularly prone to damage from tidal surges. In February 1751, the Lejeunes wrote:

to acquaint you with all the ill events which happened to us from that terrible outrageous tide the 30th of November last which raged in so violent a manner & the wind blew so very hard as the banks have broke and overflowed marshes and run in at salterns windows and as near as we can judge melted £70 worth of salt, broke in the brine pits and very much endangered the salthouse.[9]

 Like many saltworks it was a subsidiary part of a farm; this he had leased in 1747 for 21 years from John, Duke Montagu together with his son John, on surrendering the former lease, for £200 p.a. It comprised 586 acres and a saltwork of 3 pans; the wood was excepted but he was allowed 20000 turfs from the New Forest and 10000 bavins from Beaulieu as well as various botes every year. This suggests that his pans were not coal fired. The saltworks was abandoned in 1819.[10]



1797 Ginns saltworks. BL Maps OSD PT2), 2

 Ginns saltworks (part of Ginns farm) was in existence by 1694 when the tenant was George Drew; it had two pans and an output of 12 qtrs. per week (computed). By 1749 William Wheeler had taken over and expanded it to three pans. Later it was reduced to two pans and ceased operation in 1809.[11]

In Exbury, any saltmaking had ceased by the 17th century and it was not until the 1720s that new works were set up as indicated by the appointment of a Salt duty collection officer in 1727.[12] A number of new saltworks were set up around this time possibly prompted by the success of the Lymington saltworks in overcoming the competition from Newcastle. An additional reason was the general lack of rain during the 1730s; possibly the driest decade on record.[13]



Exbury saltworks site. 1797. BL Maps OSD 89 (PT2), 2

Exbury saltworks site; satellite view

William Mitford bought the Exbury estate in 1718 and kept notes on the costs of his estate and the improvements he introduced; particularly the planting of conifers. Included in these are the extremely detailed charges he incurred in building the new Exbury saltworks:

1722 Sep. 5 covenanted with John Dore and James Gillingham to dig and clear away earth and wheel most of it to strengthen marsh walls and make 80 rank of pans, each rank of 3 pans, each pan to contain 4 lug and the division walls. also 26 rank for sun pans and also to sand and gravel said pans with their divisions to make 2 brine pits and 2 cisterns to draw brine from said work and same to make a good wharf and a sufficient lake up to said wharf and also to dig a feeding pond with all necessary walls channels drains and to set and place in all the bunnies at 30s per rank and 18d per lug for a feeding pond (note 13 1/3 rank is one acre)

Paid for 8% acres dug and made into pans and sunpans with their divisions etc.; 110 ranks at 30s £165

paid for 4% acre 3 perch dug and made into a feeding pond at 18d a lug £54.4.6.

[Total] 12 % acres 3 perch for which paid Dore and partner £219. 4. 6 His other expenses included paying William Beeston, carpenter, for a salthouse and saltwork £47 .3.6: Mr. White, mason, for salthouse viz. tiling, brickwork, stonework £29.8.0: Joseph Bailey, smith, for making 4 pans, tools etc. £25 10. 0

Considering he was so close to one of the only two Hampshire works producing bar iron it is perhaps odd that he obtained 84 iron plates from Sweden for 4 pans (27 cwt 1 qtr 19 lb at 28s per cwt, freight and all charges in shipping 10s; £39 .10.0)

Other incidental items cost him around another £130 of which £40 was for ‘27% thousand bricks and 26 thousand tiles’ making £517.16.10 in all. Soon after he purchased a lighter for use with the saltworks (carrying 10 tons) for £30 whilst a new salt crib brought the total cost to £625.12.0.

The iron plates were:

‘5 ft. long and 1 ft. broad and of the best Swedish metal made in Sweden using oreground iron and thinner than is usually struck and therefore the better so that they are esteemed to be the best saltern plates that ever came to England and they have power to be so by their long duration.’[14]

His later notes confirm the superiority of the Swedish wrought iron. In 1749 the works was described as ‘5 pans: proprietor John Mitford...this work as well as Ginns lie much exposed to fraud.’ James Gillingham was the salt boiler for two of the pans.[15]

Mitford entered into partnership with some major salt producers of Lymington and Pennington - James Perkins, Joseph Bower and Roger Beer - to supply 2000 quarters of salt to Alexander Pyott but the requisite amount was not delivered, leading to recriminations amongst the partners. In 1729 he made 515 quarters of salt, using coal and moorwood, as fuel and about 20% more the following year. Figures for other years are not available. [16]

 His notebook contains some additional (sometimes enigmatic) references to other saltworks at Exbury. This include ‘the old saltern at Stone lying near Stones Oar ‘and ‘the old saltwork at Exbury lying joined on Brine saltern copse’ at Gilbury Hard. In addition, he wrote ‘1722 Dore and Gillingham examined Stone pond and found it a good place for a saltwork; a year before I made a saltern at Stone.[17] These were short lived ventures preceding his major new works detailed above.

