Salt Making and the Red Hills

Red Hill , Burnham  Investigation of a red hill at Burnham on Crouch in 1888

Nearby Maldon is now recognised as one of the finest sea salt sources in the UK.

Before the advent of freezers salt was very a important commodity as it was used to preserve meat  so that excess meat or fish in good times could be preserved to eat in bad times.

How long has salt been made in Eastern Essex?

Salt making has been an important trade in this area existing amongst the Trinovantes before the roman conquest. Carbon dating on the oldest site at Fenn Creek, Woodham Ferrers shows the age of the debris to be 1000 years before the Romans invaded. Most results date the start of red hills from 300 BC onwards.

Although there is some argument about the start date of salt making there is agreement that many sites were in use before the coming of the Romans and that the trade increased with their arrival

In 1501 the will of Henry Boode of Burnham includes the barn in which his salt was stored and a new shop with an inner chamber in which more salt was kept.

He obviously did not trust his wife to deal with the salt as he added a condition that she was only to inherit once all of the salt had been removed.

Salt production in this area was too large for the local needs and so it appears that salt was exported throughout Eastern England.

The salt pans are long gone but we are fortunate in being able to identify sites used for ancient salt makings due to the by product of manufacture - Mounds of red earth.

How was salt made?

Tides wash over mud flats and leave salt deposits as the small amount of salt water left dries only to be re-absorbed into the sea by the next tide.

This process often means that the inlets are even more salty than the estuaries or open sea.

The first method, Salt making in pottery is described in web pages on this site under the heading Red Hills.

The other method used in this area was by evaporation from man made lagoons.

The salt made was initially called bay salt as it was obtained by evaporating salt water  using the heat of the sun.

Essex was ideally placed as it was one of the areas with least rain and most sun as well as having more shallow tidal inlets than any other part of the UK.

Sea water was let into large shallow ponds where it remained until more or less reduced and concentrated by evaporation.

The resulting brine was then further reduced in pottery vats and the salt crystallised by artificial heat.

What are Red Hills?

The red hills are formed from the byproducts of salt making with remains of charcoal  used to fire the evaporation, waste pottery, clay used in lining the fire and general waste from the people living on site. They are coloured red due to the effects of the firing on the clay.

Red hills can be up to 4 feet high and have diameters of up to 40 feet. many are much smaller and in many cases are flat as farmers found that scattering the red hills on their heavy clay fields improved their soil by breaking up the clay.

Red hills are found in coastal or estuary areas near to the high tide mark . Salt water was placed into pottery pans which were hung over clay hearths filled with wood and then heated  until the salt was left in the pan. The correct heat had to be applied to ensure that the salt crystals were large and that they stuck together leaving a bound salt cake.

The estuaries of the River Crouch and River Blackwater were amongst the prime locations for red hills with 42 red hill sites identified in the Dengie 100 parishes. Each site may have had a number of  hearths working which gives some indication of the scale of the industry.

Parish

Number of Red Hills identified

Bradwell on Sea

11

Burnham on Crouch

5

Dengie

3

Latchingdon

5

Mundon

2

St Lawrence

2

Southminster

4

Steeple

1

Stow Maries

2

 

The Essex Field Club arranged an excavation in 1888 of a Red Hill at Little West Wick on the marshes of Burnham on Crouch.

The excavation unearthed pottery and instruments and the resulting report was one of the first to link the Red Hills with Salt making rather than pottery kilns.

red hill finds

Modern traces of salt making

Salt-cote is defined in the New English Dictionary as a place where salt was wont to be made on the sea shore.

Cote normally means a small shed or cottage.

There are many areas and farms that are obvious derivations of salt-cote.

On the northern bank of the Blackwater is the village of Salcott and more locally there is Salt-Cote Marsh at Burnham, Salt-Pan Marsh at Paglesham across the River Crouch from Burnham , Saltcoats in Stow Maries, Salt-Coats Farm in Clements Creek of the Crouch.

Maldon Salt Company is now the lone salt producer in this area .

They continue to trade at nearby Maldon which is sited at the head of the Blackwater Estuary and use the same basic method of our ancestors albeit in hygienic facilities.

Maldon crystal salt is recognised as amongst the purest salt available commercially and has become a world famous brand

 

 

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