The Tales of Wych and Water is derived from the Canal and Salt Town Middlewich project aimed at celebrating the Canal and Salt heritage of the town, concentrating on the historic changes and relationship between the canal, the salt industries and the community.
Middlewich has been famous for the production of salt since Roman times, an industry which probably started here during the Iron Age. The brine pits and saltworks were part of the settlement along King Street, but during the medieval period most works were located at Newton.
Pre-industrial saltworks were family businesses where brine was boiled in lead vats within timber and wickerwalled sheds. Two brine-pits, “Louseath” & “Newseath”, supplied more than 100 “wych-houses” and production was highly regulated. The industrial revolution introduced technological change, such as coal as a fuel and iron for the boiling pans, as well as steam pumps for drawing brine from the below-ground “wet” rockhead.
The number of saltworks operating in any one period was reduced to around five, and these often changed hands. In fact the same locations were largely reused over several centuries. Various grades of salt were produced, much of it for preserving food, but it was also used in tanning, dying and clothing manufacture. In the 19th and 20th centuries, chemical uses became more important, such as production of ammonia, alkali and bleach. Social conditions for the work force were hard, and the impact of the salt and chemical works on the local environment at Middlewich resulted in great pollution and health problems.
The 1760’s were pivotal for canal building. The Earl of Bridgewater’s canal had showed the Captains of Industry that the canals offered a more effective way of transporting commodities across the country than by pack-horse and poorly maintained roads. For the next sixty years, and before the advent of the next transport revolution – the train; canals were constructed across most of industrial Britain, especially in those areas where heavy industry relied on the constant supply and distribution of raw materials such as iron ore, coal and in the case of Middlewich; salt. Sadly very few canals made any profit during their lifetime and were subjected to takeovers including consortiums that also had a stake in the railways. The railways had made a significant impact on the way goods and people were transported across Britain. However, the canal systems proved vital during the two World Wars.
The canal system around Middlewich has over the past 150 years been of major importance in transporting coal, dairy products and, of course salt. Although many of these industries have now either gone or goods are moved by road freight, canals have been given a new lease of life in the form of leisure and Middlewich is at the forefront of this new revolution. Investment from the leisure industry and the commitment of bodies such as British Waterways has reignited a new wave of canal users. Allied to this growing industry is a renewed interest in the heritage value of the canal system and this has been taken up with vigour by groups such as Middlewich Vision and the Middlewich Heritage Society.