 The effect of rising sealevels was well known to the coastal inhabitants of Hampshire and efforts to reclaim land from the foreshore had started in the early 17th century. These had been one factor in the expansion of the saltworks at Lymington and Copnor.[18] Mitford notes ‘Exbury marsh [on the river Exbury] taken from being drowned by sea water in 1721 so the owner erected a saltern in 1722 .built at great expense houses, warehouses, pumps, pans, dock and channel’. Although ultimately unsuccessful, this seems to have been the motivation for Mitford’s building of his own saltworks nearby.

 The peak in Hampshire salt production occurred around 1750 with some 10000 tons being made in the Lymington area for the domestic market and an unknown amount exported. However, it was the effect of the wars of 1776-83 and 1796-1815 in hindering exports, as well as the cost of coal, that were the major factors in the industry’s demise rather than just cheaper Cheshire rocksalt. By the 1790s, saltmaking at Exbury had ceased although the last saltworks in the area continued operating until c.1865 and survives today as the sole remnant of the local industry.[19]


Rowe and Stone saltworks. Lymington.



Saltmaking techniques[20]

The history of the Hampshire saltworks and of saltmaking in general.

Salt has been made in divers parts on the sea coast in Hampshire time out of mind but not after the same manner as at present yet no doubt as good as present, since the salt in sea water is the same now as heretofore and in every place.


Saltmaking using sand washing process as practised in Normandy. Diderot

The present way of saltmaking seems not to very ancient; for I have discoursed with some very old workmen who have seen the way of salt making and described to me as follows:

The old saltworks were no bigger than one man could manage; they had only a small feeding pond and one large sunpan, which they covered over with sand; and letting the water out of the feeding pond into it to wet the sand only; they let it dry in the sun after raking it to make it dry the faster; and then they wet it again and this work they repeated until the sand was very full of salt.

This sand they shovelled up and carried it to their clearer; and putting water to it, they extracted a strong brine which they boiled up in iron pans with a slow fire of wood or turf or other fuel they could get; this made the salt very large grained;

for the slower common salt is boiled, the larger the grain will be; as I have often observed; they having more time to assimilate together and not being broke by the over violent motion in the boiling liquor.

I have seen the remains some of these old saltworks which answer the aforesaid description but as the same grounds are now generally (especially at Lymington) turned into the new works; there are no more to be seen of them that the neat heaps of their sand used in the making their brine and even these would not be known to have been sands but in the tradition of the people of those places for the salt has so corroded the same and altered it; that it appears to be a rich mellow black soil and is very fertile for cabbages beans and suchlike garden stuff and many farmers have carried great quantities away to improve their lands.

There are many saltworks in divers places in Hampshire; but far the greatest number are near Lymington. These saltworks would be very advantageous if they had coal cheap; because their strong brine is boiled into salt with much less coal; save cost; is that so much ground and workmanship is employed in brine making.

A Description of the Salt Works and the method of making salt near Portsmouth, Lymington and divers other places in Hampshire.[21]

Wilkins plan of evaporation ponds


These salt works are made upon ouzie or muddy lands recovered from the sea, by banks or walls of earth etc. sufficient to keep out the highest tides. This muddy land is apt to retain water being something claylike; and these lands generally lie declining so that there is a considerable fall from the higher parts towards the sea or towards some channel or lake in the enclosed lands which is an advantage in making the works. And these lands lie so high above the low water mark that they can be kept drained by a sluice.

The higher parts of these lands, they separate from the rest by banks and call them feeding ponds (Fig 1) because from them the brine works are fed or supplied with sea water reserved from one spring tide to another; because the

neap tides don't rise high enough to supply them; and it is also advantageous to keep sea water long in them to improve the strength; by the sun and wind exhaling part of the water and leaving the salt.

At the foot of the feeding pond bank, there is a channel made, called the Waste Current; because it carries off all waste water flowing at any time over, and that which by percolation through the banks is stained by the earth, and would discolour their brine; and by a sluice through the bank they drain the Feeding pond after great rains which have weakened their water; this is called the waste sluice.

Next to this waste current is another called the water current; because by a little sluice or bunny as some call it, through the Feeding pond bank, into this current, the water is let to feed the Ground pans. See the settling sluice Fig. 1.

All along by the water current the ground is laid into square plots made level and fenced about with low walls of earth and these are called Water pans; and into these the water that is let out of the Feeding ponds is let by little notches cut in the pan walls, and stopped on occasion by a bit of turf; and these are called Falls.

To every Water pan there belongs a second and third pan with falls to let the liquor proceed from one pan to the other; these three are called a Rank of pans, and named Water pans, Seconds and Brines. And he who lays out a salt work contrives to have as many of them as he can and directs his water currents according as the level of the ground will bear it, so that generally betwixt the Feeding pond and the Sun pans, he will have two ranks of pans in depth and as many as he can in length by the water currents.

All along by the Brine pan walls is made a channel called the Brine current which conveys the liquor divers larger pans, called Sun pans, and from the sun pans are little brine currents to convey the perfected brine into the brine cisterns, which are deep pits in the earth (sometimes roofed over to preserve it from the rains) where it is kept for boiling into salt.

Near these cisterns they build the house where the salt is boiled; which is called a saltern; and this with all the out works for brine making is called a salt work. Adjoining to the saltern there is put up a large wooden cistern called a clearer; into this the brine is pumped out of the cisterns; by hand or windmill pumps and by pipes it is let into the boiling pans placed in the saltern;  

Wilkins plan of boiling house c1700



The methods of brine making

In small works one man and a boy will make the brine and boil the salt; but in large works the business is divided into brine making and boiling.

The brinemaker with a little spade in his hand, goes along the wall of his water current and opens all the falls, of his water pans; those of his Seconds and Brines being shut; then he opens his water sluice and fills all his water pans deeper or shallower according to the fierceness of the weather; then shutting his falls and sluice; he lets the liquor rest in the water pans, a convenient time. This work is called settling the water pans; and when he judges it hath stood long enough, he lets it into the Seconds; and so on into the Brines and Sun pans, as it is improves in strength by evaporation of the aqueous parts; and when strong enough for boiling, it is let into the cisterns to preserve it.

The brinemakers used formerly to try their brine by a new laid egg; if that emerged in it, they thought it strong enough for boiling; but now they draw it much stronger; and try it by artificial eggs, as they call them, made of wax loaded with lead in several degrees, which they call Sizes; by these they 

discover how much their liquor increases in strength as it proceeds through the pans; and those who are curious proprietors, know how much salt each size of brine will make with a chaldron of coals; by which they also know, according to the current price of salt, whether they shall have any profit by boiling brine that is weakened with the rains falling into their cisterns; for all works have not covered cisterns.

Some use glass eggs i.e. small glass bubbles, sized by grinding them; but proprietors generally have a silver egg, made to unscrew, that they may put in divers weights to size it; by which they can try, whether the waters in their feeding ponds is better or worse than sea water; as well as the sizes of the brine.

When there has been much rain they try their brine in the cisterns, which though weak at and near the top, yet is generally strong at some depth in the liquor; for the fresh water is a great while before it mixeth with all the brine; as any person may try by putting brine tinged with turmeric etc. and putting water gently upon a cork; etc. swimming in it, in a deep white glass, where if undisturbed they will see the different liquors, and how long they are before they intirely mix.

The method of boiling the salt

When the brine has stood long enough in the cisterns to breed Brineworms which are like those in rain water, but larger; then it is in perfection for boiling; and if it don't breed worms soon enough, the workmen go to other cisterns that have them and bring some of that liquor to put to the other, to propagate them there; for they all agree, that such brine boils lighter, and the foulness separates better with the scum.

The boiling pans are about eight feet square, and nine or ten inches deep, made of plate iron riveted together, for which reason they are apt to leak therefore the workmen plaster them with lime, which coagulating some of the brine, stops the leaks.

Formerly they used to set or fill their pans pretty full; but now they find it better to set lighter as they call it; that their pans may boil off sooner and have less bittern at the last; by which they find they can make more salt in a week, which is the time they keep their fires burning day and night.

They boil until the scum riseth which they take off carefully and rake out the sand which settles mostly in the corners of their pans; 26 and is only a caput mortuum of salt burnt by the heat of the iron pans; and in a fortnight the whole bottom of the pan will be crusted with it and salt melted together; and the workmen are obliged to break it off with their crusting hammers, and new lime their pans to stop the leaks. They throw this crust into their weak brine to extract the salt; and throw the earth away, which if, for experiment, it be well dulcified with fresh water is insipid.

They keep boiling on until the salt begins to hue, as they call it, i.e. grains of salt appear or kern on the surface of the liquor; and then they stop; which is done by putting a good deal of fresh coal on the fire and stopping the vents with a register and opening the door of their fire place. Some chimneys are contrived to stop without a register.

During this time of stopping, the brine in the pan will be covered all over with grains of salt which are apt to unite like ice and hinder the evaporation of the superfluous aqueous particles; and formerly the workman was obliged to keep breaking it with a long Lath; but an accidental invention has eased them of this trouble; found out by a man dropping a bit of bacon into his pan which greasing the surface , prevented the union of the grains of salt; and when they subsided, or souled down, as they call it, without further trouble; since which they all have the secret; and grease the surface with a little fat on the end of a lath; and this they call seasoning the pans.

This stopping they formerly continued three or four hours; in Portsea where they make the largest salt, but Lymington outdoing them in quantity from a chaldron of coals; they now stop but a little time; then rouse up their fires, open their registers and boil on briskly; and as the liquor wastes, they rake the salt to the sides of the pan; where it drains in some degree; and when there is not any liquor left, they leese it as they term it; that is they take up the salt with shovels, and put it into baskets of a conical form; or troughs of board with holes in the bottom called cribbs, to drain and when well drained they carry it into the storehouse.

The liquor that drains from, and will not be brought to common salt is called bittern, from its bitter taste; this runs away out of the saltern along the channel called the bittern current in which most of the common salt kerns as it falls or runs along, and generally the grains cohere so that the salt is in great lumps; and in this current the workmen frequently strike stakes into the earth, under the points of their baskets, upon which the liquor dropping, the salt kerns and adheres to the sticks in a large roundish lump and these are called salt catts; from their being used in pigeon houses for pigeons to pick upon; instead of a catt, formerly used to be much salted and baked for that purpose.

[1]  Holland, A.J. Buckler's Hard, a rural shipbuilding centre (1985: idem ‘The Beaulieu river; its rise and fall as a commercial waterway. Mariners Mirror. 49. 1963. 268 -75

[2] TNA MT 9/1548, 5596, MT 10/357

[3]  Hockey S. F. The account-book of Beaulieu Abbey. Camden Society (fourth series) 16, 1975. 188

[4] Hughes, E. Studies in Administration and Finance, 1558-1825. With special reference to the history of salt taxation in England. Economic History Series. no. 10. 1934. reprinted 1980, 45. Manchester: Hughes, E. 'The English Monopoly of Salt in the Years 1563-71', Eng. Hist. Rev. 40, 1925, 334-51

[5] TNA IR 29/31/ 93: IR 30/31/93 Exbury tithe map and award notes Saltern croft to East of SZ426986 and South from Gilbury Hard- North Brent saltern hill, Middle Brent saltern and South Brent saltern: PHA EII/LD3 Beaulieu gained exemption from the Tithe Redemption Act.

[6] TNA CRES 2/1777

[7] PHA EII/S63:

[8] TNA CUST 148/15 f 8 1749: PHA B/M10, 11 memorial of Michael Lejeune of Park farm to Salt Office 1741: Northants RO Montagu of Boughton 106, for 1743.

[9] NRO Montagu of Boughton W14

[10]  PHA EII/LE177: TNA CUST 148/15 Poole was another site which - unusually - used turf for fuel.

[11] TNA CRES 2/1777: CUST 148/15 f.8

[12] TNA T 44/3, T 44/23: HRO Q25/2/28, 30: PHA EII/SR5.

[13]  Lamb, H.H. Climate, history and the modern world. 2nd ed. 1995: HRO TD 685/21: J. M. Ellis. A study of the business fortunes of William Cotesworth, c.1668-1726. 1981, 143. New York.

[14]  HRO TD 685/20-21 ‘64 plates to a tun cost £28 a tun’: presumably John Dore of Brading loW- IWRO OG/K/28.

[15] TNA CUST 148/15 f 8 implying salt was being smuggled out: TD 685/21

[16]  HRO TD 685/24: Pyott was a large scale Winchester merchant and carrier - 5M48/21: moorwood is the wood from the roots of felled or wind blown trees.

[17]  HRO TD 685/21 also ‘from my saltwork pond at Gilbery hard to Saltern copse is 600 yards’.

[18]  HRO 24M61/E/T154: TNA C 66/2467: Greenwood, J. The Portsea island salt industry. 2003. Lymington.

[19] TNA T 64/233: King, E. Old Times Revisited. 1879. Lymington; Rowe and Stone saltworks, Lower Woodside, Lymington

[20]  University of Glasgow special collections MS Hunter D155 f.2. The author, Thomas Wilkins, had married Betty one of the four daughters of John Burrard of Lymington; a perennially unsuccessful family of saltmakers.

[21]  University of Glasgow special collections MS Hunter D155 f.20

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